Sunday, late morning. Roughly 30 people go through the motions of a warm-up on a football pitch. Cold winds from a field next to the ground herald the approaching fall. Welcome to non-league football in the provincial Rhineland. But one of those present does not quite fit in with the rest. The only person to actually have worked up a sweat, referee Nina, concludes her warm-up. "A bit too firm for me," she says about the artificial turf, "not good for my knees."
Nina has officiated a few games on this very pitch before. She knows that the home team's striker "likes to fall down too quickly" and that the head coach will not be a problem for the next 90 minutes: "He is old-school. Yells at his players to shut up when they approach me to protest a decision." A quick chat with the visiting team's coach about substitutions and the game can start.
Bibiana Steinhaus a role model? Yes and no.
One day before, 17-year-old Franziska was in action at the youth level. "Two yellow cards and a penalty, a quiet game," she reports. A referee for a little over two years, the student says she is "used to the shenanigans" of adolescent boys. "There are always at least one or two who try to see how far they can go. They are trying to prove their masculinity. Play macho." But those players do that to other referees as well, her mentor had told her early in her career. "For the first few games, every new referee has an experienced mentor there," she explains. Nowadays, Franziska just brings her father for support, "but only when it is a team that is known to cause trouble."
Nina and Franziska are outliers, young women in a world dominated by men. It is only natural that the debut of Bibiana Steinhaus, the first female referee in the Bundesliga, was a big deal for both of them. "I think it is great," Franziska says. "It shows there is a way up for women. Even if it is unlikely there will be a second one in the Bundesliga anytime soon," Nina says. "Of course it is great there is someone carrying the torch. But I would not call her a role model. I became a referee when I had never heard the name Bibiana Steinhaus."
It remains to be seen whether Steinhaus' debut will lead to a larger number of girls and women going into refereeing. "I like the responsibility," Franziska says when asked why she became a referee. "It is a great challenge. You are alone on the pitch, at least at this level." Meaning there are no assistants to help with offside calls and no fourth officials to take care of rampaging coaches.
"Sometimes I ask my boyfriend to videotape my games," Nina says. A referee for six years, she calls body language the most important aspect of refereeing. "You can sell a decision you are not quite sure about with good body language."
Improvement always required
The striker who likes to fall down too quickly has scored twice before half time in Nina's game. The old-school coach did not have to yell at his players to leave her be even once. A few sips of water and the law student looks ready to return to the pitch. "Athletically, I do not want to give the players any reason to doubt I'm good enough."
Franziska knows she needs to improve in that regard "if I want to work my way up the divisions in the future." What is her ultimate aim? "Finish school, travel the world a bit....maybe medicine, maybe journalism. I will not give up refereeing anytime soon but I do not have any unreasonable goals." A reasonable goal would be to get to where Nina is, refereeing senior men's games.
"There was no real challenge for me with the girls," the 24-year-old says, recalling her early days. "I like that they play football but it is too slow." She wants action, close calls, the adrenaline rush of a last-minute penalty. "That's football, to me."
Franziska still referees girls from time to time. "It is an entirely different atmosphere. It is like going from a rock concert to a church choir. But it is nice when you do not have to worry about things spiraling out of control." Did that ever happen to her?
"There was one game when I sent off two players who got into a scuffle. One of the coaches charged at me and got really angry. 'Only a girl would send them off for this' he yelled. I told him to get off the field or the match would end right then and there. But that's nothing, it happens to every referee."
Nina does not get any of her beloved action this Sunday. No yellow cards, no ejections, no penalties. An easy 4-1 win for the home side. The striker who likes to fall down too quickly tells her he likes it when women referee his games. "It is much more relaxed on the pitch. Some of the male referees are more aggressive than we are."
After a quick shower, she joins a group of players from both teams for a friendly chat and a beer. "That's when you know you have done well," Nina says.Lars Pollmann