August’s UEFA Super Cup was a thrilling spectacle, with Liverpool beating Chelsea on penalties after a pulsating 2-2 draw, but the match also represented a breakthrough moment in the world of refereeing – and no, we’re not talking about VAR for once. The match was the first major men’s European fixture to be officiated by a woman, as French native Stéphanie Frappart, along with her team of female assistants, took charge.
Sadly, there is very little diversity within professional football refereeing, but Frappart’s debut on the major stage is a welcome step forward for the sport. It almost seems strange that it has taken this long for a woman to referee at the highest level of European football, but now that Frappart has shattered the glass ceiling, it may be hoped that more young female officials will be inspired to follow her lead.
The Super Cup was something of a baptism of fire for the French official, a 120-minute slog of a match under pressing heat in Istanbul, but Frappart handled the game well. The only moment of controversy came in extra time as she awarded a penalty to Chelsea, despite there seeming to be minimal contact between Liverpool goalkeeper Adrian and Chelsea striker Tammy Abraham. Nevertheless, situations like that require confidence and belief in one’s convictions, and Frappart certainly demonstrated those qualities. She was justified after the match as Adrian admitted he had made contact with Abraham.
The next step could be a debut in the UEFA Champions League this season, after her Super Cup performance impressed UEFA refereeing bosses. The competition is not an easy environment in which to referee, with Champions League odds telling us that this year’s tournament is set to be as competitive and unpredictable as ever. When the stakes are so high, tensions flare among players and coaches, and that makes the referee’s job all the more difficult. A cool head is a must in Europe’s footballing frying pan.
If Frappart is given the chance to referee in the Champions League this season, she will be hoping to avoid the kind of controversy that has plagued some officials in the past, not least Norwegian Tom Henning Ovrebo, who suffered shocking levels of abuse over his performance in the 2009 semi-final between Chelsea and Barcelona.
Perhaps the key to making it as an elite-level referee is how you react to the mistakes you do make, as it is inevitable in a sport as frenetic and fast-paced as Champions League football that not every decision made will be the correct one. Frappart’s display in the Super Cup offered a good indication that she will excel in this, as the controversy surrounding the penalty decision did not affect her performance throughout the rest of the match.
Abuse is sadly part and parcel of the life of a referee, and the intense scrutiny placed upon officials due to microscopic TV analysis gives fans another stick with which to beat the man or woman in the middle. Given Frappart’s trailblazing status in the elite men’s game, it is a sad fact that some sections of supporters will give her a tougher time than other officials, but she will undoubtedly be ready for the task ahead.
It could be that we see Frappart eased into the Europa League first to get a greater feel for the European game, and to avoid the spotlight of its big brother the Champions League. The goal for any referee is to avoid attention, to fly below the radar. If spectators don’t notice the referee at all, or who the referee is, that is usually the sign of a good performance.
Whether or not she gets the opportunity to officiate in the Champions League this season, it’s clear that Stephanie Frappart has the opportunity to be a role model to many young women hoping to establish themselves in football. After being appointed to referee the Super Cup, Frappart said: “It’s a real pleasure to show it’s possible. Young girls see me on TV and know it’s possible. I hope this will stimulate them to pursue their vocations.”
That is the key to getting more female referees, and referees from ethnically diverse backgrounds, officiating at the highest level. To have a role model to look up to, a hero to take pride in, is what will inspire the next generation to take up the whistle.