Domestic Competitions ● Oct 25, 2019

Women match officials make local football history at Women’s Challenge Cup 2019

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From left to right: Siti Radiah, Nuriah Noor, Rohaidah Nasir, Abirami Naidu, Angeline Chua and Syifa Hannany

Few would dispute that football is a male dominated sport. Indeed, the most popular football leagues in the world – the English Premier League, Bundesliga, Primera Liga and Serie A – are populated with male coaches, players and backroom staff.

Now, conjure up an image of a referee and what do you see? Chances are, authoritative men with the propensity to run non-stop will come to mind.

Yet, this does not tell the full story of just how far the sport has come today in terms of bridging the gender gaps. In the recently concluded FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019 which was won by the United States of America (USA), statistics have shown that it was watched by more than 1 billion viewers, smashing the record for past tournaments. It goes some way to show that not only is women football on the rise, but that international interest levels towards it have risen by leaps and bounds too. Whereas it was once a men-only sport, time has paved the way for women to claim their own place in the sport too.

Somewhere hundreds of kilometers away from the USA is a small country which is also striving to gain ground on the progress of women’s football. On 18 October this year, four Singaporean women made history. For the very first time in local football, an all-women referee team consisting of Abirami Naidu, Syifa Hannany, Siti Radiah and Rohaidah Nasir officiated a local football tournament, the Women’s Challenge Cup final. It was a challenge that manifested itself owing to the large disparity in the number of male referees as opposed to female ones. To put that into perspective, Singapore currently has a pool of 208 referees, of which only 5 are females.

Asked about her feelings towards carving a small slice of Singapore history, Abirami said, “I am really happy and proud that after 15 years of being a referee, we finally have an all-women’s officiating team. I hope that this will encourage more women to step forward and join the referees’ team, especially for those who are playing football now. It can help them to better understand the football rules and at the same time, become a better football player.”

Each of the female match officials had unique reasons for joining the referee scene, but they were all fueled by their common passion for sport and also a sense of curiosity towards the complexities of football rules.

Abirami’s foray into refereeing began when she was part of the Singapore Women’s National Football Team from 2000 to 2008. “I remember taking a basic refereeing course for an all-women’s batch and it sparked an interest in me so I chose to continue with it as it allowed me the chance to travel overseas and experience the different types of football on display, as well as make friends globally.”

She also emphasised that despite the challenges faced in becoming a top-level referee, the support and guidance which she had gotten from the refereeing department made it much easier for her to become a full-fledged referee. According to Abirami, owing to the general change in mentality towards football, more and more women officials have come to the fore. “The generation has changed. More and more women are starting to officiate men’s football games, so the football fraternity is also more open to women referees and officials. They tend to understand this and have also created better development opportunities for women such as training facilities and guidance. It is easier for women to break into refereeing now as you will always be supported.”

Rohaidah, who was a player in the Women’s Premier League, was motivated to become a referee as she wanted to have a deeper understanding of footballing rules. “I kept asking my coach why I was always offside when playing matches. To help me gain a better understanding of the football rules, my coaches decided to send me to a refereeing course. The male referees were also very supportive and constantly motivated me to become better. In football matches, if the players shout at us, the male referees will always be around to provide backup and support for us. It has been a really positive experience for me so far.”

For Syifa, her refereeing journey started when she was playing futsal. “My Dad asked me if I wanted to consider becoming a referee when he heard that the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) was on the lookout for female referees. I thought I could earn some extra money to help my parents, so I agreed. Also, because I had played sports like touch rugby, canoeing and some water sports, my dad felt that my fitness levels were not bad and would be useful for refereeing.”

Syifa’s impetus to improve also stemmed from the constant support from the male referees around her. “Although it might have seemed intimidating to be the only female referee in a cohort of 40 guys, it was actually far from it. The guys were very helpful and accommodating, constantly helping me to push my endurance and improve my stamina. They have been very encouraging and kept telling me to keep going and that I was doing a good job. They helped me to boost my confidence and also made sure that I never gave up.”

The newest referee to join the team of four was Siti, who did so because “the timing was right”. She said, “I had just left my full-time job and was thinking about what I should do next when I saw a referees course being publicised online. I used to play as a goalie for my school team and sometimes I would always wonder why the referees would call for certain fouls or make certain decisions. This made me curious and since then, I had always wanted to become a referee. But my path towards it probably took longer than I had expected.”

Similarly, the support that she has received from the referee department and fellow referees allowed her to keep going. “I feel very blessed to receive all the care from the other referees, and they are definitely far from intimidating. I can literally be the walking advertisement to encourage more ladies to join our referees’ fraternity!”