Bibiana Steinhaus-Webb keeping officials up with women’s game’s rise

The women’s game is growing but the development of officiating has not kept pace

We are one year on from the English FA transferring responsibility for Women's Super League and Women's Championship match officials to the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL).

There is still no timeframe for the full professionalisation of referees operating in the top two tiers of the women's game in England, despite a clamouring for improvement, but the passionate and pioneering referee Bibiana Steinhaus-Webb is leading the push.

Having begun refereeing in the Frauen Bundesliga in 1999, the 43-year-old German became the first woman to referee in the men’s Bundesliga in the 2017-18 season. Now she oversees officiating in England.

She says: "The English competition is one of the strongest in the world and it definitely attracted me to this job as well as Kelly Simmons (the FA's head of the women's professional game) and Mike Riley (general manager of the PGMOL), who have been very convincing about the structures and investment they are willing to put in place and the future picture that they shared with me.



“If that had not happened, I probably would have stayed somewhere else. So, it’s not only the dedication that they have shown, it’s the willingness for change which attracted me.”

Change is needed. With games now broadcast across BBC Sport, Sky Sports and the FA Player, refereeing in the women’s game is under increased scrutiny. The game is growing but the development of officiating has not kept pace.

“The game has developed so much in recent years,” Steinhaus-Webb says. “I’m not surprised by where it is and I’m not surprised by the coverage and the content because it’s exciting, it’s thrilling.

“But I think we have invested so much in the players, in the coaches, in the venues, and referees have not really been a topic. So, it feels unfair for me to expect the referees to be at the same speed as the game. We have to get there, but you need the support and a bit of time to keep up with it.”

Steinhaus-Webb describes placing referees for the women’s game under the wing of the PGMOL as “a first huge step towards professionalising the workforce in the women’s game” and that “the human resources (needed) to look after professional athletes is something totally different”.

Referees working in women’s football now have access to the same support structure as those working in the men’s game. “The support structure around referees is crucial,” Steinhaus-Webb says.

“There’s so many different layers needed to make sure a referee is the best they can come three o’clock.”

This includes a fitness team, psychological support, individual referee coaches, technical support and access to many hours of footage from across the men’s and women’s pyramids.

Mental state

The psychological element is increasingly important. "We had a situation at Manchester City vs Arsenal when the referee was hit by the ball, and a few seconds after City scored," Steinhaus-Webb says. "Abi Byrne was the referee . . . we spoke about this incident for days and days, weeks and weeks. Abi is an international referee with a really strong mentality and a huge amount of experience.

“From a technical point of view she did everything correctly, she got hit by the ball, the ball stayed within the same team, within their own penalty area almost, so that’s not a promising attack and she let play continue. But then, in the way the game developed, they scored at the other end a few seconds after.

“From now on, expect every referee to blow the whistle. Going through this, the scrutiny, was the first time she really realised how much exposure the game actually has. (We must) take care of our people. They are human beings, and we have to make sure that they are in a mental state to be ready to take 300 decisions, approximately, in every single game.”

For referees operating in the women’s game it can be tough to find the time to slot all this varying support around their work schedules and “buying more and more time of the referees” to enable them to be in the best place to take full advantage is the next step.

Steinhaus-Webb says: “Some of the officials are on contract already so it’s really about how much we can increase these contracts and how much we can see that others will join them. It’s a personal decision as well. Where are you in your journey? Are you a youngster of 20-ish years looking for a full-time professional career in football or are you in the autumn of your career where you have to balance things in a different way? This is a very individual question to answer.”

Is there a risk, though, that with the professionalism of players pushing the game forward refereeing will require accelerated growth to keep pace?

“We all want to develop the game in the best way possible and there is a certain amount of money in the game, and you have to prioritise where you want to put it and what you do first. Now, referees are a big part of it.

“Yes, the game has developed massively and the whole group of referees might not be at the top level yet, but what we have is a number of referees who can easily catch up with the game and are at an even higher level. The questions are: how do we support the whole group of people, the whole group of officials to get up there as well?” - Guardian