Michelle O’Neill & co ready for big moment at Super Cup

Irish assistant will be among female refereeing team to take charge in Istanbul

Assistant referee Michelle O’Neill of Ireland, fourth official Cuneyt Cakir of Turkey, main referee Stephanie Frappart of France and assistant referee Manuela Nicolosi of France, run during a training session ahead of Uefa Super Cup at the Besiktas Park in Istanbul. Phopto: Uefa

Assistant referee Michelle O’Neill of Ireland, fourth official Cuneyt Cakir of Turkey, main referee Stephanie Frappart of France and assistant referee Manuela Nicolosi of France, run during a training session ahead of Uefa Super Cup at the Besiktas Park in Istanbul. Phopto: Uefa

 

There are few arenas in football that provide the visual challenge to the way society views female involvement in ‘a man’s game’ than the sight of a female referee.

We may have the first generation of elite female professional footballers, and an increasing pool of female managers (eight of the 12 managing in the Women’s Super League are women) but we will not see Ellen White lining up alongside Harry Kane in front of tens of thousands of fans and, despite the chatter following Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea exit, we are a world away from the likes of Emma Hayes being given a chance in the top tiers of the English men’s game.

We may also have the likes of Karren Brady as vice-chairman of West Ham, or Susan Whelan as chief executive of Leicester sitting in boardrooms and pushing against the glass ceiling.

But the development and increasing investment in elite female referees puts them, when they are ready, bang in the middle, or running the lines, in front of some of the biggest sporting audiences in the world, dictating a game that, in many countries, they were excluded from for decades.

This is why the announcement that the respected French referee Stéphanie Frappart, with compatriot Manuela Nicolosi and Ireland’s Michelle O’Neill as her assistants, will take charge of the Super Cup game between Liverpool and Chelsea, matters. Because it is putting them centre stage, on one of the biggest stages.

Being seen matters. Girls see it. Boys see it. Men see it. And, consciously or unconsciously, it eats away at preconceived notions about the role of women in not just sport, but society too.

“Of course my life has changed because I’m more popular around the world now,” said Frappart ahead of the showpiece fixture. “I’ve already been appointed to Ligue 1 in France so I know the feeling and how to deal with my emotions. It is not the first appointment to a big game for me so I know the meaning behind it.”

While O’Neill added: “It is not our first time on the big stage. We did the Women’s World Cup and I was the first Irish person to be in a World Cup final. Personally I am proud that young girls and kids are being inspired and that we are opening the pathway for kids to come up. That is pretty special.”

The impact cannot be underestimated. Last year, the father of four-year-old Clara Walker tweeted a photo of her enthralled by smiling and ponytailed assistant referee Melissa Burgin quoting his daughter saying: “Her hair is like mine, can I be a referee?” Visibility matters.

The quality of refereeing in women’s football, both of male and female referees, has been in the spotlight. In England, professionalism has seen a demand for higher standards to match. Chelsea manager Hayes and West Ham manager Matt Beard are just two who have been very vocal over officiating in last season’s Women’s Super League. Phil Neville was scathing after England’s friendly 1-1 draw with Australia in October, saying: “Having VAR at the World Cup doesn’t worry me; the standard of refereeing does.”

Assistant referee Michelle O’Neill speaks at a press conference in Istanbul. Photo: Uefa
Assistant referee Michelle O’Neill speaks at a press conference in Istanbul. Photo: Uefa

While the rock, paper, scissors debacle made national news.

There is a reason for this though. The development of women referees, and refereeing in the elite of the women’s domestic game, has not kept pace. The FA’s head of women’s refereeing Jo Stimpson said that was a fair assessment of developments in England back in February and that they are working to catch up.

Thus, the achievements of Frappart, Sian Massey-Ellis, Bibiana Steinhaus and others should be trumpeted even louder. Because they are matching the men’s fitness tests and reaching the top despite significantly less developed pathways than the men are afforded and often as amateurs or semi-professionals for a much longer period of time.

Chairman of the Referees’ Association in England, Paul Field, is excited about the impact Frappart & co taking centre stage on Wednesday night will have on equality in refereeing in England. “It is an outstanding achievement for anybody to get a final of this prestige and I think it can do nothing but be positive for the women’s game,” he said. “We’ve already got some outstanding female match officials in England and anything that gives them a lift in terms of profile in the game has to be good. We absolutely applaud it, as long as it’s done on ability, and not just because she’s female. She’s there because she’s an outstanding referee.”

There is now though, somewhat of a juxtaposition between wanting the spotlight on the referees because of what them being there represents, with wanting their performances to make them anonymous. A contradiction not lost on Field. “We absolutely want her to have a fantastic game tomorrow,” he said. “A fantastic game because that positivity will ring out around the English game in particular, that’s where my focus is, and we need successful dedicated women who also have a little bit of luck in life, have fewer poor big games, instead having the games that they officiate go well and as a result has positive impact. What you don’t want is someone to have a poor game, because that can set you back years.” – Guardian

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