It has taken 92 years, 942 matches, and a seismic shift in football’s attitudes to women, but on Thursday night an overdue slice of World Cup history will finally be made with a sharp parp of the referee’s whistle before Germany’s group game against Costa Rica.
At that moment, Stéphanie Frappart, a 38-year-old from France, will become the first woman to take charge of a men’s match at the tournament finals. In a World Cup suffused with rancour and controversy it is an undisputed sign of progress.
The match was high-profile enough before Frappart’s appointment. Nearly 70,000 fans will be packed into Al Bayt stadium to see whether Germany can resuscitate their World Cup campaign. Millions more will tune in from around the world. But now her every decision, along with those of Frappart’s fellow women assistant referees, Neuza Back of Brazil and Mexico’s Karen Díaz Medina, and the fourth official, Saíd Martínez of Honduras, will be watched, and potentially weaponised.
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For the managers involved, Fifa’s decision to appoint an all-female refereeing team is welcome. As Costa Rica’s manager, Luis Fernando Suárez, put it: “I am a great admirer of everything women have conquered. And I like that they want to keep conquering things. And this is another step forward, especially in this sport, which is a very sexist one. I like it. I think it is a situation that is good for football.”
Germany’s manager, Hansi Flick, took a similarly positive view when asked if he had any issues with Frappart’s appointment. “ I trust her 100%,” he replied. “I think she deserves to be here due to her performance and achievements. I hope she is looking forward to this and I think she will perform very well.”
It is a far cry from how women used to be treated by those in the sport’s hierarchy. As recently as 2004, the disgraced former Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, said female footballers should wear skimpier outfits to popularise the game. “Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball,” he said. “They could, for example, have tighter shorts.”
While Frappart’s star has soared highest among women referees, she is not alone. Six women officials are at this World Cup, the legacy of a decision taken by Fifa at the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada to get male and female officials to work more closely. A year later in Doha, that became a reality when 48 referees of both sexes spent five days analysing controversial decisions, taking physical tests, simulating match situations on the pitch and reviewing them on videotape. The ball was rolling, and has not stopped since.
Before this tournament Fifa’s current president, Gianni Infantino, who is said to have given significant support to the project to get more women refereeing in men’s football, praised the officials as “team one” at this World Cup. Incredibly it has taken just seven years to come to fruition.
Frappart’s journey, meanwhile, has taken 25 years. She began as a child footballer in the Val d’Oise, north of Paris, and by age 13 she was refereeing children’s matches. Later, when officiating amateur football, she had simple strategies before a match – asking to test the balls, beginning by bouncing them with her hand, then subtly displaying her own ball skills which put her on a par with players.
Frappart could have been a decent player but at university she made the decision to focus on refereeing. Since then she has consistently torn down barriers and shattered glass ceilings. She was the first woman to referee in men’s Ligue 2, then Ligue 1, then the Uefa Super Cup and Champions League, and now a men’s World Cup.
Another sign of her burgeoning profile came when she beat France’s star striker Kylian Mbappé to take No 1 spot on L’Équipe’s list of the 30 most important personalities who make French football. She has been described by those who have worked with her in France as “charismatic”, and “diplomatic” on the pitch, as well as “human and humble”. She told Le Monde last year: “I’ve always said ... judge me on my competence, not my gender”.
Frappart has always said that sexism has never got in her way. But she has never publicly commented on the best-known incident of it, in 2015, when the Valenciennes manager, David Le Frapper, complained that “when you’re a woman and come to referee a man’s sport, it’s complicated.” He swiftly apologised.
Frappart has since been hailed as a national hero for “constantly smashing glass ceilings”, and her appointment to take charge of Thursday night’s game topped the news bulletins on the country’s most listened-to radio station, France Inter, who deemed it “a great moment”.
Fifa’s referee chief, Pierluigi Collina, has insisted this is just the start. “Fifa will continue to champion the development of female refereeing and I’m confident that the appointment of female match officials to men’s games will be absolutely commonplace in the future,” he said.