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Bibiana Steinhaus: Belated progress, miles to go before we sleep

Thursday 24th August 2017

Bibiana Steinhaus is the first female referee in an elite UEFA league. Public opinion is on her side. Privately, some still question her promotion.

I probably shouldn't be writing this. Bibiana Steinhaus doesn't need a man's approval or praise for breaking through a barrier that should have been removed decades ago. She doesn't need to be lauded for finally being recognised. That's long past due. More than praise and acknowledgement, she deserves an apology, even though she doesn't desire one.

I never got into refereeing in order to fight gender inequality but despite that I have to deal with it because there are people around me for whom this matters.

Steinhaus is 38. After officiating in the DFB Super Cup the week before the Bundesliga kicked off, she will soon referee her first German top-flight match.

Meanwhile, the nine veteran referees active for the 2017-18 season average 36.7 years with 7.2 years experience. Bundesliga officials reach mandatory retirement at 47-years-old. Nineteen-year veteran, Wolfgang Stark, just completed his final season. Two other officials, Felix Brych and Manuel Grafe, are 42 and 43 respectively, with a dozen years apiece on the job. Deniz Ayetkin, 39, begins his ninth year of service. The remaining half-dozen are all younger than Steinhaus with multiple seasons under their belt. Benjamin Brand is the least experienced and only one under 30.

The numbers suggest that were Steinhaus male, she'd have been officiating in the Bundesliga for seven years. Factoring in mandatory retirement, 40% of her career has been stolen by prejudice. As she already has a Women's Olympic gold medal match on her CV, her quality is self-evident. In a less chauvinistic world, she might have already added a World Cup, Champions League, and/or Europa League to the list.

Yet, this week, I found myself in conversation with a colleague who considered her presence on the pitch distracting. His two reasons for rejecting her as a match official were fitness and that she made him uncomfortable. Worse, this colleague is 20-something. Old prejudices are still being drilled into young minds.

One glance at Steinhaus tells you she's fit. She doesn't have to match Pierre-Emrick Aubameyang stride for stride, as Carmelita Jeter might if she went easy. Neither did "old man" Stark in his final seasons. Any referee usually jogs from box to box with a veteran centre-half's pace, occasionally forced to sprint on a counterattack.

Steinhaus' true job is to monitor players' actions and adjudicate matches accordingly. Anyone who thinks a woman can't do that ought to try telling their mother.

 

Or they could tell Angela Merkel, Erna Solberg, and Theresa May. These women were elected, Merkel repeatedly reelected, by men and women alike, to respectively govern millions of German, Norwegian and British citizens. Their terms in office stretch over years. Surely other women can easily officiate 22 men playing a 90-minute game, whatever Pep Guardiola might think.

Steinhaus' dress rehearsal for the Bundesliga didn't pass without incident. As she went about dealing with the fallout from awarding a dangerous free kick to Bayern, Franck Ribery cheekily untied her bootlace.

New officials are often tested by players. It's both a rite of passage and a way for the competitors to learn where the line is drawn. As the rules don't permit contact, pushing such boundaries is typically verbal. Steinhaus nevertheless took the hazing in stride. She lectured Ribery with a smile. He accepted the scolding cheerfully. Then, he stepped into the ball, curling it past Borussia Dortmund's helpless keeper, giving everyone something 'more important' to discuss.

Afterwards, Ribery expressed his intent as good-natured.

It was funny. She played along and was in good spirits. You can have fun with referees but it's also important that there's mutual respect.

Let's give Franck the benefit of the doubt, allowing he believes his actions were taken in good spirit, that he does respect Bibiana Steinhaus. seeing her simply as another Bundesliga referee. But let's also consider what would happen, on the pitch and in the media, were he to reach out to gently caress a male official's chin.

Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin contributes frequently to Stretty News and is the author of the short story collection strange bOUnce. He has appeared in several other blogs which, sadly, have ceased to exist. He is old and likes to bring out defunct. Although football is his primary passion, the geezer enjoys many sports and pop culture forms. Expect them to intrude upon his meanderings for It's Round and It's White.


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