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Is Bibiana Steinhaus the perfect referee?

Friday 24th August 2018

It’s said the best referee is the one you don’t notice. If that’s the case, Bibiana Steinhaus did an excellent job in her first Bundesliga season. She prefers anonymity despite deserving recognition. Not only is she quietly competent, she’s forced her way to the top flight through hard work and patience, paying more dues in the lower tiers than any equally proficient male official.

Her Bundesliga career began with the DFB Super Cup the week before the 2017/18 campaign kicked off. Anonymity wasn’t an option then. Her performance remained at its typical level, which is to say the highest, but the media was interested in a woman breaking down another barrier in a man’s world.

In addition, Bayern winger Franck Ribery was interested in a little hazing to mark the occasion. While preparing to take a free kick from just outside the box, he knelt to tie his bootlace. When done, he casually reached over to untie Steinhaus’. She took it well, scolding the Frenchman with a smile on her face. In response, he caressed her cheek. At the time, I wondered what would’ve happened had he done the same to a male referee, such as Felix Brych.

That’s Dr Felix Brych these days. I hope it’s just the Bundesliga who feel compelled to add the honorific. The referee owns a PhD in law with his dissertation focusing on sport. While pride in one’s achievements is understandable and anyone who earns a doctorate has the right to be addressed as Herr Doctor, insisting on it conflicts with the anonymity in which a match official best toils.

Dr Brych struggled with anonymity at the World Cup. After failing to give a penalty or consult VAR, Mladen Krstajic suggested the referee should be brought before the same war crimes tribunal the Serbian manager’s country once faced. You have to admire a man who can mix that much hyperbole, insensitivity and disregard for the truth in one self-interested statement. In another country, Krstajic might be elected president.

The IFFHS World Referee of the Year and his crew were sent home from the World Cup after the match between Switzerland and Serbia in which FIFA also censured Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka for making gestures symbolising Kosovan independence when celebrating goals. FIFA gave no reason for their exile, perhaps because it served political rather than competitive ends. After reviewing the play in question, Brych’s assistant said the crew still feels it was a 50-50 call not requiring assistance. To be fair, VAR is designed to overturn clearly erroneous decisions, not give arbiters an opportunity to waffle on ambiguous ones.

For her part, Steinhaus hasn’t yet taken charge at a major men’s tournament although she presided over matches at the Women’s World Cup. At 39, her window’s closing. The Bundesliga enforces mandatory retirement for match officials at 47. Named alongside Brych as the IFFHS' female World Referee of the Year [for the third time], continued excellence should warrant assignments at the Euros in two years. Then, in 2022, it will be very interesting to see how FIFA navigates its commitment to diversity when a woman qualifies to oversee a men’s World Cup matches in Qatar.

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Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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