Today sees a historic moment for Italian football when a female referee will take charge of a Serie A game for the first time. Sassuolo v Salernitana will be refereed by Maria Sole Ferrieri Caputi, which comes almost 20 years after the first woman became an assistant referee in the Italian top tier.
Maria Sole has already taken charge of games involving a Serie A side, she was the referee for the Coppa Italia clash between Cagliari and Cittadella last season. The last campaign also saw her make her debut in Serie B, and this season brought another cup game involving a Serie A club. Now, having spent five seasons of her career in Serie D after coming up from the regional leagues, her progression has brought its reward.
The slow but steady rise of female referees in the men’s game is finally becoming the norm. This years World Cup has seen women placed on the refereeing team for the first time, and one of those going to Qatar is Stéphanie Frappart. The French official is seen as something of a trailblazer in women’s refereeing and has already taken charge of some high-profile games.
The European Super Cup in 2019 saw Frappart lead an all-female refereeing team to officiate the game between Liverpool and Chelsea. It was an all-female refereeing team that night and in 2020 a Nations League game between San Marino and Gibraltar saw the first all-female team take charge of a men’s international game. The referee on that occasion was Kateryna Monzul from Ukraine.
This year Monzul fled to Italy to escape the war and the Russian invasion of her country and she was allowed referee a game in the Serie A women’s league, and has now been placed on the Serie C list in Torino. Going back to Frappart, she became the first woman to referee a Ligue 1 game in France in 2019.
Of the top five European leagues, the Bundesliga were the first to appoint a female referee in 2017. As the anti-government demonstrations continue in Iran this week, Iranian TV has been known to cancel the broadcasting of Bundesliga games when Bibiana Steinhaus took charge. When they did show one game involving the referee in 2018, they switched to shots of the crowd rather than show the female referee.
This also happened in the Premier League last year when Sian Massey-Ellis was the assistant referee during a Tottenham v Manchester United game. The Iran broadcast cut away to avoid showing a woman wearing shorts. Massey-Ellis was involved in another controversial moment ten years earlier which led to the sacking of Richard Keys and Andy Gray from Sky Sports.
Although their insulting sexist conversation was off-air, it was still recorded and leaked to a British newspaper. The pair had said that somebody should go and explain the offside rule to the assistant and also insulted a former assistant referee, Wendy Toms. In 1999 Toms was the first female assistant referee in the Premier League, where Coventry City manager Gordon Strachan complained that she hadn’t been promoted on merit.
Still no female referee has taken charge of a Premier League game, although Amy Fearn became the first woman to referee a Championship match back in 2010. On that day Fearn replaced the original referee who went off injured for the last twenty minutes and Fearn was also the first woman to referee an FA Cup game in 2013.
Back in 2006 Fearn came under attack from Luton Town manager Mike Newell after his side lost a Championship game with QPR. Incensed that his side hadn’t been awarded a penalty he singled out the assistant referee. “She shouldn’t be here. I know that sounds sexist, but I am sexist. This is not park football, so what are women doing here?”
Thankfully, we seemed to have moved on from those caveman-like attitudes, but there is still some way to go. The world of women’s football is full of male referees and managers, and now we need to start seeing the reverse. This is already an historic season for women’s football in Italy with Serie A turning professional for the first time. It has taken until 2022 for the Italian government to allow sportswomen become professionals.
Whereas before, there was a maximum that female footballers could earn now there is a minimum wage in place. But this is not just about the right to earn a salary without limitations, it also involves basic worker’s entitlements such as maternity and sick leave, insurance protection, and social security compensation.
This week both Juventus and Roma have qualified for the group stage of the Champions League, a good indication of where Italian women’s football is at right now. Consistent participation in European football will also be necessary if they hope to attract the top talent to the Italian league. While England’s WSL may still be the main attraction for players in Europe, other leagues are now starting to play catch-up, and Italy could once again become a desired destination for female footballers.
Alfredo Trentalagne, the head of the Italian referee’s association, on making the announcement of Ferrieri Caputi’s appointment to the Serie A game said that ‘what is rightfully due is not given as a privilege, as the mafia do, and that Maria Sole had earned this path’. This is the false perception that needs to be battled, when these decisions are treated as bowing to political correctness and only seen by some as token gestures.
For a referee to make it to Serie A, or the top tier of any football championship, takes dedication, hard work, and talent. It doesn’t matter about gender, except that, for now, a woman still needs to work at least twice as hard to get noticed.
Back in 2003, Cristina Cini from Florence became the first female assistant referee in Serie A when she ran the line during a Juventus v Chievo game. Almost two decades later the Italian football authorities have finally taken another step forward.
One day we may arrive at the point where a story like this is no longer news. That is the hope, but for now, this weekend there will be a lot more focus on a mid-table clash between Sassuolo and Salernitana than might normally be the case. Thanks to a 31-year-old from Tuscany who grew up supporting her local club Livorno, now young girls can not only dream of becoming professional footballers but can see another pathway into the beautiful game.