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History Made: First Female Chief Referee Breaks Barriers in the English Premier League

On December 23, 2023, an epoch-making event occurred for the English championship. In the Fulham vs. Burnley match, the chief referee was Rebecca Welch. She became the first because, until now, only men had officiated in the Premier League. Girls had only been assistant referees. Sergio Agüero won't deny this – in one of the matches, he embraced one of the referees by the neck, facing criticism but avoiding punishment.

The historic match ended with a surprising victory for Burnley (2-0). Rebecca Welch made no significant mistakes. The coaches of both teams did not criticize her, and the English media came up with headlines like "Rebecca Welch gave the perfect answer to Joey Barton's criticism." The former City and Newcastle player publicly doubted her abilities before the match.

The appointment of this girl as the chief referee in the Premier League had been a long time coming. She is 40 years old and has been officiating football matches since 2010, initially juggling it with a job in the National Health Service. Welch initially worked on women's team matches but, in 2021, became the first girl appointed to a men's League Two (the fourth-tier league in England) game.

She then made her debut in the Championship and the FA Cup. Interestingly, both times, she officiated Birmingham matches. She faced what the media called "misogynistic chants from fans," but it did not hinder her career progression. Last month, Welch became the first female assistant referee in the Premier League. If the main referee had been injured, she would have stepped in to officiate the Fulham vs. Manchester United match.

Howard Webb, the head of the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL), exuded confidence: "Rebecca has already been involved in important games. I am confident that she will show her level in the Premier League. She will be a perfect example for women and girls who may think that refereeing is not for them but have not aspired to it before."

In reality, the Premier League is not setting a trend. In a neighboring country, Stephanie Frappart has been working for several years – she made her debut in the French league in 2019 in the Amiens vs. Strasbourg match. In 2020, she officiated a Champions League group stage match between Juventus and Dynamo Kyiv. Last year, she refereed the 2022 World Cup match between Costa Rica and Germany. In all cases, she worked as the main referee.

"Why not if there are the necessary abilities?" said Chelsea coach Pochettino recently. And that is the critical question. Arguments against female referees can range from inappropriate comments like "A woman's place is in the kitchen!" to logical ones like "Can she handle it physically?" Several nuances need to be considered here. First and foremost, football is a highly intensive sport involving non-standard bursts of pace.

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Obviously, women are generally physically weaker. However, the issue is not the average level of all women. It's about specific individuals who engage in sports. On average, a referee runs 11 kilometers per match – a quite manageable distance for both men and women with regular training over several years. We know from the Olympics that a girl can run 10 kilometers in 30 minutes. Even considering the specific distribution of sprints and breaks, officiating a match is entirely achievable for a 40-year-old woman. She is unlikely to be the least endurance-capable among the Premier League referees, most of whom are older. Moreover, she has passed the same tests as male referees.

Another nuance favors the appointment of girls to English Premier League matches. This concerns the current context. Premier League referees are making inexplicable mistakes like the absurdly disallowed goal by Luis Diaz. This year, referees forgot to draw offside lines. And Edouard's hand in this round looked highly questionable. Howard Webb regularly calls clubs to apologize for mistakes, and former referee Mike Dean admits in interviews that he did not call the main referee to the monitor because they are friends. As a result, an English Premier League manager can publicly say he does not like 80% of English referees. Fresh blood is clearly needed in all this toxic mess, and the first female referee is a good fit.

Published by Patrick Jane