The roads leading to FIFA World Cup competitions are long and winding for both teams and referees alike, especially when the competitions in question are held on the other side of the world.
Launched in 2020, the Road to Australia and New Zealand project set out a road map for 170 match officials hoping to take part in the FIFA Women’s World Cup later this year. Three years on and with less than six months to go before the big kick-off, only 33 referees, 55 assistant referees and 19 video assistant referees will be heading Down Under. In preparation for the big event, some of them have just participated in seminars in the Qatari capital, Doha, while the rest will attend another to be held in Montevideo, Uruguay, later this month.
“It is really a pit-stop on the road to Australia and New Zealand,” said Kari Seitz, FIFA Head of Refereeing, Women. “This is the moment where we bring everybody together and really fine tune it. So, you have to fill the gas tank, check the tyres… Think of it like a national team and they have their last training camp. We have already selected our players. These are our players for the World Cup.”
The first to head to Doha were match officials from UEFA for a four-day seminar running from January 24 to 28. They have been followed by their counterparts from the AFC (Asia), CAF (Africa) and OFC (Oceania). Last but not least, representatives from Concacaf and CONMEBOL will head to the Uruguayan capital later in February. The drill is the same for all of them: fitness tests and preparation, recovery work, VAR, and theory sessions.
“We monitor them all the time. We follow them. We offer them all the support they need,” said FIFA Referees Committee Chairman Pierluigi Collina. “These seminars are the occasion to work with them directly, to see them in person, to work on the field of play, to get some feedback from them, to make some evaluations of their fitness or their health conditions. In terms of theoretical lessons, we have many of them during the seminars, trying to go through all the most difficult incidents that could occur on the field of play.”
“We have five months to get them completely at peak performance. And that’s what these seminars are about,” added Seitz. “We want to make sure that when they leave here, they have a clear path to be 100% ready in terms of fitness, 100% ready in terms of medical, and that they are very clear on our teachings from FIFA on how we want the matches to be considered and analysed and called.”
There is a real sense of excitement among the referees currently in Doha and a growing sense of anticipation as the tournament start date of 20 July approaches. As one of the attendees at the second seminar in the Qatari capital, Heba Sadieeh can vouch for that. The Palestinian referee will be on duty at the FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023™, becoming the first person from her country ever to take part in a men’s or women’s World Cup.
“To be the first Palestinian at the World Cup is a huge responsibility in terms of showing how much progress has been made in football, especially in refereeing,” she said. “I’m so happy to represent my country and all the women of west Asia. By being at a World Cup, I would like to inspire other women to become a referee.”
Assistant referee Fanta Kone of Mali has a challenge of her own on her hands, having given birth to twins. “After giving birth to my beautiful twins it’s not been easy at all, because it requires a lot of work,” she explained. “I created a plan with my husband and my department: the physical trainer and the director. I trained a lot and did a lot of hard work to maintain a good level of fitness. And I was appointed to matches in the men’s Malian First Division, big matches especially, and soon I’ll be at the World Cup.”