By Conall Miller
Stephanie Frappart made history last Wednesday as she became the first woman ever to referee a UEFA Champions League match, taking the reins of group G’s game between Juventus and Dynamo Kiev.
A clearly momentous occasion, but does it not further amplify just how underrepresented women are within the men’s game?
Frappart is no stranger to the big occasion, having refereed the 2019 UEFA Super Cup final between Liverpool and Chelsea, becoming the first woman to officiate in a major UEFA competition match. Frappart also officiated the 2019 Women’s World Cup final between the USA and Holland, both amazing achievements in their own respect. With a résumé as glowing as this one, it only seems natural for Frappart to continue to break down barriers and once again write her name in history.
However, just how telling is it that, in the competition’s 65-year history, only now has a woman become the leading official in a game? Football has produced excellent officials in the past such as Bibiana Steinhaus, Amy Fearn and the Premier League’s very own Sian Massey-Ellis. All have an experienced career in women’s football and all have made names for themselves by breaking into the men’s game. So, it begs the question: just why has it taken this long?
A systematic issue
This gross underrepresentation of women at football’s most elite level is one of the beautiful game’s ugly tropes, and it is not only apparent on the pitch either. In fact, it is an issue that has been translated throughout the entirety of football’s structure, reaching as far as the board rooms.
The “pipeline theory” emerged in the 1970s as the original “justification” for gender inequality within men’s football. It hypothesised that the sole reason for women’s underrepresentation in leadership roles was down to a shortage of qualified women at football’s lower levels, and that the introduction of these qualified individuals would, in time, result in a further representation of women at the top of the game. Despite this, a study conducted in 2018 by Amée Gill – a PhD candidate of the University of Durham – revealed that over a third of men’s professional football workers are women. It also revealed that, in the last 30 years, over 700 women have held leadership roles in the men’s game and yet, at the very top, only 7% of the boardrooms currently are made up by women.
Although there are still fewer women working within men’s football comparatively, the pipeline theory’s basic premise suggests that, by now, women should be proportionally represented at all levels. Alas, the sad truth is that it is increasingly harder for women to progress in men’s football into a position of seniority the further you venture up the football ladder. It could be likened perhaps to a Diego Simeone style defence. Stubborn, harsh, and damn near impenetrable.
Staring adversity in the face
The difficulties do not stop there, for gender inequality is not only apparent internally within men’s football but amongst the fan base as well. Following Frappart’s appointment as referee of the 2019 UEFA Supercup Final, she was subject to chauvinism, marginalisation and misogyny on Twitter. And don’t worry, the seemingly never-ending and oh so witty narrative surrounding women’s place in the kitchen has not run its course just yet! Tweets reading “hope the sandwiches are on point” and “get back in the kitchen” were an unfortunate reminder of this.
Further tweets implied that her inclusion as an official was nothing more than to fill an “equality” quota. Some even resorted to statements about physical differences between gender, stating that men have a “much larger lung capacity than women” and as such are more suited to officiate at this level. This is, of course, in spite of rigorous physical assessments from UEFA. Beyond comments on her physical capacity, many turned to claims concerning her professional capabilities.
It makes us wonder, just when has there been such debate and controversy surrounding a refereeing appointment? It is clear by this point that, to this faction of football’s fan base, the issue is not based on the quality of Frappart’s refereeing; it is a matter of gender.
It is this kind of attitude that ultimately puts women off pursuing a career within men’s football, something that Frappart and countless others have demonstrated is entirely possible.
These individuals of course are far from representing the modern football fan, as was evident in the immense level of support Frappart received on this occasion, ultimately overshadowing the select few who fail to acknowledge her achievements.
A catalyst for change?
Despite all this and all the difficulties expected, it appears there is still time for firsts in football and Frappart continues to earn them time and time again. When you really look at the context in which she has achieved this, it puts into perspective just what an achievement this is for Frappart, a true modern inspiration to the game. Frappart’s story is one that has the power to inspire, one that can be replicated, one that can galvanize women to pursue refereeing at the elite level, and one that can ultimately shed light on just how poor an excuse the pipeline theory is.
Wednesday’s game in Turin featured a plethora of football’s modern greats: Paulo Dybala, Gianluigi Buffon and Cristiano Ronaldo just to name a few. But amongst them, one stood above the rest; despite the adversity, Stephanie Frappart made history.
Since 2016, the number of women refereeing in English football has increased by 72%.