Men’s World Cup referee wants the game to shine

TOKYO – Japanese referee Yoshimi Yamashita agrees with Pele or anyone else decades ago who first described football as the “beautiful game”.

Yamashita is one of three women chosen by FIFA to be the referees for the men’s World Cup in Qatar, which begins on November 21. It is the first time that a woman will lead football’s biggest stage.

She sees her job this way: let the game shine, as it should.

“One of the big goals as a referee is to bring out the attractiveness of football,” she said Monday in Tokyo in an interview with The Associated Press. “I’m doing my best for that, and I’ll do what I have to at the time towards that end. So if I need to communicate with the players, I will. If I have to show a card, I I’ll show a map Rather than controlling, I’m thinking about what to do to achieve the big goal of bringing out the appeal of football.”

Stephanie Frappart from France and Salima Mukansanga from Rwanda are the other women selected. There are 36 referees in total. FIFA also named three assistant referees in a group of 69: Neuza Back from Brazil, Karen Diaz Medina from Mexico and Kathryn Nesbitt from the United States.

While it’s likely that all three will be in charge of games, that’s not a given. They would also be used as so-called “fourth umpires” on the sidelines. However, they cannot be used as helpers.

“Each match official will be carefully monitored over the next few months with a final assessment on the technical, physical and medical aspects which will be carried out shortly before the World Cup,” said Massimo Busacca, director of the FIFA arbitration, in a press release.

Yamashita’s selection emphasizes Japan’s low ranking in most measures of equal pay for women and in global gender equality studies.

Only 14.3% of seats in Japan’s national legislature are held by women – 152nd out of 190 countries in a study published several months ago by the US Congressional Research Service. Another study on the gender pay gap places Japan 120th out of 156 countries.

“I would be very happy if women could play an active role in sport in this way, and if sport and especially football could lead this,” Yamashita said. “In Japan, there is still a long way to go in the world of football (in terms of women’s participation), so it would be great if it could be linked to promoting women’s participation in different ways, not only in football or in sports.

Women’s football paved the way in Japan. The Japanese won the 2011 Women’s World Cup, were runners-up in 2015 and have always been among the game’s elite teams.

Yamashita trained just outside Tokyo on Monday, sweltering in temperatures reaching 35C (95F). She laughed when reminded that matches in Qatar – located on a tip of the Arabian Peninsula – will be much cooler, being played in winter in the northern hemisphere and in air-conditioned stadiums.

Yamashita seemed relaxed during the interview, away from the obvious pressure. She was a referee in Japan’s men’s J League and was also in charge of the Asian equivalent of the men’s Champions League. She also managed matches at the Tokyo Olympics last year.

“Of course I think the pressure is huge,” she said, “and I think I have a lot of responsibility. But I’m really happy to take on that duty and that pressure, so I’m trying to take it positively and try to be happy.”

She described the excitement of leaving the waiting room just before a game.

“I guess it lifts my spirits in that moment. I feel like that’s when I change gears the most,” she said.

She said the difference between the men’s and women’s game was, of course, speed. But not just that some men could run faster.

“It’s the speed, but not just the speed of the players,” she said. “Not the speed of the ball. It’s just the speed of the game. It means to me that I have to make decisions faster – more speed.”

Yamashita conducted most of the interview in Japanese, but said she would use English and “face gestures, body gestures” to communicate with players in Qatar.

“Usually when I give a card I don’t say anything,” she said, switching to English. “But when I give a warning, I just tell them I’m not happy. They understand.”

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