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UEFA Super Cup: Frenchwoman referee Frappart set to make history in Liverpool-Chelsea clash

Franck Fife, AFP | French referee Stephanie Frappart during the French L2 football match between Valenciennes and Béziers on April 19, 2019, at the Hainaut Stadium in Valenciennes.

French referee Stéphanie Frappart will make football history in Istanbul on Wednesday, becoming the first woman to take charge of a major European men’s football match when Liverpool meets Chelsea in the UEFA Super Cup.

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The annual Super Cup pits the winner of the Champions League against the winner of the Europa League. The showpiece match is touted as the curtain-raiser for the European football season. A game for bragging rights between two English titans this year, it will be broadcast globally from Istanbul’s Vodafone Park, home of Turkish club Besiktas. The all-star line-ups will feature international idols from Mo Salah for the Reds to Olivier Giroud for the Blues. But at kick off, unenviably for a referee, all eyes will be the woman charged with keeping the players in line: Stéphanie Frappart.

The 35-year-old Frenchwoman is no stranger to the spotlight. At every pioneering new rung in her nearly two-decade officiating career -- often umpiring male footballers who tower over her 1.64m, 54kg frame (under 5’5”, 120 lbs) -- Frappart has garnered extra attention until her skill afforded her the good referee’s cloak of invisibility.

“Passing under the radar is rarely a sign of great success, but for the young woman [Frappart], it is manifest success twice over,” as the French sports daily l’Equipe put it. “When nobody mentions the referee, it’s that he has done his job well. And when no one notices the woman in the black [referee’s] shirt, it’s that she belongs.”

It has been reported that, absent-mindedly in the heat of match play, footballers will accidentally call her “Monsieur l’Arbitre”, Mister Referee. Not that Frappart especially minds. “It shows that there is no longer that barrier for them,” she has said.

In April, after nearly 80 games in France’s second-division Ligue 2, Frappart became the first woman in French football history to referee a top-flight Ligue 1 game, drawing an unusually thick media horde to a Sunday afternoon mid-table match against Strasbourg at Amiens. The press gathered at the aptly named Stade de la Licorne, unicorn stadium, to witness one supposedly mythical creature, a top-flight woman referee at work. As it happens, the game ended in a scoreless tie and, from an officiating perspective, was largely uneventful. The mark of success. In June, Frappart was promoted to the permanent pool of referees for the new Ligue 1 season.

On July 7, with millions watching around the world, Frappart refereed the Women’s World Cup final in Lyon.

“Stéphanie has proved over a number of years that she is one of the best female referees, not just in Europe but across the world,” UEFA chief refereeing officer Roberto Rosetti said as Frappart was named to oversee the Super Cup. “She has the ability to officiate on the biggest stage, as she proved at this year’s Women’s World Cup final. I hope this match in Istanbul will provide her with yet more experience as she enters the prime of her refereeing career.”

Despite that acclaim, one wonders, looking at her career, if Frappart mightn’t flinch at being saluted among the best “female referees”. After all, as she told the French daily Le Parisien in July: “I pass the same physical exams as the boys. The players don’t go any slower on the pitch because they are being officiated by a woman.”

But the whistle-wielding woman has certainly heard worse, cutting her officiating teeth on football pitches in the suburbs where she is from, outside Paris. Frappart has noted that the sexist remarks were more likely to come from the crowds than from players or staff and that, early on, it was surely most difficult for her parents. “When we’re on the pitch, we’re in our bubble, we don’t hear,” she told l’Equipe. “But it isn’t always easy to be on the sidelines and to hear remarks about your own child.”

More recently, very public examples of macho disdain for Frappart’s work are often boiled down to a single unfortunate incident. In 2015, angry after a Ligue 2 match that didn’t go his club’s way, Valenciennes coach David Le Frapper accused the official of missing a penalty call. “The referee didn’t see it; Maybe she was ice skating,” the manager told reporters. “A woman who comes in to officiate a man’s sport, it’s complicated.” Within minutes, a contrite Le Frapper sought to withdraw the comments and apologise to Frappart personally. By all accounts, the referee declined to take his call.

On Tuesday, at a press conference ahead of Wednesday’s Super Cup, Frappart dismissed the notion that refereeing male footballers is any more difficult than overseeing a match between women. “I think there is not a lot of difference because football is the same. It’s the same rules so I will do the same as the women’s game,” she said in Istanbul.

Frappart has in the past suggested that, in dealing with male players, there may be some advantage for a woman. “I think there is a little more respect for a woman. In the virulence of the words, there might be a barrier that means one touches a woman less or addresses her in a more polite manner,” she told l’Equipe.

But Frappart also has a certain gravitas that sets the tone. “She has a tiny voice, but she commands respect with her natural authority,” Pierre Bouby, a recently retired Orléans midfielder who encountered Frappart’s officiating in Ligue 2, told the French daily Le Parisien. “I never saw her out of her depth or overwhelmed by events. On the contrary, she has charisma, she’s diplomatic, she explains things. She manages to bring the tension down pretty easily.”

Wednesday’s landmark fixture is by far the highest profile European men’s game to see a woman in charge. Other milestones have been few and far between. Switzerland’s Nicole Petignat, for one, became the first woman to preside over a UEFA Cup qualifier in 2003, going on to oversee two more in 2004 and 2009. Bibiana Steinhaus, a police officer off the pitch, became the first woman to referee in one of Europe’s top leagues, Germany’s Bundesliga; earlier this year, Iranian public television reportedly cancelled the broadcast of a match between Bayern Munich and Augsburg because Steinhaus was officiating.

On Wednesday night in Istanbul, Frappart won’t be the only woman on the pitch. France’s Manuela Nicolosi and Ireland’s Michelle O’Neill, who featured as assistants to Frappart in the United States-Netherlands Women’s World Cup showdown in July, will be lining up, too.

The Super Cup’s fourth official, Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir, who is a man, spoke highly of his trailblazing colleagues at the press conference on Tuesday. “They are brave, they have courage, they don’t hesitate to give unpopular decisions – you will see tomorrow,” he promised.

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