Bibiana Steinhaus: The Bundesliga referee shattering football’s glass ceiling

(CNN)Bibiana Steinhaus had pictured the moment many times before.

Now it was happening for real. On September 10, 2017, Steinhaus made history in Germany by becoming the first female to officiate a top-level league match.
The setting was iconic too — Berlin’s 74,000-capacity Olympiastadion has hosted Olympic Games, World Cup matches and a Champions League final.
“It actually gives me goosebumps now as I’m thinking back to it,” Steinhaus says, running her hand up her forearm.
“When we actually walked out there in Berlin in this Olympic Stadium — which is pretty impressive — and the noise and the atmosphere … it was just a wonderful moment.
“A moment that we all worked for such a long time and it’s just beautiful that we could make it.”

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The 38-year-old first received the news via email three days before her match between Hertha Berlin and Werder Bremen was due to take place, as is customary with Bundesliga refereeing appointments.
Hearing Steinhaus talk about that moment, you get a real sense of just how much pride it still gives her.
Her smile is wide and beaming and her gestures become increasingly animated as she describes the emotions of the ensuing few hours as a “rollercoaster.”
    But before long, however, it was back to business as usual.
    “We took a deep breath as a refereeing team,” she recalls. “And, from that moment on, we prepared this game like every other game.
    “We prepared as a team, we prepared the kickoff so when it finally came we were totally focused.”
    Steinhaus admits she didn’t anticipate the worldwide media attention her appointment drew, expecting it only to be news in her native Germany.
    “It was a lot of pressure,” she says, but continuing to smile as though it was a challenge she clearly relished.
      Steinhaus’ performance received widespread approval, but the attention she drew for her second match between Schalke and Mainz was, it’s fair to say, altogether different.
      “Nobody cared,” she laughs. “Nobody was really interested, it was like a mini note in the media.
      “That showed me it’s accepted, people accept a good quality referee no matter what sex, no matter what size, no matter what background, what religion, what culture.
      “If you have the quality and if you have the passion to do your job as best as you can then doors are open. And that’s what we want for the beauty of the game.”

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      Sexism on the pitch

      Steinhaus’ Bundesliga breakthrough in Germany should not be underestimated. This is the same organization, after all, that still banned women from taking part in football as recently as the 1950s.
      Germany’s female equivalent of the Bundesliga, the Allianz Frauen-Bundesliga, is now one of the most organized and competitive leagues in the women’s game.
      No country can boast as many Champions League winners, with Frankfurt, Turbine Potsdam, Wolfsburg and Duisburg having won the competition a total of nine times. Frankfurt hold the joint all-time record of four along with Lyon.
        Though Steinhaus, Germany and football as a whole are making steps forwards — she is keen to emphasize that every fourth official in the group stages of the recent Under-17 World Cup was female — sexism inevitably still persists.
        One Spanish newspaper recently wrote an article about Karolina Bojar, a Polish referee officiating in her country’s men’s youth league.
        The headline read: “Karolina Bojar, Europe’s sexiest referee is a Barcelona fan.” This of a woman who, as well as refereeing, is a law student and an accomplished 800m and 1,500m runner.
        Steinhaus herself has been subjected to sexism while on the field of play.
          In 2015, during a second division game in Germany, she sent off Fortuna Dusseldorf’s Kerem Demirbay for two “reckless” yellow cards.
          Upon receiving his red card, Demirbay turned to Steinhaus and told her: “Women have no place in men’s football.”

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          She filed the incident in her match report and Demirbay’s own club took disciplinary action against him, suspending him for five matches and making him referee a junior girls’ match.
          “If you’re not fine with women around you, you don’t have to play,” Steinhaus says matter-of-factly. “It’s your choice, right?
          “The federation is always promoting the game for male, for females, for youngsters and grassroots. This is the way it should be and so that’s why I reported the comment.
          “If you think that way, you don’t belong on my football field.”
          Steinhaus was again in the news at the beginning of this season — before she had refereed her first Bundesliga match — in what was then the biggest game of her career.
          During Bayern Munich’s German Cup victory over Chemnitzer, winger Franck Ribery, while bending over to put the ball on the ground, untied Steinhaus’ shoelaces.
          The Frenchman had never before or has never since done the same to a male referee. It is put to Steinhaus that this prank could be seen as a sign of disrespect, though she disagrees.
          “I would handle the situation with Franck Ribery again in the way that I did,” she explains.
          “Because it didn’t feel like he wanted to underestimate my respect as a referee. It felt more like a great love, like a sign to say: ‘Welcome to the Bundesliga’ and that is the way I took it.”

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          Referee by day, officer by night

          Alongside her job as a Bundesliga referee, Steinhaus also works as a police officer.
          She says certain aspects of the two jobs complement each other well.
          “Two teams discussing one situation, they are not actually on the same page and you have to manage the situation,” is the way she describes it.
          However, her new found fame means she can no longer patrol on the streets and is now based in an office.
          “People stopped me and wanted to talk about offsides,” she laughs.
          Steinhaus is inherently humble but incidents like these serve as a reminder of how far she has come since she first decided she wanted to become an official.
          Growing up, her father was a referee, too, and an “inspiration” in her early career, though that wasn’t the only reason she decided to pursue the profession.
          “I understood pretty fast that … I’m not a very successful football player,” she quips. “So I picked up the whistle and just gave it a try.”
          It was important, she believes, for her dad to teach her from an early age that not everything in football is positive, which may explain how she was able to deal with Dermibay’s sexism so calmly.

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          “He definitely showed me what to expect as a referee,” she says.
          “There are not only good sides of the game, so that’s a message I want to give out to everybody that’s involved in football: Just treat each other with respect.”
          From local amateur games, women’s football and through the ranks to the highest level, there isn’t much Steinhaus hasn’t seen.
          The full-time, professional Bundesliga referee sounds just as enthusiastic about her profession as the amateur who just refereed for fun all those years ago.
          “I still think it’s the best occupation in the world,” she says, again smiling broadly.
          “So I have the passion and I just love what I’m doing and so I continued doing it and progressed over the years, from one level to the next and this … kind of guided me to the Bundesliga.”

          Enjoying the moment

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          Steinhaus agrees that it’s fair to say most kids dream of becoming footballers, and far fewer dream of becoming referees.
          They are forced to make split-second decisions, which are then scrutinized relentlessly by fans, managers and players, who usually make their judgments with the benefit of television replays.
          But now she is in the limelight and a role model to many — a “beautiful” position to be in but one, she admits, that also brings “pressure” — what advice would Steinhaus give the young girls and boys who can picture themselves in the middle of the pitch wearing black?
          “If you want to be part of this beautiful game and if you find your way to refereeing, grab the opportunity, go for it, take the whistle,” she says, repeatedly punching her fist into her palm.
          “It was one of the best decisions in my life. You’re working under the pressure of everybody looking at you thinking: ‘Oh, I can do that better,’ so you have to prove your quality in every game.
          “It’s a big challenge every game and it’s just beautiful when you leave the pitch knowing you performed the best you can.”

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          After having made history in Germany and with Russia 2018 on the horizon, is the World Cup the next logical step in Steinhaus’ career? She insists she isn’t thinking that far ahead.
          “The next step for is staying healthy, not getting injured, enjoy every game as much as you can,” she says.
          “Because you never know how long refereeing lasts — you never know how long your career as a sports person lasts. So I’m really happy, grateful, and thankful for what I’ve achieved and I enjoy the moment.”

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