When a referee generates column inches, it is usually an indictment of their performance; the result of an uproar after a controversial decision.
But Stéphanie Frappart’s traditional anonymity has been broken for another reason – she will make history on Thursday as the first woman to referee a men’s World Cup match.
Along with assistants Neuza Back of Brazil and Karen Diaz of Mexico, the Frenchwoman will form part of a trio of referees who will officiate only for Costa Rica against Germany in their Group E match.
Six female match officials served at this World Cup – referees Frappart, Rwanda’s Salima Mukansanga and Japan’s Yoshimi Yamashita as well as assistant referees Back, Diaz and Kathryn Nesbitt from the USA.
FIFA announced their appointment in May, when Frappart learned she was going to the 2022 Qatar World Cup.
“It’s a surprise, you can’t believe it and after two or three minutes you realize you’re going to the World Cup. It’s unbelievable, not only for me, but also for my family and also for the French referees,” she tells CNN Sport.
Throughout her career, Frappart achieved a seemingly endless string of firsts.
In 2019, she became the first female referee to take charge of a Ligue 1 match, in August 2019 the first to take charge of a major men’s European match, and in 2020, the first to take charge of a men’s Officiating UEFA Champions League match.
“I knew that my life had changed after 2019 because most people recognized me on the street,” recalls Frappart.
“So I’m like a role model for women referees, but I think that [also] inspired some women in society or in companies to take more and more responsibility.”
Already at this World Cup, Frappart has been the fourth official on two occasions – becoming the first female official at a men’s World Cup match against Mexico against Poland. Mukasanga and Yamashita were also the fourth official at two and four matches respectively of this World Cup.
But there is an obvious tension between these historic moments for gender equality in football and the place in which they are taking place, as women’s rights are severely curtailed in Qatar.
According to Amnesty International, women remain tied to a male guardian in Qatar – usually their father, brother, grandfather, uncle or husband – and require their consent for important decisions such as marriage, access to reproductive healthcare and employment in many government jobs.
CNN reached out to the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy (SC) for comment, but had not received a response at the time of publication.
“I have been to Qatar many times… for the preparation of the World Cup, I have always been welcomed in a good way. I don’t know what life is like there, but I haven’t made the decision to go there or to organize the World Cup,” says Frappart.
“So now, 10 years later, it’s hard to say anything, but I hope that … this World Cup will improve life for women there.”
At the World Cup, on soccer’s biggest stage, the pressure to referee a match is at its most intense.
A referee can make 245 decisions in a single match, Sky Sports estimates, and if just one is wrong, it will be analyzed in microscopic detail.
It can change the course of a match, or even a team’s World Cup tournament – denying it a title or ensuring it doesn’t progress further in the tournament.
“When you make a mistake, it’s more important than when a player makes a mistake – there are more consequences for the teams,” says Frappart. “It’s also easy to say that it’s the referee’s fault and not our team’s fault, so when you lose.”
As referees work their way up to the highest level of the game, this pressure changes.
“It’s more of the media and [about] the money because you know that every decision is important and will make a difference for the team,” says Frappart. “But when you start in the local clubs, it’s more difficult with the spectators and with the environment.”
Female referees are inevitably also scrutinized as they straddle two traditionally male-dominated fields: football and leadership.
“There were a lot of questions involved if she’s there because she’s a woman, maybe she won’t follow the game and everything,” Frappart recalled when she made her Ligue 1 debut.
“It’s not just in football, but I think in every job if you’re a woman … you have to prove that you have the quality and then they let you go on.”
But as Frappart judged more matches, the attitude towards her changed.
“Now, it’s not a matter of gender. Now it’s just a question about steel, [about] powers. So now it’s ok, after one or two games they left me alone and without any media around.”
When Frappart first started playing soccer in 1993 at the age of ten, women’s soccer had barely registered as a significant landmark on the sporting landscape.
The first edition of the Women’s World Cup had been held just two years before, with great success in China, but there was neither a Champions League for women in Europe nor a National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) in the USA and professional female referees did not exist.
It wasn’t until 2017 when Bibiana Steinhaus took charge of a Bundesliga game that a woman took charge of a top-level men’s league game.
Frappart’s appointment as a referee at a men’s World Cup is another step forward in a “very sexist sport,” Costa Rica manager Luis Fernando said, according to Reuters.
“It’s very difficult to reach the point she’s reached, I think it’s good for football and a positive step for football, to show that it’s opening up for everyone,” he added.
Similarly, in Rwanda, Mukansanga recalls never seeing a female referee to use as a role model for her own aspirations.
“I worked hard and followed the men’s dreams because they were the people who surrounded me,” she tells CNN Sport.
“They are all men. We had one World Cup referee here in Rwanda who went to the World Cup twice, so he inspired me a lot and I worked hard to be like him.”
With women refereeing and the matches at the Qatar World Cup being broadcast to huge audiences worldwide, Frappart hopes it will encourage more women to pick up a whistle.
This change is already starting to happen – in the UK alone there has been a 72% increase in qualified female referees between 2016 and 2020, according to the FA.
“So if you have more referees on TV, it might be easier for women to say, okay, it’s possible. Because if you don’t know if it’s possible for us, you can’t say: ‘Okay, I want to be a referee’.”