As the 2020/21 W-League season reaches its conclusion, thoughts are now turning to Australia’s preparations for some of football’s biggest upcoming tournaments: the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, the 2022 Asian Cup, the 2023 Women’s World Cup and the 2024 Paris Olympics.
But Australia’s top women players aren’t the only ones hoping to step out onto the grass in Japan, India, Australia/New Zealand and France over the next four years.
The country’s best women referees have also been using the W-League as a platform to be noticed by football’s governing bodies as they aspire to officiate at the very same tournaments.
On Wednesday, it was announced that all six of the referees for this Sunday’s W-League grand final would be women, with Rebecca Durcau being chosen as the centre referee.
She will be joined by assistants Laura Moya and Lauren Hargrave, and additional assistants Lara Lee and Isabella Blaess, while veteran assistant Sarah Ho will be the fourth official.
Of this group, Ho is the most experienced referee when it comes to major tournaments, having officiated at three Women’s World Cups (2007, 2011, 2015).
Earlier this year, Ho was one of four Australian women referees selected as candidates to officiate at the 2023 Women’s World Cup, alongside Kate Jacewicz, Casey Reibelt and Joanna Charaktis.
“Refereeing has afforded me opportunities that I would never have had without it,” Ho told ABC.
“I’ve travelled to many countries and made friends all over the world. It’s also been an enormously rewarding way of being involved in football at the highest levels — World Cups and Olympic Games.
“I love refereeing at an elite level and my goal is to be an assistant referee at the 2023 Women’s World Cup. the challenge of being good enough to be selected … is what motivates me every day to train hard, work on my knowledge of the Laws of the Game, and improve with each match.”
While pathways and opportunities for Australia’s top women referees have improved, they – like many of the players – must still juggle their football with other careers to help make ends meet.
“My full-time job is as a high school teacher: I’m a permanent teacher at Blacktown Girls High School as well as a FIFA assistant referee,” Ho said.
“There is enormous sacrifice that goes along with refereeing at an elite level including injury management, being able to find and keep a supportive job, not being eligible for promotions due to the amount of leave required each year, guilt when leaving my students to referee, missing family and friends’ birthdays and weddings, not being able to have a social life, not being able to have children.
While Sunday’s all-women refereeing panel is a far cry from when Ho started over 20 years ago, she says women referees still face a number of barriers that their male colleagues do not.
“I have experienced sexist remarks from people in the game ranging from simple remarks to threats of sexual violence and abuse,” Ho said.
“Usually these have come from spectators and there’s very little that can be done about it from a refereeing point of view.
“I wish the Australian public knew that most officials in the A-League and all officials in the W-League are full-time working people who balance their job with the increasing demands of elite level refereeing as well as their family commitments.
One assistant referee hoping to follow in Ho’s footsteps is Joanna Charaktis. The 27-year old was shocked when she got the call that she was joining Ho, as well as her mentors Jacewicz and Reibelt, on FIFA’s long-list for the 2023 Women’s World Cup.
“I wasn’t planning for 2023 at all; I didn’t think it was on the cards,” Charaktis said.
“2019 was when I got my first FIFA badge … that made me think there was not a chance in the world that anyone would think I’d be a candidate because I was too green and there were so many people ahead of me. I thought I was just a write-off.
“But the stars align sometimes and you’re in the right place at the right time; you have a couple of tournaments where you prove yourself in front of selectors and you get lucky.”
With the increasing visibility of the W-League, every game that referees like Charaktis participate in matters even more in terms of selection for future tournaments – they never know when FIFA might be watching.
“It puts the pressure on you to perform anywhere; anywhere you’re doing a game, even a friendly,” Charaktis said.
“I don’t know how [FIFA] get hold of these games, I assume they can get hold of whatever they want, so you need to be performing well all the time.
“That’s what you feel nervous about: you don’t want to be noticed, so you make sure you do everything right so you avoid being in the spotlight.”
Ironically, while a good refereeing performance is often one that nobody notices, Charaktis says that visibility and representation of women referees still matters – just as it does for aspiring women players.
“It’s funny, I feel like I’ve refereed through a big transformation for women’s football from when I first started,” Charaktis said.
“If you look at Kate [Jacewicz] now in the A-League, that was never a thing; there weren’t a lot of women in men’s football. It does make a difference when you do have more women out there refereeing.
“In Victoria, we need to make sure we have that representation because we have a high drop-off rate; they do need to feel supported.
“There’s so much that can await you down the track. I never thought I’d get to do any of what I’ve done and what I might get to do in the future – to be a World Cup candidate – if I’d stopped.
“It’s important that we’re out there and the more they see us, the more they hopefully want to do what we do as well.”
You can watch Sunday’s W-League grand final between Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory from 4pm AEST on ABC TV and live or by catch up on iView.