Professional Referee Bibiana Steinhaus: 'Football Has Changed To a Great Degree'

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As a policewoman and Germany's first female referee in the men's professional football league, Bibiana Steinhaus is used to maintaining order. The 32-year-old officiated this week at the US-North Korea game in the Women's World Cup. In an interview, she discusses the future of women in the sport.

Photo Gallery: German Soccer's 'First Lady' on the Field Photos
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Bibiana Steinhaus is a tough person to reach this week. Punch her number into your phone and the best you're likely to get is her voicemail. And what a message. "You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can, and will, be used against you in the court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you can't afford one, then please leave a message after the tone."

Steinhaus' voicemail greeting is fitting given her professions. Both as a police officer and as a professional soccer referee, her responsibility is to "monitor and ensure that rules and laws are being obeyed, and that people aren't trying to make them themselves," she once told SPIEGEL.

This week, Steinhaus was been responsible for refereeing the USA-North Korea game at the Women's World Cup played in Dresden. She is the lone German referee at the this year's World Cup and she isn't afraid of tough matches or decisions. "I just want to do a good job," she says, just like the players. Steinhaus also discards any notion of getting the chance to referee at the closing game. "I'm not even thinking about it, because I am hoping that the German team will be in the final."

At just 32, Steinhaus has been involved in football for much of her life. As a girl, she says, she was "almost talentless" on the pitch as a defender. At 16, she decided to stick with the sport, but instead of continuing as a player she became a referee. First, she blew the whistle in matches in her hometown in Germany's Harz region. Later, she refereed in the women's regional league, and in 2007 she became the first female referee in the second tier of Germany's professional football league, the Bundesliga. Steinhaus now has her sights set even higher.

The 'First Lady' of German Referees

After finishing high school, the "First Lady" of German referees, as Steinhaus is often called, completed training to become a police officer. As a member of the police force, her assignments have often been for events that make as many headlines as the Women's World Cup, such as ensuring public order as nuclear waste is transported across Germany or at the 2007 G-8 summit at Heligendamm. Steinhaus is still a police commissioner in the state of Lower Saxony, and she even had to put in overtime so she could get enough time off to referee at the Women's World Cup.

Steinhaus doesn't like to discuss her double life as a police officer and a referee because she wants to ensure that she always comes across as neutral, and does not want to open herself up to criticism. She has in the past, however, drawn some parallels between the two careers. "You have to acquire expertise, internalize it and use it in accordance with the law and make decisions," she wrote on a police academy website.

Steinhaus spoke to SPIEGEL ONLINE in an interview during her preparations for the Women's World Cup currently being hosted by Germany.


SPIEGEL ONLINE: Ms. Steinhaus, having already served as a referee at the U-20 World Cup in Thailand and the World Military Cup in India, is the Women's World Cup, a tournament with matches in small German cities like Sinsheim and Augsburg, really all that interesting for you?

Steinhaus: Yes, it is something special. I know the stadiums and the cities. And our families and friends have the opportunity to watch the games in the stadiums, live and without any time delay. Excitement has been building among Germans for weeks now about hosting the Women's World Cup.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You mean the media reports with their often patronizing tone, such as, 'Look, women can also play football.'

Steinhaus: The teams that have qualified have already proven their abilities. We shouldn't have to constantly stress that anymore.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: As a referee in the second league Bundesliga, you are used to refereeing in front of tens of thousands of people. The games in the women's professional football league, though, often draw in as few as 800 spectators …

Steinhaus: I don't like to open that can of worms because I don't think the comparison is fair to either men's or women's football. I think it is great that in May the referee's commission provided me with the opportunity to lead a sold-out game in Berlin [a men's second league game between Berlin's Hertha BSC and Augsburg]. That was a great bridge to the opening of the Women's World Cup. And the opening game of the German team also sold out, with 74,000 spectators filling Berlin's Olympic Stadium.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Which pleases you, of course.

Steinhaus: Women's soccer has developed incredibly in recent years and that is evident at this World Cup. Similar developments are taking place throughout the soccer world. Of the 80,000 referees in Germany, 3,000 are now women. Only a few years ago, there were half that many. I wish many girls and young women would also follow the path to becoming referees. I can only say that becoming a referee has been one of the best decisions I have made in my life.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How would you describe your style?

Steinhaus: I believe that I am predictable and that I formulate my expectations quite strongly before the game so that everyone knows what they are. I sometimes work by making appeals, at other times with tough words, and, at times, simply with body language.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: When they hear your name, most people consider you to be extremely tough, because they can't imagine how you would have made it as the only female referee in German men's professional football otherwise.

Steinhaus: Me, extremely tough? I am nowhere near the only woman working in men's soccer. All of the female referees and line referees working at the Women's World Cup are part of men's or women's football in their home countries. We have one colleague who works in Italy's Serie A top-tier professional league and another who works for Major League Soccer in the United States.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And Germany? You yourself recently learned that you would not be rising up to the Bundesliga premier league this year.

Steinhaus: I am concentrating fully on the Women's World Cup right now. The fact is that two of my female colleagues are already refereeing in the regional league and another colleague will be promoted next season. As you can see, things are progressing. And the only thing the players care about is how well they do on the field. They don't care whether it is a man or a woman blowing the whistle.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: That might come as a surprise to a lot of television viewers. There is hardly a film or crime show in which football is not portrayed as a misogynistic, sexist and homophobic game played by Neanderthals.

Steinhaus: Yeah, it's strange. And despite that, there has been progress in the media as well. The idea of women playing in what are traditionally men's sports is no longer news today. In recent years, football has changed to a great degree. It is increasingly becoming a cross-cultural event for all of society. It is no longer just men's football. It is women's football, youth soccer -- it encompasses everything.

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