Football: Reluctant referee Yamashita on brink of World Cup history

Japanese referee Yoshimi Yamashita during the AFC Cup match between Myanmar’s Yangon United and Cambodia's Naga World on May 19, 2022. AFP

TOKYO - Yoshimi Yamashita had to be “dragged along” to officiate her first match – now she’s making history as one of the first women referees at a men’s World Cup.

The 36-year-old Japanese is one of three women on the list of 36 referees for Qatar, alongside France’s Stephanie Frappart and Rwanda’s Salima Mukansanga.

Her appointment in May marked the latest milestone in her fast-rising career, after becoming the first woman to take charge of an Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League match the previous month.

Yamashita said she felt “pride and responsibility” after being chosen for Qatar, where there will also be three women - Neuza Back of Brazil, Mexico’s Karen Diaz Medina and Kathryn Nesbitt of the United States - for the first time among 69 assistant referees.

She first picked up a whistle at the insistence of university friend Makoto Bozono, who also went on to become an international referee and was an assistant at the 2019 Women’s World Cup.

Yamashita was reluctant at first but she was hooked by the experience.

“Bozono half-dragged me along to a game and that was how I started,” she said.

“When you do one game, it makes you want to do it again better. You think of all the things you should be doing.”

Yamashita, who became Japan’s first woman professional referee in August, realised she “might be able to make a contribution to women’s football in Japan” when she began to take charge of matches at higher levels.

She became an international referee in 2015 and officiated at the Under-17 Women’s World Cup in Jordan in 2016 and again two years later in Uruguay.

In 2019, she stepped up to senior level at the Women’s World Cup in France alongside Bozono and fellow Japanese official Naomi Teshirogi.

The trio broke new ground the same year when they became the first all-female team to officiate a men’s match in the AFC Cup, Asia’s second-tier club competition.

They then took charge of an Asian Champions League match in 2022, and Yamashita says there is more to do.

“I have a responsibility to use all the experience I pick up from matches and tournaments and keep aiming higher,” she said.

“Of course that builds confidence and also adds to my responsibilities. I want to use all of that to prepare for the World Cup.”

Before signing her professional contract with the Japan Football Association, Yamashita was a part-time fitness instructor and she seldom takes days off from training.

But she insists she is “not really an outdoor person” and relaxes by watching TV, doing jigsaw puzzles and playing video games.

Yamashita became the first woman to take charge of a match in Japan’s professional J-League in May 2021, and she refereed a top-flight game for the first time in September.

She will be the only Japanese referee in Qatar – male or female – and she says she feels a “responsibility” to do well for her country.

She believes female referees have earned the right to be trusted with the whistle over a long period of time.

“If it hadn’t been for my colleagues building up that trust, I wouldn’t be going to the World Cup,” she said.

“I can’t destroy that trust – it’s a big responsibility but it’s one I’m happy to have. I will take the feeling of pride and responsibility as a Japanese heading into the tournament, and I will prepare to make it a success to the best of my abilities.”


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