Football: Japan's female referee Yamashita ready for the big stage at Qatar World Cup

Yoshimi Yamashita has a growing resume, despite the odds stacked against women who remain a minority in the football arena. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO - Japanese referee Yoshimi Yamashita is all set for the big stage as she makes history at the World Cup in Qatar.

The 36-year-old is one of six women - three referees and three assistant referees - to be selected for the first time by world football governing body Fifa to officiate its flagship men's tournament from Nov 20 to Dec 18.

There are 129 match officials in all, with Yamashita the only Japanese. Singapore is represented by video match official Taqi Aljaafari Jahari, 34.

"The fact that women can officiate men's World Cup games for the first time is a message that the potential for women is ever increasing," Yamashita told an online press briefing organised by the Foreign Press Centre Japan on Thursday.

"I do understand that there may be differences between men and women in terms of fitness and physical stamina. But in everything other than those areas, we are the same," she said.

As such, gender is not at all an issue if a female referee proves to have the "physical endurance to be able to officiate at the level that is required".

She added: "To be a good referee, one must love football, one must be sincere and one must be methodological."

Still, Yamashita admitted that refereeing men's World Cup games was never a goal for her - but only because she had never believed that there would be a possibility.

The other women officials are referees Stephanie Frappart (France) and Salima Mukansanga (Rwanda), as well as assistant referees Neuza Back (Brazil), Karen Diaz (Mexico) and Kathryn Nesbitt (United States).

This is a major first step towards it becoming a norm for women to officiate at men's games, she said, adding: "For this to happen, I feel a strong pressure that I need to win the trust of audiences."

Not that she is at all cowered by the big stage.

Yamashita, whose first brush with football was at the age of four when she was influenced by her elder brother to kick a ball, decided at age 23 to follow in the footsteps of her senior Makoto Bozono, also an international referee.

She has a growing resume, despite the odds stacked against women who remain a minority in the football arena. She has officiated at the 2019 Women's World Cup and at last year's Tokyo Olympic Games.

She also became the first woman last year to officiate a match in the J.League - Japan's football league - as well as at the Asian Champions League this year.

"For every match that I take part in, I go in with confidence and have nothing to fear in any game," Yamashita said. "It is probably 0.1 per cent anxiety and 99.9 per cent expectation going into each game."

Yoshimi Yamashita officiating a match between Melbourne City and Jeonnam Dragons in the AFC Champions League on April 21, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

But she admitted that it takes a lot of hard work to attain nerves of steel and such a high level of confidence.

Physical fitness is but one element of her job. The other is mental, the ability to remain calm under pressure and make correct judgments quickly.

Stressing that every match is different, she said: "There are differences in tempo, the speed of the games, and depending on this us referees must be able to anticipate and make speedy decisions."

She prepares herself by watching videos of games, visualising herself refereeing the match to hone her ability to anticipate the next moves by footballers.

During a game, she pays attention to how a player runs and behaves, so as to anticipate the next movement.

She would also study collisions between players, including which body part is in contact and in what way and what intensity.

"These are the things that I am constantly thinking of, in coming to a decision based on the observations and based on the rules after an incident has happened," she said.

The video assistant referee (VAR) that has come with technology, she added, also plays a very important role in elevating the level of refereeing.

While Yamashita tried to steer clear of controversy during the media briefing, she weighed in on the infamous "Hand of God" goal scored by Argentinian football legend Diego Maradona against England at the 1986 World Cup quarter finals. He had handled the ball in scoring the goal en route to Argentina's 2-1 win.

"The 'Hand of God' goal wouldn't have taken place if VAR technology was available at that time, and so in a sense as a referee I find it a bit regretful," she said.

But when asked if she was concerned if women referees will be judged more harshly for wrong calls as compared to her male counterparts, she said that it was important to emphasise that all referees are human - and errors can be made by both genders.

While Japan is still largely a patriarchal society that has earned a bad reputation for its failure to address gender equality issues, Yamashita said that her road to get to where she is today has been rather smooth without difficulties or challenges.

"I'm very thankful for those who have been carving the path forward, and I understand that it is through their hard work that has enabled me to take the steps to get to where I am today," she said.

And the potential for younger women who want to follow her footsteps will only widen.

Her advice: "Don't think about the anxieties that you may face. Just work very hard in whatever comes in front of you and take positive steps forward."

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