Photo-illustration: Getty Images/CNN CNN —
There are many things from the evening in which she made history that Claudia Vasconcelos remembers well, but 32 years on and it’s the atmosphere inside the stadium in Guangzhou, China, that is etched most vividly in her mind.
“It was very surreal actually,” she recalls with a broad smile that never leaves her face. “It was a packed stadium … being in a stadium with that number of fans for women’s football was a great joy.”
On November 29, 1991, Vasconcelos became the first female referee to officiate an official FIFA World Cup match, taking charge of the Women’s World Cup third-place playoff between Sweden and Germany at the Guangdong Provincial Stadium.
Her historic achievement wouldn’t be recognized until sometime afterwards, however, as FIFA was reluctant to brand the tournament as a ‘World Cup’ over fears it wouldn’t be a success, initially calling it the not-quite-so-catchy ‘1st FIFA World Championship for Women’s Football for the M&M’s Cup.’
The world governing body’s hesitancy to fully commit was also reflected in the referee uniforms worn by Vasconcelos and her assistants, none of which had FIFA branding, instead displaying only the emblems of their own federations.
Claudia Vasconcelos lines up alongside Linda Black and Zuo Xiudi ahead of the 1991 third-place playoff Tommy Cheng/AFP/Getty Images
But the tournament quickly proved to be a roaring success and became a seminal moment for women’s soccer – in more ways than one.
In total, six female officials were appointed to games throughout the World Cup, including an all-female team for the third-place playoff comprised of Brazil’s Vasconcelos, Zuo Xiudi of China and New Zealand’s Linda Black.
With the trio lined up in the center circle ahead of kick off, Vasconcelos made sure to savor the moment. She looked up at the swathes of fans in the stand in front of her and let the sights and sounds of the occasion wash over her.
“It was very beautiful,” the Brazilian tells CNN Sport.
But, she says, she made sure not to forget why she was there. While the enormity of the occasion and her accomplishment remained at the forefront of her mind, she above all wanted to give the best possible account of herself as a referee.
Claudia Vasconcelos lining up with the teams before Argentina vs. Australia in 1995. Claudia Vasconcelos
Once she crossed the white line and blew her whistle, the emotion – which Vasconcelos say she felt with her “whole body” – quickly passed.
“I’ve always treated football refereeing in my games as if I were coming in to referee a World Cup final,” she says. “The excitement was cool before the ball rolled, but once the game starts, for me it’s a game like any other.
“It’s a game that I’m going into with complete seriousness, with all my attention, all my focus.”
That unwavering focus is evident in the pre-match photo taken of Vasconcelos, a steely determination etched on her face.
Though they start the match in the center of the pitch, the last thing any good referee wants to be is the center of attention – and Vasconcelos and her assistants got through the match without a single moment of controversy.
Claudia Vasconcelos refereeing during the 1991 third-place playoff. Chen guo/Imaginechina/AP
‘We didn’t expect this’
In 1941, the Brazilian government pushed through a decree that said females would not be allowed to practice sports “incompatible with the conditions of their nature. ”
Vasconcelos says she decided she wanted to become a referee in 1983, just four years after the ban on women playing soccer in Brazil was lifted.
That same year, an organized women’s league in her home city of Rio de Janeiro was launched. A year later, she was officiating in the league’s matches.
Vasconcelos was soon taking charge of men’s youth matches and eventually senior men’s matches, and by the time the 1991 World Cup rolled around she was the preeminent female official in Brazil.
Initially, Vasconcelos recalls, there was no indication that she or the other five female officials who had been called up to the tournament as lineswomen would get the chance to referee one of the matches.
Claudia Vasconcelos officiating a match between Argentina and Australia in 1995. Claudia Vasconcelos
It wasn’t until after the opening match, in which she and an assistant from Mexico took part, that FIFA informed her she would be leading an all-female team for the third-place playoff.
“It was a very big surprise,” she says, sounding no less excited at the prospect over three decades later. “We didn’t expect this to happen.”
Seated in the dressing room in the bowels of the Guangdong Provincial Stadium, everything Vasconcelos had gone through to get to this historic occasion played over in her head. The journey had been far from easy.
The now 60-year-old says she faced discrimination and a lack of support from within Brazilian football, which she says later contributed to her retirement from refereeing at the age of 37.
“I had my career very damaged by that,” she says, highlighting a lack of opportunities to officiate the biggest teams.
She also bemoaned bans she would receive for speaking out against local corruption in what she says was a deliberate attempt to stifle her career development.
Had the importance of the evening not sunk in yet for Vasconcelos, a member of FIFA’s referee committee made sure it did.
Ingrid Jonsson, a lineswoman in the 1991 World Cup final, was the first female official chosen to referee a final. Matthew Ashton/EMPICS/PA Images/Getty Images
“He entered the dressing room to wish us a good game and asked me if I was aware that the game, that match, that my refereeing, would be the future of female refereeing,” she recalls him telling her.
“It was a lot of pressure because you’re going to enter the pitch and someone says to you: ‘Look, if you referee the game well, women’s refereeing will be successful. If you referee badly, you might not have it.’”
Vasconcelos’ performance caught the eye of those at the top of the sport and it wasn’t long before the adulation came flooding in.
She stayed in China until the final, where then FIFA president João Havelange, also a Brazilian, and Brazil great Pelé congratulated her in person.
“He [Pelé] watched the game and later, on the day of the final, he came to congratulate me and said that I had done an excellent job refereeing,” she recalled.
That night helped accelerate the progress of female officials. At the 1995 World Cup in Sweden, just four years later, seven of the 12 officials designated to the tournament were women and Sweden’s Ingrid Jonsson, a lineswoman in the 1991 World Cup final, became the first female official chosen to referee a final.
By 1999, all the officials chosen for the World Cup in the USA were women.
Fast forward to this day and the likes of Stéphanie Frappart, or the now retired Bibiana Steinhaus, have taken charge of men’s games, while Premier League assistant Sian Massey-Ellis is a common sight in the English top flight.
Claudia Vasconcelos refereeing Flamengo vs. Vasco in the 1994 junior Campeonato Carioca. Claudia Vasconcelos
Though the landscape of women’s refereeing has changed markedly in the 32 years since Vasconcelos made history in China, the trailblazer says the requirements needed to be a competent referee have remained the same.
“I think what matters is not the sex of the person, you know? What matters is competence.”