In December, FIFA revealed the list of 27 referees and 48 assistant referees who would officiate at this year’s tournament. Three Australians were on it.
W-League referees Casey Reibelt and Kate Jacewicz will be two of the women in the middle, while A-League official Chris Beath will be a Video Assistant Referee (VAR).
Reibelt, 31, got her first taste of refereeing filling in as an assistant referee for her brother’s matches. She fell in love with the vocation after completing a refereeing course aged 15.
“My first reaction (on being selected for the Women’s World Cup), I’m not afraid to admit, involved a few tears,” she tells The World Game.
“It’s most definitely a dream come true. To be selected and given the opportunity is wonderful, and I’m looking forward to giving it everything I’ve got.”
The trio follow in the footsteps of other Australian football officials including Tammy Ogston, who refereed at the 1999, 2003 and 2007 Women’s World Cups. In 2007, Ogston became the first Australian – male or female – to referee the final of a World Cup.
Reibelt and Jacewicz were both identified as potential World Cup referees in 2016, when they were selected for the Women’s World Cup Candidates Program. Two of 10 referees selected from the Asian Football Confederation, the pair had their fitness monitored, received psychological analysis of match demeanour and were tested on the laws of the game.
Later that year, Reibelt refereed at the U-20 Women’s World Cup in Papua New Guinea, including a quarter-final match. While Jacewicz became the first Australian since Tammy Ogston to referee the final of a FIFA tournament. She was in charge for U-17 Women’s World Cup final in Jordan, between North Korea and Japan.
With the eyes of the world watching the showcase event in women’s football, FIFA is ensuring its officials are physically ready for the demands of keeping up with the world’s best players.
“We are fortunate enough that we are provided with programs from FIFA to cover all fitness aspects of an elite match official: speed, endurance, strength, agility, etcetera,” Reibelt says.
Mental and technical preparation is also crucial. While the physicality of the role is clearly different, Chris Beath, 34, says his preparation for a match where he is a VAR is “almost identical” to a match when he is on-field.
“I study the teams, their previous matches, team tactics, playing styles, key players and any other important factors,” he tells The World Game.
“We work very closely with the on-field team in terms of preparation to ensure we operate as effectively as possible. We also meet as a VAR Team (VAR1, VAR2, AVAR2 and the Technology Operators) to ensure that our VAR Team works as best we can.”
Reibelt says she will prepare mentally for a Women’s World Cup match as if it is any other match – even if it is likely the biggest of her career.
“I will try to keep my routines as much as possible,” she says.
“It’s important for us to trust everything we have done so far, and to show what we can do. We have the benefit of a large group as well as support staff, so some of the main differences would be our access to practical training which involve players, which is difficult to replicate back home.
“I like to listen to music before the match. If I feel really nervous, I will try to slow things down, and do some breathing exercises, and then get refocused on what I need to do that day.”
In the VAR Room it is a different type of pressure, but one Beath is used to. After refereeing two group games and a semi-final at the men’s Asian Cup earlier this year, Beath was the Assistant Video Assistant Referee (AVAR) for the final between Japan and Qatar.
“I've learnt to embrace the pressure as a part of the game. I really enjoy working in that type of environment,” he says.
“Often there can be more pressure with VAR as we work to the VAR philosophy of 'minimum interference - maximum benefit'. This can often be challenging as accuracy and speed don't always work hand in hand.”
With the A-League an early adopter of the VAR system, Beath was one of the first match officials in the world to become a qualified VAR.
However, the technology – which will be used at the Women’s World Cup for the first time – has not been free from controversy.
In the final of last year’s men’s World Cup, between France and Croatia, on-field referee Néstor Pitana gave France a debatable penalty after being alerted by the VAR. It was the first-ever World Cup final penalty awarded with the help of technology.
“I think VAR has changed football refereeing to some degree, however, it is important to note that it is just another tool that referees can use when required,” Beath says.
“VAR is making football cleaner and gives the officiating team a second chance at an important decision on the pitch. That said, the game still requires excellent referees regardless of the technology available.”
Even with the addition of VAR, those making the big decisions are human, so the odd mistake is inevitable.
“It’s not a nice feeling (to make a mistake on the pitch), but I try to put it into a box in my head and file it for later,” Reibelt says.
“I try to go back to basics, stay present and in the moment and make sure I’m ready for my next decision. Once a decision has been made, and play is restarted, I can’t change it, so I try not to think about it until after the match.”
She will soon be working on the world’s biggest stage for women’s football, but Reibelt is not a full-time match official. She juggles a full-time job teaching maths and physical education at a high school near Brisbane and says refereeing is a “part time passion for most in Australia”.
Usually focused on keeping teenagers in line, this month Reibelt will be in charge of the best players on the planet.
“I’ve always been someone who tried to push themselves,” she says.
“I think when you have a passion for something, as well as the mindset to learn and improve, it can take you anywhere.”