‘Great pride’: Yamashita excited to make World Cup referee breakthrough

Yoshimi Yamashita, one of three women who will become the first female referees to officiate at a men’s World Cup in Qatar, said on Thursday she hoped to inspire girls in the region to become match officials, but declined to comment on the host nation’s poor record on gender equality.

Asked whether she felt conflicted about refereeing in a country that has drawn criticism for its treatment of women and members of the LGBT+ community, Yamashita said the tournament could encourage a change in attitudes in Qatar and other parts of the region. “There are hardly any female referees in the Middle East, so I would like to see that change, with the Qatar World Cup as the catalyst.

“The fact that women are officiating for the first time at a men’s World Cup is a sign to other people that women’s potential is always growing and that is something I also feel strongly about.”

In a breakthrough for gender equality in football, Fifa announced in May that Yamashita, Stéphanie Frappart of France and Rwanda’s Salima Mukansanga were among 36 referees on the list for Qatar in November and December.

In another first, they will be joined by Neuza Back of Brazil, Mexico’s Karen Díaz Medina and Kathryn Nesbitt from the US, who were named among 69 assistant referees for the tournament.

“I didn’t think it would ever be possible to officiate men’s games, so the World Cup wasn’t in my thoughts,” said Yamashita, who officiated at the 2019 Women’s World Cup and last summer’s Tokyo Olympics. Last year she became the first woman to referee a men’s game in Japan’s J-League and this year was the first to take charge of Asian Champions League games.

“As a Japanese person and as a woman, I feel a great pride and responsibility on my shoulders, so I’ll do my best at the World Cup.”

The 36-year-old would not be drawn on which matches she would like to officiate, but said she would take the same approach as she has since being registered as an international referee seven years ago. “I wouldn’t say being a woman has been an advantage or a disadvantage,” said Yamashita, 80 days before the tournament’s opener between Qatar and Ecuador. “I can honestly say that I have never received sexist abuse on the field because I am a woman.

“And as a referee, I don’t see any difference between men’s and women’s football. I want it to be seen as perfectly normal for women to referee men’s games, so what is happening in Qatar needs to continue. I feel a certain amount of pressure to win everyone’s trust.”

Yamashita, whose first kickabout was with her elder brother when she was four years old, said she hoped the recent explosion in interest in women’s football would extend to refereeing.“I want to tell young girls who are interested in becoming referees that our potential is growing,” she said.

“I am able to do what I do because I know there are girls who want to follow in my footsteps. I would say to them, don’t feel anxious, just work very hard at what is right in front of you.”