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Bibiana Steinhaus: Overcoming resistance

Mathias von Lieben
September 8, 2017

Bibiana Steinhaus became the first female to referee in the Bundesliga when she officiated a game on Sunday. Steinhaus has waited a long time for her chance and has had to overcome plenty of hurdles along the way.

Bundesliga -  Hertha BSC Berlin vs SV Werder Bremen - Schiedsrichterin Bibiana Steinhaus
Image: picture alliance/dpa/S. Stache

"This is a milestone for female referees. I hope it will become normal," said Bibiana Steinhaus on her first appearance on Germany's biggest free-to-air sports show in 2007. Then 28, she had made history a day earlier in German football when she became the first woman to referee a professional men's game. The media reported on the matter for weeks and the invitation to appear on TV soon followed. Steinhaus was relaxed, smiled and spoke calmly and eloquently. Welcome to the big time.

Almost exactly 10 years afterwards on August 19, 2017, Steinhaus received another invitation to appear on the same show. Once again, her invitation was a moment marking history. Steinhaus became the first female to officiate a Bundesliga game - Hertha Berlin's home clash against Werder Bremen. By the time the German FA decided to give Steinhaus her top-flight debut, the 38-year-old thought the chance had passed. But then came the call from the head of the DFB's referees, Lutz Michael Fröhlich. "I heard his words on the phone. I didn't believe him. It was a rollercoaster of emotions," Steinhaus said. That rollercoaster journey is over - Steinhaus has arrived at her destination.

"The Bundesliga will be a completely different proposition than the second division. She's at the top of Mount Everest. There's no protection anymore. It's going to be windy and icy," former FIFA referee Urs Meier told DW. Meier has known Steinhaus for a while and has been following her career over the years. "She will be more critically observed than her male colleagues, by everyone - media, fans and players. But she's prepared."

Steinhaus has been waiting for this moment for years. Aged 14, she played as a defender for her home club SV Bad Lauterberg (south of Hanover). "I was pretty ungifted," Steinhaus said. Thanks to this playing time and support from the club's referee, Steinhaus tried her hand at refereeing. At first she refereed women's amateur games in neighboring villages. It wasn't long before she refereed at a higher standard and the German FA began to take notice. At the same time as Steinhaus began to rise up the leagues, so did the resistance from the patriarchal football parts of the football world.

Resistance from above

"Women should not referee women's games. Men's games belong to male referees," Wolfgang Sandhowe, the manager of fourth-division side SV Babelsberg said in 2002 after a 22-year-old Steinhaus officiated one of his team's league games.

Urs Meier, Fußball Schiedsrichter 2004
Former FIFA referee Urs Meier has been following Steinhaus' careerImage: picture-alliance/Pressefoto Ulmer/A. Schaad

Steinhaus wasn't interested. "She was always very positive and relaxed with such matters," Meier said. "If you counterattack or take on the role of the victim, that hardens the attacks. With her manner, the 38-year-old has weakened her opponents and done everything right."

Steinhaus has already been named Germany's female referee of the year six times, has refereed 80 second-division games. She's been at women's international tournaments since 2009 - most recently at the women's European Championships in the Netherlands.

She has met resistance though. In Decemeber 2015, she sent off Kerim Demirbay - a Fortuna Düsseldorf player at the time. He responded with words to the effect of: women have no place in men's football. She wrote a report, Demirbay was banned for five games.

In the first round of the German Cup this season, Bayern Munich winger Franck Ribery undid Steinhaus' shoelace before he took a freekick. Some saw a disrespectful act of sexism. Steinhaus laughed. "It felt like a welcome gesture to me. I didn't have the feeling that he did so with an ulterior motive," she said. Perfectly played, again.

Deutschland Fußball Schiedsrichterin Bibiana Steinhaus
Kerem Demirbay was sent off for saying words to the effect of women had no place in footballImage: picture-alliance/Voelker/Eibner-Pressefoto

Steinhaus has trained harder than before

In preparation for the new season, she worked more meticulously than ever before. Steinhaus wants to be prepared, especially for the difficult stretches. She completed training on mental coaching in both of the last two years on top of her usual training and that has helped her self motivation. Steinhaus also gets feedback from her partner Howard Webb, the former English referee who, like Steinhaus, is also a policeman.

Only when Lutz Michael Fröhlich took over as the head of German referees did Steinhaus get her chance. "Fröhlich made sure she was nominated," said Urs Meier, but he wasn't the only one. Manchester City and Germany midfielder Ilkay Gündogan posted on Twitter: "A new chapter always needs someone brave enough to write it. You have my respect Mrs. Steinhaus."

Steinhaus never wanted to walk the path of emancipation, but she said to the Süddeutsche Zeitung in May:  "I still have to deal with that because there are people around for whom it is a topic."

"Let's assume, there's a second game"

Bibiana Steinhaus knows that, from now on, she will be under great observation and will face more resistance. Some see her as a fighter for a societal development. Steinhaus is as relaxed as ever. "Let's see how it goes. You have to face the competition. It's like that everywhere. Let's assume there's a second game."

It's realistic to assume there'll be a second Bundesliga game. Urs Meier doesn't believe she'll referee a men's international, but if she does she can expect a third invitation to Germany's biggest sports show.