Women’s Football is rapidly becoming one of the fastest growing female sports. With new levels of funding, coverage and support being shown towards this side of the game, we look to continue this trend. Girls Football Week runs from 6 Nov – 12 Nov and amongst our ambitions to raise further awareness for this side of the game along with increasing participation levels, we bring you the first of our detailed profiles examining key figures in the women’s game. This time we focus on Bibiana Steinhaus – the first female referee to officiate in the men’s Bundesliga.
The 38-year-old, commonly known as Bibi, was born and raised in Bad Lauterberg to a refereeing father whom inspired her to follow in his footsteps. But it wasn’t always the path she was destined to choose. For a number of years, Steinhaus was a footballer for SV Bad Lauterberg. She is also a qualified chief inspector in the police force which she juggled alongside officiating her first men’s game in 1999 at the tender age of just 20-years-old.
It was also during this year after becoming a referee of the club MTV Engelbostel-Schulenburg that she began officiating on the DFB – Germany’s FA – and overseeing Frauen-Bundesliga matches (Female Bundesliga).
In 2001, she moved to officiate games in the Regionalliga, the formerly-disbanded German second-tier that now resided as the fourth tier of men’s football in Germany. Bibiana would taste the biggest success of her career to that date in 2003 when she was assigned as the main referee for the DFB-Pokal der Frauen Final between 1. FFC Frankfurt & FCR 2001 Duisburg.
Since 2005, Steinhaus has been an internationally FIFA-registered referee which has allowed her various opportunities both in the male and female sides of the sport.
After years of hard work and professionalism across various levels of the game, she was promoted to the men’s 2. Bundesliga in 2007 making her the first female referee in German professional football. The 07-08 campaign also presented another momentous achievement after she was the fourth official for a men’s Bundesliga game earning her the achievement of being the first female referee to do so.
She was then selected for the 2008 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup, 2009 UEFA Women’s Euros and 2010 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup which strengthened her status as one of the most dominant officials in the global game.
However, in October 2010, she found herself in the headlines after Hertha Berlin player Peter Niemeyer accidentally touched her breast. Niemeyer meant to give her a pat on the shoulder after a decision and simply missed. The German tabloids made the most of the moment but Steinhaus didn’t allow the coverage to negatively affect her.
She was also chosen as one of 16 referees to officiate at the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup. She refereed two group stage matches before being selected to oversee the evenly-contested final between Japan and the United States.
A year later Steinhaus was selected to officiate the women’s football gold medal match at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London which was a game also played between Japan and the US.
She has simultaneously maintained a somewhat low-profile while gaining admiration amongst the footballing community for her resilience and ability to defy all expectations. In October 2014, another incident saw her gaining some unwanted media attention.
During a heavily-contested 0-0 draw between Bayern Munich and Borussia Monchengladbach, manager of Munich at the time, Pep Guardiola, became incredibly animated on the touchline. Steinhaus, who was acting as fourth official for the game, found herself subjected to the Spanish man placing his arm around her shoulder condescendingly whilst gesticulating wildly towards the pitch.
In a moment like this, Steinhaus’ expert conduct proved a real testament to her credibility as an official after she removed his arm in one swift movement while keeping her eyes focused on the game.
She then found herself making headlines again in February 2015 when Fortuna Dusseldorf midfielder Kerem Demirbay displayed sexist remarks towards her following a second card offence during a match she was refereeing. Demirbay exclaimed: “Women don’t belong in the men’s game.”
Demirbay both publicly and privately apologised for his remarks and was subsequently suspended for five games. He was also ordered to referee a junior girls’ game to teach him respect for all levels of the game.
Steinhaus, however, was outraged by the proposed conduct, saying: “How can refereeing a game be a punishment? What kind of message do those pictures send out? Anyone can be in charge of a game. Without equipment, without a degree. That’s what makes our job so great.”
2017 has since presented the pinnacle of her meteoric rise. In May, Steinhaus was selected by UEFA as the 2017 UEFA Women’s Champions League Final referee for the game in Cardiff between Lyon and Paris Saint-Germain on June 1 2017.
It was a mere seven days later when the announcement was made that Steinhaus was to be promoted to referee in the top level of men’s football in Germany – the Bundesliga. This decision would see her officiating games during the 2017/18 season and would make her the first female to do so – an achievement with even more significance coming from the same organisation who banned women from playing the sport as recently as the 1950s.
She now finds herself amongst the elite group of 24 referees that are currently active in Germany’s top-tier.
Her first appearance came during a DFB Cup first round tie between Bayern Munich and Chemnitzer FC. Given her past with Bayern Munich, it was oddly fitting that another incident should occur under her watch. During the 79th minute while his team were already 3-0 up, Franck Ribery was preparing to take a free-kick just outside the 18-yard box, when he bent down and untied Bibiana’s laces in a playful prank.
Despite being well within her rights to issue a caution to the French winger for unsporting behaviour, Steinhaus instead decided to dust off the practical joke and opted to nudge Ribery before continuing her job.
September 10th 2017 marked an historic occasion as Bibi officiated her first Bundesliga match. The game produced a 1-1 draw between Hertha BSC and Werder Bremen. Steinhaus produced an excellent display, one which saw her make an expert call to play advantage when Hertha’s Vladimir Darida was fouled on the edge of the opposition box. This allowed Mathew Leckie to subsequently score the opening goal of the game and displayed the ability that had helped the German ref climb to where she currently is.
Following the game, she told the Bundesliga official website: “I’m relieved, to be honest, that it’s successfully over and now we can look forward to the next one and start a normal life from tomorrow.”
Advocates of her inclusion were quick to come forward, offering their unwavering support for the sport’s progressive decision. These include Iker Casillas, Spain and Porto goalkeeper, who said: “All the luck in the world to Bibiana Steinhaus and the women who come after!”
Additionally, Ilkay Gundogan, Manchester City and Germany midfielder, added: “A new chapter always needs someone who has the courage to write it. You have my respect Frau Steinhaus.”
Martina Voss, a player who won seven national titles and currently trains the Swiss women’s team, suggested that it may not be long before a woman takes over as a Bundesliga coach. This would stand as an enormous breakthrough in bridging the divide between the two genders in the sport.
To most, her private life has remained a mystery. That was until in October 2016 when it was revealed that she and English referee Howard Webb were in a relationship. When speaking on her success, Webb said that he hopes it will encourage other females to aim for higher positions as well as convince the Premier League to put women in charge of matches.
For Steinhaus herself, she has admitted that she did not get into refereeing to push gender equality but has urged its importance to those aspiring to replicate her success. What she has aimed for and achieved was simply done so through sheer willingness and an inherent love for the game. Her conduct and determination are components of a truly exemplary model which is assigned to a story that has several more chapters waiting to be written.
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