My memories of 1991 still bring tears to my eyes

  • Claudia Vasconcellos was the first woman to referee in a FIFA competition

  • She made history 30 years ago today at the FIFA Women’s World Cup

  • She talks about the pressure she felt and continues to get emotional about it

It was a small step for the woman, a giant leap for the woman. After all, it wasn’t far from the locker room at Guangdong Provincial People’s Stadium, but Claudia Vasconcellos was taking steps that would revolutionize a sport. In the ultra-macho and thrilling times of the early 1990s, no one knew if a woman would ever referee a FIFA competition. Some wondered if it would ever happen. An explosion of hope, however, was met with the news that six women were being sent to China PR to act as assistant referees at the inaugural FIFA Women’s World Cup™. Perhaps, we fantasized, we could take charge of a match before the end of the century. We would…and sooner than any astronomer could have imagined. Claudia Vasconcellos had impressed so much during the group stage that FIFA, despite having no plans for the tournament, announced to the euphoria of women across the planet that the Brazilian would referee at this event – and no less than the bronze medal game. The Vasconcellos shared the widespread ecstasy…at least for a few seconds. Then she realized that “the future of women’s refereeing was in my hands”. Thirty years to the day after that historic and groundbreaking day for women in football, Vasconcellos graciously took the time to chat with FIFA from Montevideo, where she watched her beloved Flamengo play in the Copa Libertadores final.

FIFA: Claudia, can you tell us about the difficulties you encountered when you started refereeing?
Claudia Vasconcellos: Brazilian culture is very sexist, so since the beginning of my career I needed to show in each match that the choice of refereeing was the result of my love of football and respect for its rules. Supporting women’s football matches was no problem. On the contrary, it was a solution found so that male referees did not have to take charge of female matches, which were considered inferior to them. Yet to officiate in men’s football, there was a great deal of mistrust and disbelief that a woman could take charge of a game with the firmness and poise that any referee needs to control disputes between men. However, after refereeing several games, people got used to my presence.
How did you feel when you learned that FIFA would organize the first Women’s World Cup?Really happy and hopeful that finally, with its inclusion in international competitions, women’s football will get the recognition it deserves and that, especially in countries where macho culture is prevalent, there will be more support and development.

How were you chosen to be an officer?The news that FIFA, together with the national associations, was looking for female referees to act as assistant referees at the first Women’s World Cup gave me great anticipation, even knowing that only six would be chosen. Every referee’s dream is to work at a World Cup. I knew from the start that I could have the opportunity to go there thanks to my performances in the competitions in which I had participated, even though I knew that other female referees would have the same chances. In the end, however, my hopes and desires were granted as I was the only Brazilian sent.
How did you feel when you were chosen to become the first woman to referee a match in a FIFA competition?I was chosen to work as an assistant by probably dozens of female referees around the world. It was already a huge triumph, both personally and professionally. When I was offered to take charge of the match for third place, something unprecedented in the history of world football, I was struck by great emotion and, at the same time, I realized the great responsibility that fell to me.

What was going through your mind before the game? Were you nervous?Although I have spent my entire career watching every game as a Championship decider, it was inevitable that this game, in particular, could open another path for female referees on the international stage. The future of women’s refereeing was in my hands, as a member of the refereeing committee said in the locker room before the match. Even today, I remember several moments of this memorable day, from entering the field to arriving at the hotel. What stood out the most was when I raised my arms to finish the game with a deep sense of accomplishment.

How proud are you to be a pioneer in women’s football, to have helped it grow?
I am aware of this and proud of the role I played, along with all the female referees who contributed to it.

Which players impressed you the most at China 1991?I had the privilege of working in games involving highly developed teams with spectacular players. One player in particular, Michelle Akers, was unstoppable and had impeccable demeanor. Alongside Mia Hamm, they were the stars of this World Cup.
Overall, what did you think of the first FIFA Women’s World Cup?I can only salute the whole organization of the event, both by China and by FIFA. All the infrastructure of hotels, training places, transport to the matches, people who helped us at every stage were essential so that we could have the calm necessary to concentrate only on the matches. I have all the badges, caps, souvenirs, balls, in short, a collection of items that bring tears to my eyes and fond memories of the World Cup in China, including the kit I used for the third place in the playoffs.