Manuela Nicolosi, international assistant referee:
“We are on the right track”
Interviewed by Eva Jacomet, project leader, Sport and Citizenship Think Tank.
Born in Rome, Manuela Nicolosi turned to refereeing when her father refused to let her play football. Engaged on a double qualification in Italy and France, she came to live in France a few years later and joined the Paris Football Ligue, where she worked her way up. The year before the Women’s World Cup in Canada (2015), she decided to dedicate herself entirely to her career as a referee. Four years later she refereed the World Cup final with Stéphanie Frappart, then, several months later, the UEFA Super Cup where the men’s teams from Liverpool and Chelsea faced each other. She was then one of the first three women in history to referee a European Super Cup final.
When she returned from Australia and New Zealand after officiating at the 2023 World Cup, we had the pleasure of asking Manuela Nicolosi a few questions. In the background to her career and her experiences, the recent progress in the accessibility of refereeing for women and the path that is still to be travelled can be observed.
Pioneering woman in a man’s world
You began your career as a referee at the amateur level in Italy and have now become one of the most experienced assistant referees at the international level. How do you see your career, and how has the job changed?
When I started my career, refereeing had only just opened up to women. I was one of the pioneers. The managers, the players and the public were seeing a woman refereeing a football match for the first time. It was also a learning period for clubs: how did they treat a female ref? How should they organise the changing rooms? At first, I had to face the stares of some colleagues who saw me, perhaps, as a competitor, someone who wanted to take their place. Others, though, seeing that I was training with them and that I knew football, helped me a lot during that period.
The main obstacles, in Italy as in France, were to do with my gender, with being a woman. I heard lots of remarks and jokes because I am blond and shapely. I think if I had been more masculine it would have been easier.
As a ref, you are in an unusual, sometimes hostile professional environment. You have to take decisions, the right ones, manage stress and so on. Every referee is exposed to criticism. But for women it is in addition to the sexist remarks we sometimes have to put up with. I don’t think people always realise what the daily life of a referee is. I think if it was shown more, by giving us microphones, for example, it might help.
The story of a career: being assertive and breaking the glass ceiling
You talk about the discrimination you suffered because of your gender and being feminine. Did you have to adopt the codes of this man’s world, or have you managed to find a space where you can be yourself?
I’ve now reached a level where I can be myself, but that has not always been the case, because I never really felt it was my place. But why should I change my personality? It was quite difficult in the first years and then, with experience, you become surer of yourself. People have often told me “you are strong, you are hard”, but you learn that on the ground.
Several times I heard the fact that I didn’t fit the mould. However, when I was refereeing in Ligue 1 then the European Super Cup , everyone was fine with it. You just have to get past the preconceived ideas. We were the first three women to officiate in the men’s European Super Cup. Everyone’s eyes were on us, and it went very well. In the end it was a match like any other, like the ones we referee every weekend.
How do you think we can explain and get past these preconceived ideas?
I think it is sometimes fear of the unknown on the part of those responsible. That can definitely arouse apprehension, but we have to pass all the same tests as our male colleagues. If a referee is there, she is up to the job.
After the European Super Cup, we had nothing but compliments, in the media and from the general public. How and why did we manage to break the glass ceiling? Because we were competent, but also because UEFA  had the courage to give us this match, because we were considered to be competent. In the end, it is about promoting ability, never mind the gender.
The role of governing bodies: towards equality in refereeing major competitions
The evolution and development of refereeing by women depends, as you point out, on action from football’s governing bodies (FFF, UEFA, FIFA…). In your opinion, are there still structural barriers to the access of women referees at the highest level?
Before the European Super Cup, with the exception of Germany and Bibiana Steinhaus , there had never been women in the first division of men’s football. Now it has become more democratic everywhere in the world, on the pitch or on the touchline. UEFA and FIFA led the way; the national federations are following and are naming more and more women referees.
FIFA opened the doors to six women referees at the men’s World Cup in Qatar. We made a hole in the glass ceiling, but they’ve shattered it. Of course, you need and will need to work very hard to get to the top level, but now we know that we can get there.
In 2019, when I officiated at the final of the Women’s World Cup, I thought I had got as high as I could go, because men’s international competitions were not open to women referees. A month later I received the designation to referee the UEFA Super Cup…
Did you feel any pressure as the first three women to referee the European Super Cup?
Several people asked me if I was scared. Above all, I was really keen to show that we could do this kind of match! Until I got to the stadium, I didn’t feel any pressure. At the stadium, all the spectators were waiting outside for the Liverpool and Chelsea busses to arrive, and I began to feel a bit stressed, but good stress, which makes you say that you’ll give everything you’ve got for this match, for us, and also for all the other women, with my long hair, my nails, my curves and my make-up.
We knew we were well prepared. We’d taken advice from our male colleagues. Several of them had warned us: “Look out, they run fast”. They were afraid we wouldn’t be able to keep up. In the end we went to extra time and a penalty shoot-out, in Istanbul, on 14 August, in very humid weather!
For tomorrow, highlighting and developing refereeing by women
As an experienced referee, what advice would you give to young girls who want to try refereeing but who don’t yet dare to take the plunge?
I love going into schools and talking to girls. I thought that things would have changed a lot compared with my childhood. I couldn’t play football because my father wouldn’t let me. Today I still find girls who can’t play because of parental opposition.
Sometimes when I go into secondary schools, the girls even refuse to talk about their love for the game in front of the boys, because they are afraid of being judged. When I finish speaking, lots of girls come up to tell me they’d love to do what I’ve done and talk about their passion. The message I want to get across is this: yes, it will be hard, as referees we are always being judged about something, so be yourself and don’t be afraid of being judged. To do that, you need to create a circle you can trust. I’m a firm believer in sisterhood. When we support each other, nothing can stop us!
In France, in 2023, there are 1,000 women referees out of the 20,000 referees in the FFF. Very few of them reach the top level or the men’s professional divisions, judged to be the most prestigious. What can be done to encourage girls to go into training and ensure their access to the highest divisions in football?
First, they need support from their families and friends, as I said earlier. Secondly, communication needs to be developed, to show that refereeing is accessible to women and girls. It is also important to give women referees more chance to be heard, to get them to go into schools, and ask them to talk about their careers more and inspire girls. I think the work undertaken by the French Football Federation recently to make women referees a real pillar of their action, and the nomination of Stéphanie Frappart as director in charge of women’s refereeing, are very positive signs. Of course, women are still a minority among professional referees in France, but we are on the right track.
 For the 44th edition of this match which each year opposes the winner of the UEFA Champions league and the winner of the Europa League, Liverpool was playing Chelsea at Besiktas Park in Istanbul, Turkey.
 Roberto Rosetti, UEFA manager in charge of refereeing
 Female referee in the German Bundesliga between 2017 and 2020.
Thank you to Manuela Nicolosi for her account and the time she gave the Sport and Citizenship Think Tank for this interview. Thank you to Alexandre Charrier and Florian Uguen for their help with this interview.
To find our more:
“Inequality at the whistle: the difficult progress of women referees in every sport” by Alexandre Charrier, head of EU affairs, Sport and Citizenship Think Tank.
This article was published in our weekly “Hebdo Sport et Société” which appears every Friday. Sign up to our newsletter to receive the next article in your e-mails.
Read the previous article:
The Rubiales affair: symptom of sexist and sexual violence in sport and symbol of change? By Eva Jacomet, Project Manager, Think tank Sport et Citoyenneté.