Mon, Feb 16, 2009
The New Paper

SHE'S smack in the middle of a men's world.

Abirami Naidu is the first Singaporean woman referee to be accredited by the Federation Internationale de Football Association (Fifa).

A former national player, Abirami took up refereeing five years ago, enrolling in the basic refereeing course conducted by the Football Association of Singapore in 2004.

She worked her way up from Class 3, Class 2, Class 1 and National levels before acquiring the coveted Fifa badge.

And she's also the first female referee who has been a match official at an S-League match.

That was in May last year, shortly before she received her Fifa badge.

She recalls being terribly nervous before the match, in which she was a referee's assistant.

'I kept going through my list of what to bring. I didn't want to be remembered as the referee who forgot to bring her flag, you know?' quipped Abirami.

Her anxiety is completely understandable in a sport where the officials are often under scrutiny.

And while referees have often found themselves in the spotlight for dubious decisions, female referees get it even more - simply because they are women.

'As female referees, we're always in the spotlight and some people, especially men, expect us to fail so we need to do twice as much to prove them wrong,' she said.

Rohaidah M Nasir, the only other female referee officiating high-level men's matches in Singapore, agreed.

'Male players generally have the perception that women cannot do men's games. They think women cannot run as fast as them.'

What these players may not be aware of is that at the higher levels, female referees who officiate men's games have the same training requirements and go through the same strict tests as male referees.

'There is no such thing as a timing or lap discount if you are a woman. Your stamina level must be the same as the men's because you are expected to keep up with them throughout the game,' said Abirami.

Abirami describes herself as a 'no-nonsense type of referee' who would not hesitated to produce a card to uphold and enforce the laws of the game, even if she's refereeing just a friendly match.

This probably explains why despite weighing just 57kg and being slightly shorter than the average male football player, Abirami is still able to maintain order and keep control of 22 male players.


She also recently fulfilled a childhood ambition - of joining the Singapore Police Force as a full-time officer.

There's a similarity in both being a police officer and being a referee.

'I am a law enforcer, on and off the field,' said Abirami, laughing.

But refereeing is no laughing matter, as Abirami will tell you.

She once witnessed an incident at Choa Chu Kang stadium where a Prime League player broke his shin after a horrific tackle and the ambulance had to be called in.

'I could hear the bones break. I gave the guy a straight red card because he had no intentions of playing the ball at all,' she said, shaking her head.

It is her personal commitment and her passion for football that has seen her rise to the grade of a Fifa referee.

And humility, too, she adds. She remains grateful to the FAS Referees Committee for giving her a lot of encouragement.

Looking at her childhood, you'd think she was destined to be in the middle of the men's game.

More than a decade ago, Abirami was just like any other teenager, playing football at the void deck straight after school.

She grew up at Rowell Road, near Jalan Besar Stadium and not far from Farrer Park. She was brought up by her mother, R Banu Mathi, a single parent.

Being the only child, Abirami had to find ways to keep herself entertained when school hours at her then alma mater, Stamford Primary School, ended.

She played football to escape boredom.

'My involvement with football all started with kick-about sessions at the void deck,' said Abirami.

Her love for sports did not go unnoticed.

Mathi, a full-time nurse at Mount Alvernia Hospital, recalled how her daughter's teachers would comment on Abirami's agility and energy in her report books. She was very involved in sports, bringing home trophies every now and then.

By the time she entered ITE Bishan, Abirami was already good enough for the women's national squad. She was one of two women from the Under-19 team selected by the senior coach during trials.

Then, of course, came that basic course in refereeing, and the rest is history.

But Abirami is not done yet.

Despite having to constantly face such challenges on top of fresh new ones like juggling her full-time job with refereeing, the first Singaporean female Fifa badge holder and the first female to officiate in an S-League match is gunning for a historical treble.

'I hope to officiate an international competitive match. So far no female referee in Singapore has done that,' she said.

She may hang up her whistle after wedding bells

REFEREEING in Singapore is a part-time job.

Many referees here hold day jobs and cite other commitments as the main reason for not being able to do it full-time.

For one female referee, settling down may force her to her give up refereeing for good.

Joanne Tan (above) obtained her basic Class 3 licence two years ago.

But with marriage just around the corner, she may have to make the decision to give up refereeing to be a full-time homemaker.

Tan, 21, said: 'After getting married, my priorities will be to the family, you know? So I'll have to see how it goes.'

Referees are expected to meet the 30 to 40 games per year requirement in order to remain active and they earn $70 to $150 for each game depending on what level of game it is.

'It is a real challenge if you have a day job because then, all your remaining free time, like your weekends, are taken up by games,' said Abirami Naidu, a Fifa-accredited female referee.

'You really need to have an unwavering commitment and passion for it,' added Abirami.

Aside from being appointed for games, the part-time referees here also have to undergo regular training stints every month to maintain their fitness level. For those officiating at the S-League and Prime League level, training is held four times every month on top of practical sessions for endurance runs.

And not many can commit to such a time-consuming part-time profession. Yet, they go for the basic refereeing course anyway.


'Most of them come in for knowledge and the interest in the game. They may not view it as a long-term commitment,' said Visvanathan Krishnan, head of the referees' department at the Football Association of Singapore.

Tan is one of them.

She said she took up the course to learn in depth the laws of the game and to appreciate football even more.

While some may feel that this means her Class 3 licence is going to be a wasted effort, Tan disagreed.

'I am a football enthusiast so I've always wanted to gain knowledge about the rules of the game. That is the main reason why I got into refereeing and I think I've more than achieved it.'


Name: Wendy Toms

Age: 46

Born: England

TOMS began her career in 1991 and was the first woman to be included on the list of Football League assistant referees in the 1994-95 season.

By 1997, she had gone on to become the first female to operate as an assistant referee in the Premier League.

During Leeds United's 4-3 Premiership away win at Coventry City in 1999, then Coventry manager, Gordon Strachan, criticised Toms' assistant refereeing decision saying: 'We are getting politically correct decisions about promoting ladies. It does not matter if they are ladies, men or Alsatian dogs. If they are not good enough to run the line they should not get the job.'

Toms did not let the criticism affect her and has since acted as an assistant referee in the 2000 Worthington Cup final at Wembley as well as at two matches in the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

Name: Nicole Petignat

Age: 43

Born: Switzerland

PETIGNAT (above), a medical masseuse by trade, refereed the final of the Fifa Women's World Cup between the United States and China in 1999.

In 2000, she refereed the women's football tournament at the Sydney Olympic Games.

But her biggest achievement as a referee came in 2003 when she became the first woman to officiate a men's game in European competition - a Uefa Cup match between AIK Fotboll and Fylkir.

Name: Sonia Denoncourt

Age: 45

Born: Canada

DENONCOURT became the first female Fifa accredited referee in 1994. A year later, she created history again by becoming the first woman to referee a senior men's professional game in Brazil.

She has also refereed in the 1995, 1996 and 2004 Fifa Women's World Cup as well as the 2000 Olympic women's football final between the United States and Norway.

Name: Carolina Domenech

Age: 32

Born: Spain

IN 2002, when Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid took to the pitch at the Santiago Bernabeau Stadium, Domenech was the referee in charge.

It was the first time that a football match between the two bitter rivals was officiated by a woman.

Real Madrid beat Atletico Madrid 3-2 in the exhibition game attended by 50,000 fans.


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