Referee Stéphanie Frappart: 'Girls See Me on TV and Know It's Possible'
Referees tend not to be clapped on to the pitch, let alone greeted with purpose-made banners, but supporters of Amiens decided to make an exception before their match against Strasbourg in April. It was a historic occasion, the first top-flight men’s match in France to be refereed by a woman, Stéphanie Frappart. “Welcome to the Stade de la Licorne, Madame Frappart,” read a banner held aloft by home fans. “Long live women in football!”
Maybe Liverpool and Chelsea fans are planning a similar display for when Frappart breaks new ground by taking charge of their European Super Cup final in Istanbul on Wednesday. That will be the first time a major European men’s final has been presided over by female officials, with Frappart assisted by her French compatriot Manuela Nicolosi and Ireland’s Michelle O’Neill. The trio have worked together at bigger matches – they were in charge of this year’s Women’s World Cup final – but there is no doubt they will be under singular focus at Vodafone Park on Wednesday.
“The pressure is different,” said Frappart. “I know very well that people will be waiting to see how I do.” But the 35-year-old from Val d’Oise near Paris has grown accustomed to the additional pressure.
When she was appointed for that Amiens versus Strasbourg match in April, the fixture suddenly received far more attention than would normally be given to a mid-table Ligue 1 skirmish. Until then the only one of Europe’s five major leagues to have entrusted a match to a female referee was the Bundesliga, where Bibiana Steinhaus officiated in 2017.
In the Premier League Sian Massey-Ellis operates as an assistant but has yet to be given the main job in the middle. It took a long time for French authorities, too, to make that jump – Frappart’s assignment in April came 23 years after Nelly Viennot set a precedent by running the line for a Ligue 1 match.
It was to Frappart’s credit that the Amiens-Strasbourg game turned out to be a bit of a non-event, and not just because it was a 0-0 draw. “To be totally honest we studied her every movement,” wrote Yohann Hautbois in his match report in L’Équipe. “[We] noted down everything it was possible to note – the way she checked out the pitch … her warm-up with her two assistants, her diagonal runs, the formalities, her first decision (a foul given against Sehrou Guirassy in the fourth minute) and so on until, after a while, we forgot about her. We no longer saw her and, above all, we weren’t watching her.” The old rule of thumb applied, that the best referees are the ones that are noticed the least.
“Of the 23 actors on the pitch the 35-year-old referee was probably the one who got the most decisions right,” concluded Hautbois.
“I showed I had the skills and abilities to be there,” said Frappart, who will take charge of Ligue 1 matches regularly this season after being assigned to the country’s 23-strong panel of elite referees. She has to pass the same physical fitness tests as her male colleagues. “The players don’t run slower just because the referee is a woman,” she says.
Her promotion came as no surprise to anyone familiar with her from France’s second tier, where she had been refereeing since 2014. “She is the best referee in Ligue 2,” said the US Orléans midfielder Pierre Bouby earlier this year. “Her voice is quiet but she has charisma and personality. She uses the right words. She explains. She’s diplomatic and you can talk to her. She doesn’t try to make herself the center of attention. She is all about what’s best for the game.”
The Lille manager, Christophe Galtier, held a similar view, telling French media. “She is very diplomatic. And when you’re a manager, a man under pressure, you get frustrated … but she just has to give you a look, a smile or a gesture to make you stop.”
That is not easy. Nicole Petignat, the Swiss who became the first woman to officiate in a men’s European tie when she took charge of qualifying matches in the Uefa Cup in 2004, used a different approach out of fear of being misinterpreted. “On the pitch I’ve always kept a distance from the players,” she said back in 2008. “It’s completely out of the question that I use my femininity to back up a decision, a smile for example. I couldn’t let people think I was sending out a double message.”
Frappart says that since she began taking charge of men’s professional matches, there have been only very few times when she felt disrespected on the grounds of her gender. One of them, no doubt, was in October 2015 when the Valenciennes manager, David Le Frapper, railed against the non-award of a penalty to his team during a 0-0 draw with Laval. “The [penalty] was clear but the referee didn’t see it, maybe she was ice skating,” Le Frapper fumed after the match. “When you are a woman and you come to referee a man’s sport, it’s complicated,” he said. Le Frapper apologized a few minutes later, realizing what he had said did not help.
Frappart, meanwhile, has continued to advance in her career in officiating, her Super Cup appointment the latest achievement. “It’s a real pleasure to show it’s possible,” she said in June. “Young girls see me on TV and know it’s possible. I hope this will stimulate them to pursue their vocations.”