“I had no role models,” says World Cup referee Stephanie Fraparte. “I think everyone is unique, so you can’t base your personality on someone else. You have to grow on your own. I am not a man, I cannot follow any of them.”
Frappart is a pioneer. Having already refereed in Ligue 1 and the Men’s Champions League, she now oversees the Men’s World Cup alongside two other female referees, Salima Mukansanga of Rwanda and Yoshimi Yamashita of Japan. This is the first time that female referees have been selected for the Men’s World Cup.
“The men’s World Cup is the most important competition in the world, not just in football,” she says. “But I was the first female referee in France, the first in Europe, first every time. I know how to deal with it.”
A few weeks before the start of the tournament, Frappart sat down with Athletic to discuss being the first, handling the field and her feelings about human rights in Qatar.
Her journey took 25 years, but it could have easily ended at the age of 18. She started refereeing five years before, small children’s games near where she grew up in Herblay-sur-Seine, northwest of Paris.
The passion for the game comes from her father, an amateur player for the local team, whom Frapart watches every weekend. This prompted her to enroll in a course to learn the rules of the game. Then she started judging.
“I’ve been playing football on Saturdays and refereeing on Sundays since I was 13,” she explains. “By the time I got into university studying sport, it was too much sport.”
She had to decide whether to play or pursue a promising refereeing career after already managing the national under-19 league.
“At that time, women’s football was not very developed, so I decided to stop playing,” she says. “But I had no plans to be the first female referee at the World Cup or anything like that.”
Over the next two decades, Frapart moved rapidly through the French league system, becoming the first female referee to take charge in the third tier in 2011, before moving up to Ligue 2 in 2014.
In 2019, former US Orleans midfielder Pierre Buby said: “She is the best referee in Ligue 2. Her voice is quiet, but she has charisma and personality. She uses the right words. She explains.
“She is diplomatic and you can talk to her. She does not try to become the center of attention. It’s about what’s best for the game.”
She was promoted to Ligue 1 three years ago, becoming the first woman to take charge of a top-flight game, taking charge of Amiens v Strasbourg, the first game yet to be scored in the Premier League or La Liga.
Her early appearances attracted dozens of columns in France. UEFA observers have also been keeping a close eye on her and were clearly impressed by her debut season in Ligue 1.
Fraparte was selected to referee the 2019 UEFA Super Cup between Liverpool Men’s and Chelsea in Istanbul, overseeing an all-female refereeing team as Liverpool triumphed on penalties following a 2–2 draw.
The first ones continued. In December 2020, she took charge of a group match in the Men’s Champions League; in March 2021, men’s World Cup qualifier between Netherlands and Latvia; in May 2022, the final of the Coupe de France, where Nantes beat Nice to win their first trophy since 1997. She also officiated at the 2019 Women’s World Cup final.
“The men’s and women’s games are exactly the same,” she says. “Women’s football is getting faster and faster. Only the tactical approach is different. But this is just as there are different playing styles between Europe, Africa and South America.
“When you referee national teams, the only difference is that the level is higher because they are the best players in the country.”
How to share the field with world stars is one of the challenges every referee faces, not only in terms of positioning but also communication.
“You can’t talk all the time to the players, you have to find a balance,” she says. “I love talking to the players but most of the time they’re excited and at that point you can’t talk to them – they’re too much of a game.
“Sometimes you smile, sometimes you explain some decisions. You also need to develop body language that players can understand better than words. Everything can be done with body language — it means a lot to the players.
“When they’re relaxed, when they want to discuss, not when you’ve just made a decision, but as part of a game, when you’re walking by them — that’s when I like to discuss the decision with them. Remember that most of the time they are under pressure too.
The UEFA Super Cup 2019 was one of the most famous matches of her career, filled with important decisions. In the first half, she canceled out Christian Pulisic’s goal for an interception that would have put Chelsea 2-0 up.
Although challenged by Pulisic, her positioning was excellent, with VAR upholding her assistant’s decision.
In extra time, with Chelsea trailing 2-1, came a more controversial decision. With the ball trickling towards the line, Liverpool goalkeeper Adrian rushed to collect it. However, Chelsea striker Tammy Abraham had arrived milliseconds earlier and gave up contact.
Frappart, whose positioning showed a clear line of sight, awarded the penalty. She declined to speak to the players immediately, instead speaking to her colleagues over the phone to confirm the decision was correct.
Then, when the penalty was upheld and the players calmed down, she explained the reasoning to Jordan Henderson and Virgil van Dijk.
The World Cup in Qatar will feature VAR, as did Russia four years ago, but will also be refereed using automatic penalties, a first at a major international tournament. Although some suggest they undermine the referee’s authority and make matches more complicated, Frappart enjoys the technology.
“Every match I referee now has it,” she explains. “It’s good because it’s a parachute. We continue to make decisions, but if I’m wrong, I go out (on the pitch), watch the situation on the monitor, but still I decide if I’m happy with the decision.”
The selected referees have been holding regular workshops since September to prepare for the heightened scrutiny of the World Cup. “It’s going on a lot of people’s screens around the world,” says Fraparte. “It can destroy your career.”
There is also competition, with the pool of officials being reduced as the tournament progresses based on performance, before the highest-ranked referee takes charge in the final – as long as there is no national clash.
“I haven’t set a goal, just like I never did at the Women’s World Cup,” she says. “I’m just trying to do my best on the first day and the last day. You can’t put too much pressure on yourself.
Frapart is looking forward to living with the other referees who will be staying together, and she plans to spend time with her fellow referees during preparation.
“They’re experienced, like me, they know what it’s like to be first,” she says. “They were the first female referees in Asia and Africa.”
Being a female referee comes with additional concerns, including misogyny. Fraparte has experienced sexism throughout her career, usually on social media, which she avoids, but it has also happened on the field.
“You have to stay level and keep going,” she muses. However, she admits that her family was worried about the abuse she received.
“They’re definitely a little scared. They don’t say anything because they don’t want to get me in trouble or make me less focused on the game.
She adds of her physique: “I’m not that tall, that strong, so I have to deal with the differences. It grows your personality, develops that style.”
Frapart hopes her family will come to Qatar to support her, although the practicalities are difficult – the referees will only know which match they have been allocated two days before kick-off. There are other considerations.
Qatar’s record on women’s rights has been highlighted in the run-up to the World Cup, with women needing permission from a male guardian for many aspects of their lives. Athletic also reported on the risks women may face when reporting sexual assault at the tournament.
How does Frappart position itself as a pioneer in women’s sports in a country where many women are denied basic rights? She takes a moment to consider her answer.
“I have been to Qatar many times for seminars and for the preparation of the World Cup. I have always been welcome in Qatar, so I have no problem going there, refereeing there.
“But I know what happened in Qatar. I would go there for the race, I wouldn’t go there for the environment.
“But maybe this World Cup will improve women’s rights in the country.” I can’t say I’m not looking at what happened, but I hope this World Cup will be a step in the right direction.”
There is only one thing left to ask, which Athletic has wondered since Fraparte said it three years ago, before the Super Bowl final, when she declared that she “never gets scared” before a football game.
The World Cup is one step forward. Fraparte could end up refereeing the biggest game in world sport, officiating in front of billions. Is she really never afraid?
She smiles: “When you’re refereeing, you’re happy. You know the importance of the game, but you know your own quality and skills. If you are hired at this level, it is because you have the qualities for it.
“You’re there because you deserve it.”
(Top photo: Lynn Cameron/FA via Getty Images)