Like a modern-day Samson, Bundesliga referee Bibiana Steinhaus draws strength from the length of her hair. The pioneering 40-year-old, the first woman in Europe to take regular charge of top-tier men's matches, describes how abandoning her short-cropped hairstyle was the moment she unburdened herself of the desire to fit in with the male-dominated norm.
"It was a recognition that you can never hide," she tells Telegraph Sport. Having resisted the urge to let her hair grow for more than a decade as she progressed through the German league pyramid, she declared months before her Bundesliga debut: "You know what, love me, hate me, you do whatever". She says: "You must recognise that, no matter what you do, you cannot hide. Your skin colour, your whatever, stands out. The moment you recognise it. The moment you are fine with it, you find your own middle, and you think, 'you know what, this is what it is'. This is the moment where is really lifts you up to the next level." Steinhaus insists her progression to marshalling the elite has been "smooth". The first time she had officiated a Bayern Munich game in 2017, Franck Ribéry, while putting the ball on the ground to prepare to take a free‑kick, bent over and undid her laces. Some questioned whether he would have pulled the same prank on a male referee. However, Steinhaus, is confident the players have completely accepted her authority. It is the wider world, she says, that may perceive her as a novelty. "When you have a role model, and you put this person in place, everybody is looking. Is it going to work? How is it going to work? What are the issues? People you work with, it doesn't make a difference. In the dressing room, on the field, with all the players, and for me, being around almost 20 years, it doesn't make a difference. However, for the media, for the outside world, it's a big thing for one day, two, then it's old news."
Steinhaus is dating the former Premier League referee Howard Webb and says the stage is now set to see women taking regular charge in England's elite game. Twenty years ago Gordon Strachan criticised "PC decisions about promoting ladies" as he questioned the performance of Wendy Toms as an assistant to Steve Dunn, and still the Premier League is yet to select a woman to take charge of a game. For Steinhaus, the talent is there for the picking. "I think you have a lot of girls, women who perform really well. I'm sure if they are given the opportunities which have been given to me, I'm 100 per cent sure that they will go their way. I won't put a date on it because so many circumstances play, but I think if you have the people able to do the job, and if you have people willing and able to support diversity in our game, giving opportunities, being aware of them and giving them, they will be successful. I'm convinced that even if you take a shirt in a larger size, you will grow into it. You will grow." The referee still works part-time as a police officer, a chief inspector in Langenhagen, in her hometown in Lower Saxony. "I cannot handle it full time," she says of her policing work. "I know we have a lot of professional referees and if I see how much time I invest it is pretty much a full-time job but on other hand personally, I like… I love my police job, this is why I decided to become a police officer because I really like what I am doing there. It is pretty much like refereeing – somebody else did the laws but you have to take care that everybody is behaving according to them."
Steinhaus, who was a speaker at Wembley last week for UEFA's Equal Game conference, said a "passion for the sport" had driven her to refereeing at the highest level. "I played a few years, not very successful, therefore I changed the spot," she said. "No-matter where you find your role, as long as you have the passion, the drive, you want to make it the best, this sport is so beautiful, you have plenty of possibilities to find your own spot. I like to promote women’s refereeing. It is not a question of what gender you are. It is a question of if you can fulfil the role and the expectations people have of you. I am not really a fan of this ‘women’s’ and ‘men’s’ – it comes down to performance. Whatever background you have if you perform right and treat people right, they treat you in same way so that is the first thing – performance." It is "performance", she says, which will decide how soon a woman takes charge of a Champions League final. Footballers are getting faster, referees are getting fitter, and the competition gets stiffer by the year, she says - but Steinhaus is confident it will happen. "I'm looking for the younger generation who loves the diversity of the sport and want to grow the sport itself," she adds. "This is my focus. It has been quite smooth. The players want to be treated in a fair manner. They want to be respected, they want to speak to you, they want to communicate, and if you do that in a normal way, in a decent way, they accept."
Source: The Telegraph