Steinhaus, storming the male bastion

Steinhaus, storming the male bastion

Most referees would rather spend an afternoon in a dentist's chair than see their name in a newspaper headline. In their world, anonymity implies a job well done.

So forgive Bibiana Steinhaus for rolling her eyes when she thinks about the various times she has been tugged into the soccer news cycle. There was the men's game she officiated seven years ago when a player accidentally touched her breast. There was the time in 2014 when Pep Guardiola, then the manager of Bayern Munich, put his hand on her - first angrily, then apologetically - as she did her job as a fourth official. There was the German Cup match, just this summer, when a mischievous Franck Ribry untied her shoelace before a free kick.

Steinhaus, 38, brushed these moments aside when they occurred, but to her dismay, each incident was caught on video, and each quickly was blown up, in her view, far out of proportion.

"I work my butt off for 20 years," Steinhaus said with a sharp laugh, "and I'm famous for that?"

That and, now, much more. On a crisp afternoon recently, Steinhaus, whose career has included officiating the finals of every major global women's soccer competition, recapped the invigorating past few months of her life. In September, she reached a new professional pinnacle, officiating her first game in the Bundesliga, the top level of German soccer. In doing so, she became the first woman to referee a match in one of Europe's top leagues.

Nursing the vestiges of a cold with sips of hot peppermint tea, she alternated between nonchalant professionalism ("I'm doing the same job as all my colleagues") and earnest excitement about the achievement ("This is the freaking Bundesliga! This is cool!"), all while reckoning with the multidimensional state of being a pioneering female in a male-dominated field.

"I don't think I embrace it," she said of a status that still feels mildly uncomfortable. "I deal with it."

Still, that first game in the Bundesliga, on Sept. 10, in front of a crowd of 49,118 in Berlin, gave Steinhaus a different magnitude of fame. Hertha BSC, the home club, offered half-price "Bibiana tickets" to female fans, and Reinhard Grindel, the president of the German soccer federation, turned up to watch from the stands.

For Steinhaus, the daughter of an amateur referee, promotion to the Bundesliga was the realization of a lifelong dream. But it was in the flood of messages she received before, during and after the game that she began to grasp the remarkable extent to which others were invested in her achievement. "You're breaking the glass ceiling for all of us," a fellow female referee texted her.

Her promotion highlighted a recent stretch of progress for women in her profession. In 2016, FIFA, for the first time, merged its training courses for men and women. And over the summer, seven women, including Carol Anne Chenard, were selected to work matches at the under-17 men's World Cup in India, with one, Esther Staubli of Switzerland, acting as the center referee in a group-stage match.

But none of those steps, Chenard said, could match the power of seeing her longtime friend referee a match in one of the world's best leagues.

"It can really push people to see things differently," Chenard said of Steinhaus' professional ascent. "I think it can be an important message that things are going to change, and it won't have to be a big news story the next time it happens."

Being defined by her profession, though, and not merely by her gender remains a work in progress. Steinhaus became animated, for example, when it was pointed out that despite her new prominence in the game she continued to be referred to as "Howard Webb's girlfriend" by certain media outlets and soccer fans. She has dated Webb, a retired English referee, for several years, and she visits him every few months in New York, where he lives while working for Major League Soccer.

"This is my status? Honestly?" Steinhaus said. "Of course, I'm damn proud to be that girl. But nobody says, 'That's Bibiana Steinhaus' boyfriend.'"

Steinhaus was 15 when she took her first steps toward qualifying as a referee, and within five years she was certified to officiate by the German soccer federation. She found that the job was appealingly complex: Each game represented a 90-minute world within a world, wherein she was tasked with interpreting rules and selling decisions to 22 uniquely delicate psyches.

But she was good at it: As her career progressed, she was assigned to referee at major women's tournaments and a number of big matches, including the 2012 Olympic women's final and last summer's women's Champions League final. Since 2007, she had been refereeing men's games in the German second division.

While rising through the ranks, Steinhaus was simultaneously cultivating a career as a police officer.

These days, she still works 25 hours a week for the regional police department, although her schedule and growing celebrity have for the past two years confined her to a desk.

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