Salima Mukansanga is primed to make history at the ongoing Africa Cup of Nations, where she will become the first woman to referee a match at the men’s continental showpiece.
The tournament in Cameroon is the latest step in a rise to prominence for Mukansanga, who was the fourth official for Guinea‘s 1-0 victory over Malawi on Monday, and is expected to take the reins as a central referee later this week.
The 33-year-old Rwandan official was involved in matches at the Tokyo Olympics and the Women’s World Cup in France, and now eyes the Nations Cup as an opportunity to prove that there should be no barriers for women referees within the men’s game.
“We’ll show the world we can do something,” she told ESPN, ahead of her debut as the first female central referee at the biennial continental showpiece.
“We can show that we can referee a man’s game at a tough level… and succeed.
“The Laws of the Game are the same, we’re now using VAR, it’s the same as the World Cup, the Olympics, and it’s a great opportunity for me and for other women.
“I want other women to support me, other woman referees and women all over the world, because we can do something, we are ready; the preparation is the same, and we have the courage to succeed.”
She’s one of four female officials at the tournament — alongside Bouchra Karboubi and Fatiha Jermoumi (Morocco), and Carine Atemzabong (Cameroon) — although only Mukansanga has been designated as a primary referee.
“I was so excited, very happy and a bit scared to be appointed for the AFCON,” she continued. “It’s a great achievement, honour, and story to be appointed as the first woman referee at the tournament.
“I thought maybe they’d made a mistake with my name, when I found it among the list of referees, but now I’m here, so it means they saw something in me, they believe in me, and they’re convinced that I can do something.
“I know I’m capable, I trust myself, and I trust what I’m doing.”
Certainly, she’s received an endorsement from CAF’s Head of Referees Eddy Maillet, who made the final decision on which officials will take part in the tournament.
“The match officials were selected based on their experience, their abilities and their current form,” Maillet wrote in a statement as seen by ESPN.
“Only the best officials will be here for this extraordinary event.”
Mukansanga’s imminent debut is another new landmark for female referees, and could come only days after Rebecca Welch became the first woman referee to take charge of an FA Cup third round tie when she officiated Plymouth Argyle’s victory over Birmingham City at the weekend.
Mukansanga believes that participation at the Tokyo Olympics, where she officiated Team GB’s matches against Chile and Australia, and the meeting between the Netherlands and China, has prepared her well for the challenges of the Nations Cup.
“The Olympics are one of the biggest competitions in the world, for me it was a major event and I learned a lot,” she continued.
“We would encounter unfamiliar situations during the course of the games, so [during the pre-competition seminar] we were taught some skills to use during the games, with teams, and with VAR.
“In Africa, in my country, we aren’t using VAR, so that was huge, and I learned a lot, many important tools to be read for the games.
“The Olympics were a challenge, but they helped me be seen, gave me an image where everyone recognised me, and people think: ‘this lady can do something, this lady is ready’.”
Despite the formative experience of the Olympics, and the way that increased Mukansanga’s prominence within the African arena, she acknowledges that taking the reins of a Nations Cup game will bring some specific challenges.
“Of course, men’s games at this level aren’t like women’s games, with experienced and professional players, the speed of the game, the skills of the teams. The kind of football you should expect and the understanding of the game are at the highest level,” she acknowledged.
“All those things require me to be at a top level and be ready to deal with them, this means being well prepared, [knowing] the laws of the game, and their application, interpretation and implementation.
“The most important thing is to be ready for the demands of the game, working hard of course with my fellow referees. Together with appropriate teamwork and communication skills, we will succeed together.”
It’s clear that beyond the technical aspects of refereeing, Mukansanga’s desire to reach the pinnacle of the game is fuelled by a love of football from a grassroots level, having played the sport as a youngster only to find herself fascinated by the person in the middle.
“I used to play football at primary and secondary school, but when I used to watch games, I liked to watch the one who was on the field of play, who was taking decisions, leading players, talking to the players, the one who people are respecting on the field of play, and that person interested me,” Mukansanga revealed.
“I wanted to be like that person on the field of play, I wanted to do what he was doing and I needed to learn more about that person, the one leading the game, giving them cards, sanctioning them. That’s why I had this passion.”
After initially being rejected by the Rwandan FA on account of her age, having approached them about joining a referees course straight out of secondary school, she taught herself the basics of officiating, the Laws of the Game, and was eventually given the opportunity of studying with other new referees.
Having been given her initial formation, she returned to her hometown and began to officiate matches for veterans, then amateur players, and then eventually worked her way up through the local footballing pyramid, starting with third division men’s games.
After reaching the domestic top flight, continental and, subsequently, international responsibilities have followed, and Mukansanga is acutely aware of how her passion for refereeing and love of the sport have transformed her life in ways she hadn’t expected.
“I’ve already reached a place I didn’t expect to reach, [realised] dreams I was having, and travelled from Africa to Europe, from Europe to America, because of refereeing,” she added.
“I’ve travelled a lot, and begun to learn how other countries are, how teams are from other countries, different confederations, continents, and then there you are — from Africa — and you are refereeing games from European teams or American teams.
“Not everyone can get this chance, so to find yourself with these teams, compared to the teams you used to officiate whose level is not so good, and it is something which makes me feel so excited.”
Mukansanga, who officiated the world’s highest-altitude football match on Mount Kilimanjaro in 2017, has set her sights on the men’s World Cup in the future, but for now it’s the Nations Cup, and the prospect of making history on Africa’s grandest stage, that has her eagle-eyed attention.
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