We’ve known this day was coming since last May, but the knowledge of it didn’t spoil this past Sunday, when Bibiana Steinhaus made history by becoming the first woman to officiate a Bundesliga match, a 1-1 draw in Berlin’s Olympia Stadion between Hertha Berlin vs. Werder Bremen, which means Steinhaus is also the first woman to officiate a match in any of Europe’s five biggest leagues. And it’s about time.
Steinhaus’ top flight achievement occurs ten years (2007) after she officiated her first professional mens game in Germany’s 2.Bundesliga, where she’s been a fixture this past decade. Steinhaus is also considered one of women football’s best referees, having officiated the likes of the 2017 Womens Champions League Final, the 2011 Womens World Cup Final, the 2012 Womens Olympic Final, and other top womens events. It’s likely Steinhaus would have officiated even more major semi-finals and finals, if Germany’s womens team hadn’t been so successful during Steinhaus’ refereeing career. Hence the Sunday match in Berlin was a well-earned reward for the Bundesliga’s newest referee.
The 38-year -old Steinhaus is a native of Bad Lauterberg, a charming small town in Germany’s Lower Saxony state. Outside footballing weekends, Steinhaus is a police officer in Hannover, Germany. So yeah, neon cleat-wearing and excessively-gelled divas, don’t mess with her. As a police officer, Steinhaus follows in something like a football tradition of referees from the force. Of course, her boyfriend/partner is Howard Webb, another police officer / football referee, who reportedly moved to Germany to live with Steinhaus. Talk about football’s power couple. Finally, I can run the headline we’ve all been waiting for: “Steinhaus’ Boyfriend Officiated World Cup Final.”
Steinhaus’ promotion can be interpreted in two paradoxical ways. On the one hand, her promotion signals a deep streak of progressiveness in the German game with the DFB’s willingness to break a key a gender barrier. On the other hand, it’s unclear if her promotion was delayed, given Steinhaus’ credentials and experience and the seemingly long wait she endured. So it’s tricky to discern what exactly her promotion means, especially within the German context.
In the broader European context, at least, it’s clear that once again Germany is doing something a bit different in football, which is encouraging given the “cross-pressures” that are raging through German football at the moment. The fact that one of Europe’s biggest leagues greenlighted a female referee for the mens game, hopefully inspires other big leagues to follow suit; for example, Sian Massey-Ellis has long been a strong referee candidate for England’s Premier League. With Steinhaus’ promotion, the Bundesliga can say it “got there first.” Thus, Steinhaus’ promotion is a pioneering event for big European football.
However, until the DFB clarifies otherwise, this particular writer wonders if the DFB delayed somewhat in promoting Steinhaus to the top division. After Steinhaus’ prior decade of refereeing experience, the “optics” of her situation seem to indicate that she should have been promoted sooner. I’ll grant that there’s probably a technical/credentialing barrier that kept Steinhaus off the top flight pitch, but until the DFB clarifies otherwise, I have some slight and lingering doubts about the machinations behind her promotion. Or I’ll concede that possibly Steinhaus herself wanted to take a slower path to the top for personal reasons. But until I hear otherwise, my tiny doubts won’t simply go away.
With her 18 total years of refereeing experience , Steinhaus was eminently qualified for her promotion. Prior to Sunday’s match, she’d been the “fourth” official on the touchline in many Bundesliga matches and had officiated 80 2.Bundesliga matches, as well as DFB Pokal matches. Not to mention the matches she’s officiated at the highest level in the women’s game. So in some ways, Steinhaus was already acquainted with the German top flight in terms of the personalities, issues, high stakes, etc. However, even Steinhaus implied that this prior experience is only a pale shadow compared with officiating the real thing, as she explained before the match: “The Bundesliga’s speed and intensity will be a step up for me.” I don’t know about you, but I gladly interpret this comment as a compelling statement about our favorite league’s excitement and power. Steinhaus underscores the Bundesliga’s quality in her statement. Speaking of quality, Steinhaus was widely praised for her debut. Werder’s coach Alexander Nouri stated that Steinhaus is deserving: “She’s earned it through her performances and that’s all that really matters.” Other coaches and players from the match—and around the league—were equally positive about Steinhaus’ debut.
So history has been made. But what does it mean?
Well, the simplest implication is that Steinhaus will be a refereeing fixture this season in the German top flight. Hopefully, the season’s routines will “normalize” her work, thus clearing the ground for other female referees, like England’s Massey-Ellis. Or for the other women already refereeing professionally in Germany, like Riem Hussain (in the 3.Liga) and Katrin Rafalski (an assistant ref in the 2.Bundesliga). This routine also means that Steinhaus will become a familiar on-pitch presence, like Dr. Felix Brych, Felix Zwayer, Manuel Gräfe, or the sometimes beleagured Deniz Aytekin. If Steinhaus’ track record in the 2.Bundesliga, DFB Pokal, and womens football means anything, it’s likely that she will become one of the league’s most respected referees. However, even respected referees are heavily scrutinized and occasionally screw up. Steinhaus will be no different. And you better believe that, even if people claim otherwise, her gender will necessarily draw attention—and an extra measure of scrutiny—to her performance. In other words, her name will be in the news again this season. Bet on it.
Another prediction is that Steinhaus’ first season won’t be without “incident,” whether trivial or more serious, by which I mean some actions/words by coaches or players with a gendered dynamic. Of course, Steinhaus is already no stranger to flat out disrespect or dubious comedy. In terms of the later, Bayern’s Franck Ribéry infamously, and in good humor, untied Steinhaus’ shoelace during a DFB Pokal match.
Although Steinhaus laughed off the incident, given Ribéry’s penchant for humor, it’s understandable and probably appropriate that Steinhaus’ gender transforms the incident into something more complicated, despite Ribéry’s good-hearted intentions. Then there are more dubious incidents involving men’s underpants and men’s hands in inappropriate places. Sure, Steinhaus is mostly smiles during these moments, but the scrutiny around similar incidents in the future will only be magnified (and judged!), no matter how Steinhaus responds.
My personal favorite Steinhaus moment, however, is her handling of Pep Guardiola’s typical assholery with referees when he patronized her, then broke personal space boundaries. Steinhaus (“stone house” in English), gave Pep the kind of stony treatment that’s appropriate for workplace interactions. She snubbed him. So satisfying:
Next, there’s the more serious confrontation with (then) Fortuna Düsseldorf’s Kerem Demirbay, who was sent off during a 2.Bundesliga match, insulted Steinhaus, then was made himself was made to referee a girls match. Given the rich diversity of cultural backgrounds in the Bundesliga, don’t be surprised if a player from a culture with more traditional views about gender similarly blows it in the heat of the moment during a match Steinhaus officiates. These things will happen. Probably.
Aside from possible incidents, another possible meaning to Steinhaus’ promotion is that we inadvertently downplay it, which, I’d argue, in some ways is the default position of the sports world (media, coaches, and players). That is, a pattern I’ve observed in Steinhaus’ story as well as other similar stories of glass-ceiling breakers, is that some sports folks strictly praise the performance, as if gender has nothing to do with it and as if the only thing that should matter is performance (e.g. Julian Nagelsmann’s comment that it doesn’t matter if the referee is male or female). Although well-intentioned, these comments inadvertently paper over the milestone Steinhaus’ promotion by insisting that the moment ushers in a new normality or signaling that a woman can (obviously!) referee a top flight mens match in a major European football league. Yes, I’ll happily concede these points, but also insist that Steinhaus’ debut is a big deal. BIG DEAL. By insisting that it’s all about performance, these comments inadvertently remove what I’ll call “the social” from the phenomenon by assuming that achievement is simply a technocratic function (i.e. checking off the technical performance boxes for a “good refereeing performance”). Sorry, but I can’t reduce cultural phenomena to technocratic functions alone. Nope, we’ve got real people with real emotions and real experiences interacting in new ways. And it’s really cool.
It’s easy to talk about social change, but actually seeing it and watching others respond to it is another matter entirely. So I take slight issue with some media pundits, coaches, and players insisting on Steinhaus’ performance alone validating her inclusion in the top flight. Although her performance is the warrant upon which her breakthrough story is possible, the bigger story from this weekend is that she was actually there on the pitch. Because, let’s be fair, shall we? Steinhaus will surely want us to evaluate her on an entire body of refereeing work at season’s end, as we should with other referees.
For now, I’m absolutely thrilled by the new ground that Steinhaus is clearing for us.