Salima Mukansanga has revealed she did not see the opportunity to officiate at a men’s FIFA World Cup coming.
The Rwandan-born referee will make history in the next few days as the first African woman to officiate at the finals of the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, exactly 10 months after achieving a similar feat at the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon.
Mukansanga alongside Japan’s Yoshimi Yamashita and Frenchwoman Stephanie Frappart were appointed as the first-time female centre referee to officiate at a men’s World Cup.
And the 34-year-old, who broke a glass ceiling officiating the Afcon group stage match between Zimbabwe and Guinea on 18 January 2022, shared her feeling on being selected among the first-time women officiating at the World Cup in 92 years.
“It was very exciting, and this is a privilege for me. I had never dreamed to go to the men’s World Cup,” Mukansanga told FIFA.com.
“The first time I was nominated to go to a World Cup, was in France for the 2019 Women’s World Cup, so my next target was more at the Women’s World Cup in New Zealand in 2023.
“Being appointed to the Men’s World Cup is something new, another opportunity we get. It means FIFA recognises that women are working hard, that we are providing quality refereeing and that we can deliver and reach higher, up to the top of the men’s game.”
Starting as early as 15, Mukansanga reflected on her rough early years, while also sharing her incredible rise through the ranks, having been a listed international referee for FIFA since 2012.
“I have loved refereeing since childhood, I was inspired when I used to go to games in my hometown and I would look on the field watching the players but also the referees,” she admitted.
“Seeing them in action was a big inspiration for me. So being a referee is really something I wanted to do, and it has been a motivation and driver within me. I just love it.
“In the beginning, I used to officiate in the local leagues for men and second division women. It was not professional, just local in our FA. Soon after that, I developed my referee abilities and started refereeing in a national league second division, second division women and then up to the first division men.”
On coping with reactions while officiating at men’s domestic games a woman, she said: “At a time it was new because we didn’t see women referees. It is a field dominated by men. People did not accept what we were doing. They would reluctantly say “She’s doing fine”.
“But within me, I had a big dream to reach far, to be a professional referee, but people did not accept me. However, day by day, they started to accept it more, because of the decisions I took. They found that I was making fair 2/5 decisions and so they tried to accept.
“After more time, they also started to encourage young girls to get involved in those fields dominated by men, so it was a good time for me as I knew many of the other female referees and we could present a more powerful appearance together.”
With just hours to the World Cup kick-off, she opened up about her preparations and readiness for the new challenge in Qatar.
“I’m just preparing for the World Cup tournament as a whole, not particular games. So, I have to prepare myself physically, mentally and theoretically to be ready. This is all based on the training we get which includes courses and seminars,” she said.
“The expectation is always more, and so we need to give more. We have a special diet, we are almost like elite athletes ourselves! Everything is set out for every referee going to the World Cup.
“We have access to an online platform, the same platform for everyone and here we have the same training – everything is the same and everything is equal.”
On her rough path to the pinnacle of football, the Rwandese holds no regrets embracing refereeing early, while promising to give it her best shot on the global stage.
“I’m not regretting anything. Here I am, and I deserve to be here. This is my time, and I have to seize this time to make it shine. I’m really glad to be going to the World Cup, because I worked hard for this,” she reflected.
“I can stand on my decisions until the future because I want my future to be bright. And I want young girls to look at me and follow in my footstep, because me too, I am now here because I followed the advice of people who have been there. Now, it is the time and I keep focused on the World Cup.”
To aspiring girls and female referees from Africa, the only female among the six Qatar-bound African referees, urged: “Wherever you are coming from, don’t feel shy. Don’t feel depressed. Don’t let anyone ever say that you will never get there.
“You will, because of what you want to be. Today, I am here, and I never thought I would. It means you too can have that. Keep working hard, follow your dreams, focus on what you want to be, because the future is bright. Whatever you want to be, you will be.”