Joanna Socha: Where did your interest in football come from?
Aleksandra Sulkiewicz: My brother, Osman, is a football player. From the very beginning, I cheered him during his games. At one point, he started his own team – Królewscy Warszawa (edit. Warsaw Royals). During one of the games, it turned out that there was no person who would coordinate the organization of such games. For several years I worked on the organization of film festivals. When my brother offered me the opportunity to become a game manager, I agreed without hesitation. At one point, I found that there was no one on the team who would be able to answer all the questions that bothered me. I just wanted to learn the rules. When the league organized a referee training course, I decided to try it. I have a master’s degree in law, so I have this ability to navigate through the regulations. I realized refereeing is fun and why not try it?
Are there many women football referees in Europe?
There are many in Europe, which may be thanks to the fact that this sport is still developing here and there is a great demand for referees. There are no barriers to entry, such as in the USA. In the United States, in the NFL (The National Football League), the first woman referee was appointed recently.
How did your friends react to the news that you would be a football official?
I had a lot of support. My brother was just delighted. I have had various passions in the past. For example, I loved diving while holding my breath, but this passion was quite expensive. And being a referee, not only turned out to be my passion, but I get paid for it. Problems began when my first injuries appeared. One injury had me immobilized for an entire year. After that, my family and friends weren’t as excited about me working in this field. I took a little break last year, but then I had had enough rest. I came back in full swing, and this year I worked more than in the past two years.
How great is the pressure when it comes to refereeing in the top division?
Colossal, because it involves great responsibility. The players of two teams spend the whole year preparing for this game. For them it’s the most important moment; nothing else matters. Fortunately, I’ve never made decisions that would turn the game upside down, but such things happen. I have only a fraction of a second to make a decision. I can’t watch a replay like on TV. And I can’t express hesitation, because the players can use it against me. There is a lot of preparation on my end as well. Before each game I try to consider all possible options, rereading the rulebook over and over again. Most often I am a head linesman and have to deal with coaches. The pressure from them comes first. When I started, I felt that I needed to prove to everyone that I could do my job well and that I am a professional. But the biggest challenge is not to prove your strength to the players, coaches or other officials, but to believe in yourself.
Do you remember your first game?
Definitely. It was horrible. Recently I even discussed it with colleagues and we were laughing about it. It was a sparring game (not a real league game). The two teams always hated each other. During their games, it always came to the point when, instead of playing, they hurt each other. And that was my first game. I remember other officials yelling at me: „Aleksandra, whistle!” And I couldn’t find the whistle. And when I did and whistled, they yelled: „Not now!” It was very bad, a drama. But I learned a lot thanks to it.
Before this interview I spoke to another professional football referee. He said that it is more difficult for women to be in this profession and that if a woman makes a mistake, the backlash is different than it is for a man.
It is more difficult for women to be on a field, definitely. A new woman on the field has to get through many unwritten rules; she must learn to communicate well with players, learn how to be assertive. A lot of time had to pass before I learned to bluntly say „NO DISCUSSION!” on the field when the players tried to negotiate my decisions and put pressure on me. „No discussion” really works. There will be no discussion, I’ve made the decision and we’re playing on. If I let anyone negotiate, then others will follow. And that is the last thing a referee needs. When there is a time and possibility to talk to players in a more quiet place, to explain my decision and share our views – I do it. The role of a referee is not only to be a judge for the game, but also to – sometimes – teach the players, and sometimes – admit to a mistake. We all make mistakes.
And what’s your relationship like with your brother? Do you talk about football at all or do you avoid this topic at home whatsoever?
During family events, we have a ban on football topics. We avoid it like politics. But as probably with all siblings, we have a tendency to argue. It happens that after a game, he makes me angry saying how I could have done something better or how other officials could improve it. Unless he’s right, I tell him to go and file an official complaint.
It seems you are not planning to quit this passion?
No. Usually, my specific interests fade after three years. This one has persevered. I want to encourage more women to join our referee organization; we really have had people who have never dealt with this side of the sport before. It’s a great way to develop different skills: you become more fit, you train your mind and perceptive skills and, what’s more important – you train your interpersonal skills. No corporation will give you all of this.
Joanna Socha is the editor-in-chief of W insight
Edited by: Diana Asatryan, Phyllis Budka
Featured photo: Piotr Piekut / INTERCEPTION