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Women’s Day 2021: An inspirational story of two women football officials from India

The story of two path-breaking women officials - Uvena Fernandes and Maria Rebello - would inspire many, not just on International Women's Day 2021, but for generations to come (Image courtesy: AIFF)

By Shraishth Jain

The last decade has seen a number of landmarks achieved by women in Indian football. One of the most prominent records on the list belongs to referee Uvena Fernandes, who officiated at the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup 2016 in Jordan and is the only Indian to officiate at a FIFA World Cup final.

"I want to be a motivation for budding women players and referees. I am married to an Army officer and have a 10-year-old son but I firmly believe that nothing stops a woman. Even if you're married, have a kid and have a full-time job, you can still dream and fulfil your passion. You have to be focused and have to work hard. If you have a dream, you can achieve it," Uvena stated in a candid chat with the All India Football Federation (AIFF).

Uvena, who is a member of the elite FIFA panel, officiated in four matches, including the final, at the U-17 Women's World Cup in 2016 as an Assistant Referee. In the same year, she was conferred with the prestigious AFC Special Referees Award. In 2018, she was invited to officiate the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup as well.

"I have officiated in many tournaments but the most prestigious for me was the U-17 Women's World Cup because I was one of the officials in the final match. It was the most special occasion because I became the first Indian official to officiate any World Cup final match. It was a prestigious honour and a dream come true," she recalled.

Uvena, who hails from Canacona in South Goa, is a former India senior women's team player and looked back at her journey from being starting football in 11th standard to becoming one of the top match officials.

"Looking back at my refereeing journey, I feel proud. I lost my father at the age of two. He used to play football and always had a dream for me to be a footballer. I always look up to him. My brother has always been there for me and now, it's my son. Everything I do is for my son. He is my weakness and he is my strength," she smiled.

Uvena, a former National Team right-back, continued — "Playing for India was a great experience. I was good at sprinting and endurance and was a strong player. After playing, I wanted to be connected to football and since I was very strong fitness-wise, I thought I could do justice to refereeing. I think I proved it."

But it isn’t Uvena alone. At the women's semi-final match between Japan and Vietnam at the Asian Games 2014, Uvena was one of the Assistant Referees. In the same match, leading the officials in the middle as the centre referee was another Indian woman — Maria Rebello.

A former women's national team midfielder and captain, she is currently an AIFF & AFC Referee Instructor and holds the distinction of participating in three different Asian Games in three different roles — Player (1998 Bangkok), Referee (2014 Incheon) and Referee Assessor & Instructor (2018 Jakarta – Palembang).

Exactly seven years ago on this day in 2014, she became the first-ever woman referee to officiate an I-League match, which was played between Pune FC and Shillong Lajong at Balewadi Sports Complex in Pune — breaking a long-standing barrier in the process.

"It has to be the most memorable match for me in my career. I never thought I would get such an opportunity and when the postings were announced, I couldn't believe it. I prepared myself for the match and kept motivating myself, visualizing different scenarios and preparing how I would respond to situations," Maria told www.the-aiff.com.

Hailing from football-loving Curtorim in Goa, Maria began playing football at the age of seven in her village, where she would be the only girl on the field. Playing with local footballers, travelling to watch matches and idolizing the legendary Diego Maradona developed a deep passion inside Maria.

"I would be the only girl at village ground and there were boys who would say that they would not play if Maria plays because I used to play rough," she laughed. "Everyone around me encouraged me to play and many other senior players from Curtorim would come and train at the local church ground, and I would train with them."

"I was selected at the sub-junior level for the Goa team and in a few years, I was selected for the Senior National team. As a player, I loved taking responsibility and compete fiercely. I feel privileged and blessed that I had the opportunity to captain my country," Maria recollected.

Uvena works as an Air Traffic Controller with the Indian Air Force — with both her roles requiring sharp decision-making.

"I actually started refereeing with men's matches in Goa which made the progression easier. In both my roles as referee and Air Traffic Controller, I have to make quick decisions. I am very thorough with the Laws of the Game and believe strongly that if you are good at your job — no one can question you. At times, there will be mistakes because you are human but I have never had any experience as such where I had to face any trouble," Uvena averred.

A path-breaker in the truest sense of the word, Uvena expressed her happiness at the progress made by women referees and hopes that many more follow her lead.

"The federation is extremely supportive and doing a very good job to improve the level of players as well as referees. I see a very good future for both women players and referees. We have made a lot of progress in women's football and I hope it keeps continuing. There are so many women referees in India now and all the states are encouraging women referees a lot. It is a great step," she stated.

After her playing days, Maria made the switch to refereeing to stay 'in touch' with the game and kept on persevering despite many hurdles that came along the way.

"I wanted to be in touch with football and be on the field instead of the stands or technical area. Hence, refereeing was the only option I had. There were challenging times in between I did not give up and worked hard. I used to motivate myself and was confident that I will get what I am destined to get," Maria averred.

She talked about her experience of starting off by officiating professional men's matches in Goa and then in numerous competitions across India and Asia such as the Santosh Trophy, I-League, National Games, Asian Games and Chinese National Games, etc.

"When I started, I was the sole woman referee from Goa and before me, there were only a few from all over India, I was very fortunate to officiate in men's matches as well. I absolutely loved doing professional matches in Goa, where the likes of Churchill Brothers, Salgaocar, Dempo, Sporting Club, etc would play. These were extremely high-profile matches and featured the top Indian players along with foreigners such as Odafa (Okolie)!" Maria shared.

Now working as a referee instructor and preparing the next generation of match officials, Maria expressed her delight at the positive developments in recent years.

"There are lots of new women referees, which is a very good sign. There are many in number who are taking interest as they know now that they can make a career in refereeing. During my time, there would be just four of us — women officials for women NFCs (National Football Championships) and the rest were all men. However, now NFCs for ladies are officiated by women only — right from the sub-junior to the senior level."

"I strongly believe that the word 'impossible' has no relevance these days. There are lots of options and opportunities for women to grow and excel, and it makes me happy to see them coming out and succeed. I am looking forward to seeing women referees come to the Hero I-League and I am confident that they will show what they are capable of," Maria declared.