A manager of a great British soccer club once said: “A soccer match isn’t a matter of life or death… it’s much more than that!”
That’s how it is with soccer. It’s a great sport — but only if you win. But when you lose, it’s no longer a game. It’s a tragedy — and somebody has to be blamed. It may be the goalkeeper who had a bad day, or an off-form striker, or the luckless manager.
But more often than not, it’s the referee — it’s all his fault — the moegoe robbed us — he shoulda given a penalty — he shoulda ruled offsides — he needs a pair of specs — he was bribed, s’true — how can we win playing against 12 of them? — and so on and so on.
So who in their right mind chooses to be a soccer referee? Only somebody who likes to be where the action is. Somebody who loves the game. Somebody like — wait for it — Shirley Mphuti.
That’s right. Shirley is a woman — one of the few women who is pushing her way up in what has always been known as a man’s game.
At the moment, Shirley is a level two referee — which means she only handles school matches. But her aim is to climb much higher… all the way to blowing the whistle in the first division with the “big boys”.
“NO GOSSIP, NO HEADACHES”
Shirley Mphuti was born into a family of five children in Pimville, Soweto. When she was a young girl, she moved to Mohlakeng in Randfontein. It was here that she started her schooling — and where her love for ball games — especially soccer — began.
Shirley started as a defender in the all- girls basketball team. While the girls were jumping up trying to get the ball into the net, the boys were scoring goals on the nearby soccer field. As soon as the basketball game was over, Shirley and the girls would rush over and watch the boys playing soccer.
“You see, what I loved about soccer were the goals. I wanted to see goals, goals and more goals. I was only interested in the game when the ball was in the 18-yard area. I just didn’t understand what the players were doing chasing and kicking the ball around in the middle of the ground without testing the goalkeeper.
“I always enjoyed being with boys. No gossip and no headaches. My brother, Archie, also taught me to love the sport. Until he died a few years ago, we used to have long talks about soccer. We were both loyal fans of Orlando Pirates,” says Shirley.
A REFEREE IN THE MAKING
Shirley came back home to Soweto in 1973. After passing her matric at Seana-Marena High School in 1983, she went on to Moretele in Hammanskraal where she did a teacher’s training course. She completed the course in 1986 and one year later, she found herself teaching at Molatladi Lower Primary in Rockville.
At Molatladi, Shirley’s ambition was to give the little children she was teaching the best education possible — she wanted to see them growing up in body and in mind. One day, a newsletter arrived at the school. It asked for “volunteers” to take part in activities outside of school.
“There were many activities being offered, like cooking, sewing,… and soccer-coaching. Of course I did not think twice — what could be nicer than coaching the sport you love to the children you love?”
So it was off to the Ninja Game Reserve on the East Rand. There, Shirley did a course in coaching and refereeing. Out of a class of 50, there were only five women.
A SCORE FOR WOMEN
It was not easy — then or now — coming up against the small-minded idea that women do not belong on a soccer field.
“On the training course, there were many times when I could sense the men thinking: ‘What’s a woman doing here?’ And if I was having a discussion with a man, and the discussion was not going his way, he would always call in his friends to help him. The men nearly always made us feel that we were not as good as them. Of course, that is nonsense.
“But I have never been one to sit down and shut up. If I believe something is unfair or not right, I am not shy to say so. Once, I was watching a game in a Milk Cup Competition when a referee made a wrong call. It caused a lot of ill- feeling between the two sides.
“After the match, I went up to the referee to point out to him what he had done wrong. The referee’s eyes nearly popped out of his head. Then he roared: ‘What do you know about soccer?… After all, you are only a woman.’ He knew I was right, but he would not apologise to me, even after he learnt I was a referee.”
Says Shirley: “Men, especially in our African society, just cannot understand that women can do what men can do. My feeling is, if somebody makes a mistake, people should look at it from the point of view that it was made by a human being. Not by a man or a woman.”
A LOT TO LEARN
Shirley says that she still has a lot to learn in the art of refereeing. “I don’t have enough practical experience in refereeing. I know this and that is why I once refused to referee in a Milk Club Tournament in Durban.
“My aim is to learn so much about the game, that no other official will be able to ignore my knowledge — even if they are blind. They will simply have to say: This woman is the best there is’.
“With more knowledge and practice, I can handle any game, be it at Ellis Park or Orlando. The fans do not worry me. All I want to see is that the game goes the way it should go — fairly.
“Fans may shout and scream. But if there is a problem between the players and myself, then that is my business. And if we can sort it out, all the better. After all, that is the job of a referee.”
A WATCHFUL EYE
But it is not only on the field that a referee has to keep a watchful eye. There are often problems off the field. One of these is bribery.
Shirley speaks softly but firmly. “Everybody knows there is bribery in soccer. For me, bribery is a terrible thing and something that I will always fight against. It brings out the worst in everybody — the players, the fans, the referee. But most of all, it poisons the sport of soccer.”
Luckily, there are enough referees who believe, like Shirley, that corruption has no place on the soccer field. So next time you see a beautiful, dark-skinned woman trot on to the centre of the field, you will know that another goal has been scored for the good name of soccer!
NEW WORDS tragedy — a sad and terrible happening luckless — without luck or success practical experience — learning on the job