I was excited, scared before first AFCON game – Female ref mukasanga

Rwanda’s Salima Mukansanga (left) in the thick of action during the match between Guinea and Malawi at the 2021 AFCON in Cameroon. Inset: She cautions a Guinean player

Rwanda’s Salima Mukansanga, the first female referee to officiate an AFCON match, in this interview with France 24, talks about her dream of refereeing at the men’s World Cup after her AFCON feat and her experiences in Cameroon. EBENEZER BAJELA monitored the interview

How did you feel when you found out that you would be officiating the group game between Zimbabwe and Guinea at the AFCON?

I was really excited because I started as the fourth official for the first two games. When I got the appointment to officiate the game, I said, ‘now this is my time, this is the chance I got and the moment and I am going to deliver and show that I am ready and also that I am capable.’ I said I was going to show the world that even a woman can be dominating and be a referee in the men’s game. So, from that moment I was really excited and maybe just a bit scared.

What was the experience like when you got to the pitch?

The first step I made into the field I felt the atmosphere and then I saw the crowd and the teams. They were really respecting me and I saw people trusting me, then I said to myself, let me push away the fear and make it possible. From that moment I started to say I am going to officiate like me – a woman. I said I was going to do it and I know the players will trust me because CAF trusts me. So, I have to trust myself and my colleagues, that we will make it. Immediately the fear disappeared.

What will you remember from that game?

That is a very big experience I got from the first whistle automatically, because that was not the first game I officiated in my career, so I forgot everything. I forgot about the AFCON, I forgot about being a woman and I was in the mood of refereeing. With that experience, it makes me feel that they were right and in myself, I feel confident that I can deliver.

What is it that makes you want to become a referee?

I used to watch football even though I didn’t play at the professional level because I played basketball. So, when I go with my family to watch the game, I saw people playing and the referees and I got excited because they could take decisions and change everything and the players always respect them, including the coaching staff and people around. So, I said why not I becoming such person?

You train along with the male referees. Are the training exactly the same thing?

Yes, they are exactly the same because the objective of the training is to work hard and meet the demands of the game – the demands of the men’s game. With that demand, I have to prepare and work for it, I have to push for it.

Do you think enough is done to understand the biological situation of women referees?

There is a moment that you have to stop because it’s part of life. Getting pregnant and the menstrual period are all part of life and we are not experiencing the same when we are in these stages. During this moment, women need support; some countries remove them from the list because they think they will not come back.

You are now an ambassador for any woman, who might want to become a referee. How does this make you feel?

This is an honour and a privilege and I am going to encourage young women that are looking at me to please wake up and work hard because this is the moment. Today it’s me, tomorrow it might be someone else. We are here to work hard and show the men that we can deliver and be on the same level that they are. We want to show that we can go into the pitch of play and take decisions and run according to our pace because we know we cannot run like men. But we can show them that even if we are women, we can be on the same level of officiating a game, making decisions, be who we have to be at the same time and understanding what football needs and the demands of the game.

You’ve already achieved so much, what are the other goals you have in mind?

I haven’t achieved anything yet because this is just the beginning, I have been opening the doors to the rest of women all over the world, especially in Africa. So, it means I have to keep working. Officiating at the men’s World Cup is a dream every man has and why not women? I have that dream too, but my focus is not that dream, my focus is to start, deliver and perform at the Women’s World Cup. That’s the dream for now and for the men’s World Cup, if they think I am ready and capable, they will give me the chance but first I have to focus on the Women’s World Cup.