It’s been a long and winding road for 33-year-old Uruguayan referee Claudia Umpierrez. Just this month, she became the first woman in history to take charge of a first division fútbol match in Uruguay, reffing Central Español’s 3-2 defeat of Tacuarembó on March 5. At times, she has felt like giving up.
“The first was in 2008,” she said in an interview with FIFA.com. “I’d been in the fourth division for four years and I felt a bit bogged down in terms of how the instructors viewed me.”
Six years prior, in 2002, Umpierrez signed up for a reffing course upon moving to Montevideo to study law. She was born into a family of fútbol lovers and started to show interest in following her grandfather and aunt’s footsteps as early as age 16, after a modest youth career as a center forward.
“My father didn’t like the idea because he knew how referees get treated,” she explained. “I won him round by telling him I could make some money to help me with my studies.” Which is exactly what she went on to do.
Of the 12 women who took part in the reffing course, Umpierrez was one of only three to complete it. Four years of fourth division fútbol earned her a call up to the third division in 2009, and another quick jump had her reffing second tier teams by 2010. It was at this time that Umpierrez was also appointed a FIFA international referee, officiating the South American U-20 World Championship and Women’s Copa Libertadores competitions as well.
“I’ve never performed in front of 54,000 people before! I came away from Canada all the stronger and ready to do what I’m doing now.”
After a job well done on opening day and in the semifinals of the U-17 Women’s World Cup in Azerbaijan in 2012, Umpierrez got the biggest call of her career: “They called me for the U-20 World Cup as a reserve referee, but I’d had a baby in January and I failed the speed exercise at the final test that June,” she said. “I thought my chances of refereeing at a senior World Cup had gone.”
Thankfully, hard work and a love of soccer have a funny way of trumping all else. “They called me for the Algarve Cup. I trained hard, passed and got the call to go to Canada as my reward.”
When asked to comment on her experience at Canada 2015, Umpierrez said that “the FIFA preparation process gave me the chance to absorb absolutely everything I experienced there. I refereed three matches, including the quarterfinal between Canada and England, which attracted a record crowd. I’ve never performed in front of 54,000 people before! I came away from Canada all the stronger and ready to do what I’m doing now.”
What is Umpierrez doing now? Honing her craft at the highest level in her home country, with the love and support of her family in the stands. “When I came out [daughter Naomi] shouted: ‘Hello my lovely mummy!’ It’s the nicest thing someone’s ever shouted at me on the pitch.”
“I’m not in a position to referee a Peñarol-Nacional match yet, though obviously I’d love to.”
There were only 400 fans at Central Español’s facility that day, but that fact does not take away from the import and momentous nature of Umpierrez’s achievements. Even if the FIFA referee and lawyer speaks of them humbly herself:
“The way I see it, it’s just part of my job and I feel I’m the same person I was when I refereed in the division below last year. If anyone sees it as another open door through which more female referees can come into the professional game in Uruguay, then so much the better.”
What does her future hold? “I’m not in a position to referee a Peñarol-Nacional match yet, though obviously I’d love to,” she told FIFA.com. “I don’t want to get ahead of myself, though. I need to show that I’m here to stay and that I haven’t got where I am by chance. I feel I have a responsibility to show that we female referees have got what it takes to officiate at a professional level. If we get the opportunities, then it’s up to us to prove that.”