The African who defied all odds: Salima Mukansanga was the first African referee at the Men’s FIFA World Cup

Salima Mukansanga

In January 2022, Salima Mukansanga wrote history in African football by becoming the first female to referee a match at the African Cup of Nations, when she took charge of the group phase game between Guinea and Zimbabwe, at the Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium in Yaounde, Cameroon.

Only 10 months later, she wrote another page of history by becoming the first African female referee to be nominated for the FIFA World Cup, recognising her immense efforts and the excellent job she did on the continent.

“After the game my colleagues were laughing, it got emotional then I cried in the locker room. I was really happy, very happy and excited because my dream came true,” she said, after the game between Guinea and Zimbabwe.

But the Rwandan official could have been on a totally different path. Mukansanga fell in love with basketball, one of the most popular sports in Rwanda, from an early age. She always wanted to become a professional basketball player, but when she was 15 years old, she was denied a place in the Under-17 national team of Rwanda.

“I was 15 years old and I was told ‘you’re still young, maybe you’ll get a chance in another two years.’ So, I tried football. I’d never played football. But I said let me focus on something else. I liked basketball a lot, and wanted to take it very seriously, but access to basketball facilities and good coaches was hard. That’s how I ended up in refereeing, which I have also never regretted. I love it” Mukansanga told the German television Deutsche Welle.

But with football in Rwanda failing to provide any chances for women, she turned to refereeing officiating in school tournaments in her final year of school. After only two years, her meteoric rise was complete and was officiating in the men’s second league in Rwanda and in the women’s first league.

It was not an easy journey, as courses for referees were scarce in Rwanda, therefore Mukansanga had to become a self-didact referee. She taught herself the laws of the game and acing the tests with flying colours, despite being the only woman who even took them in a field of 40 men.

“No other girl continued. It is a difficult thing because there were times when I was feeling discouraged,” she explained.

Only four years later, she was accepted in the African Football Confederation’s top-tier level of referees and started officiating international games, which really put her on the radar.

Yet the journey was not complete. Back in 2004, Mukansanga was still an assistant referee, when CAF awarded her a chance to become a central referee, as she was delegated to the Women’s African Cup of Nations game between Zambia and Tanzania.

“It is because of how I handled that match that I proved my ability to lead matches at any level on the continent. It was an exciting experience. Since that day, I have been trusted to officiate countless international matches in Africa and beyond,” adds Mukansanga.

Her pedigree is now next to none, having featured at the 2016 Women’s Nations Cup, the 2019 Women’s World Cup and the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. But her biggest challenge was the nomination for the Africa’s Cup of Nations, where the first game between Zimbabwe and Guinea was a truly difficult one.

She handed out six yellow cards and separated players who were close to fighting each other during the game, in what proved to be a composed performance. It was also the ticket for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, with FIFA nominating six women to referee for the first time in history.

“In a field dominated by men, you need to double your work – then have the passion, because without this passion you are going to get tired and then you leave it. But we don’t want to quit. We need to be one step ahead and work, succeed and fight together.”

“It’s an honour and a privilege because it’s never happened before. It means you’re going to be the first one and going to open the door for other women, especially in Africa. You carry a lot on your shoulders and you need to carry it well, so others can see that the door is open and they can also go through. It means the opportunities are there – and it’s up to us to take them and become productive from them,” Mukansanga told BBC Sport Africa.

The Rwandan referee has already been the reserve at several matches at Qatar 2022, but has truly been an inspiration in both her country and throughout Africa. And with role models like Mukansanga, not only the level of refereeing will go up, but also the number of women who will have the courage to try it.

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