The trailblazing referee who gave up her job to be at Qatar 2022

Nesbitt became the first woman to referee a championship match in professional men's sports in North America in December 2021, when she took the field for the MLS Cup between Columbus Crew and Seattle Sounders.

Six women – three referees and three assistant referees – will make history at the 2022 FIFA World Cup, as the first ever to officiate matches in the competition, as France’s Stephanie Frappart, Rwanda’s Salima Mukansanga, Japan’s Yoshimi Yamashita, Brazil’s Neuza Back, Mexico’s Karen Diaz Medina and USA’s Kathryn Nesbitt were nominated by the FIFA Referee Committee.

All of them have already been officiating at the highest level in the FIFA Women’s World Cup, but making the big step, after already setting new records in their domestic and continental competitions, is a huge achievement for all of them.

While Frappart has been the referee in UEFA Champions League matches and Yamashita has been officiating in the AFC Asian Champions League, Nesbitt’s story is one of the most poignant and inspiring at Qatar 2022.

She became the first woman to referee a championship match in professional men’s sports in North America in December 2021, when she took the field for the MLS Cup between Columbus Crew and Seattle Sounders.

Her inclusion for the 2022 FIFA World Cup was not a surprise, but rather than a prize for her hard work and dedication, which saw her stepping down from her job as an assistant professor position at Towson University to focus on officiating full time.

In spite of her setting new records in the United States of America in all professional sports, not only football, she never expected to be selected for the FIFA World Cup. But when she learned that she is going to pack her bags for Qatar 2022, it was truly an achievement.

“I learned about my nomination from Twitter, when FIFA unveiled the list of referees. I just got jaw-dropped, stared at it, and couldn’t even believe that this was happening. Then I probably jumped around the room for the next 20 minutes,” she told the “Washington Post”.

A football player in her young years, Nesbitt started refereeing when she was only 14 years old, watching her younger brother’s games in Rochester, New York. She never thought it was going to rewrite her life. When she was asked if she wanted to be a professional referee, she jumped to the occasion.

But that meant leaving behind her career in analytical chemistry and teaching at Towson University in Baltimore, a tough decision, that paid dividends in the next years.

“I was a professor of chemistry up until two weeks before the Women’s World Cup in 2019. I spent ten years doing my own research and starting my own lab at the university (Towson University in Baltimore). My background in research is on figuring out better ways to analyze brain chemicals, and our lab focused on developing, improving, and optimizing the techniques for sampling brain chemicals and then analysing them,” she told the FIFA official website.

Nesbitt’s professional debut was in 2013, in the inaugural match of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). She also tried figure skating and volleyball, but when she was finishing her college, she started serving as a fourth official in Rochester. Two years later, she made her debut in the Major Soccer League (MLS), the professional men’s league in the United States of America.

Yet Nesbitt remained close to her teaching career. She was a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh and completed a postdoctoral research fellowship at Michigan, taking a position at Towson University. She worked 50 hours of lab research per year and Friday nights she would hop a plane to MLS assignments.

“The biggest thing it has taught me is how to take away positives out of a situation and apply that in a lot of areas. I perform my best when I’m happier and more positive and taking advantage of incredible opportunities and not taking anything for granted. That’s a huge aspect that I’m able to apply in life with family and at home.”

“There are black-and-white decisions. One defender pulling down the attacker who’s five feet from the goal is always going to be denying a goalscoring opportunity, but that’s never actually how those things play out. And one soccer scenario isn’t going to happen exactly the same way again. The game’s always changing. My main role as an assistant referee is the offside rule, and that isn’t always as black and white as it looks sometimes,” added Nesbitt in her interview for FIFA.

Performing as a referee takes a lot of time, as Nesbitt is definitely a student of the game, constantly analyzing things and trying to improve her calls, in spite of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system, which definitely backs up the assistant referees, especially in offside calls.

But eventually, the referee who will take part at the 2022 FIFA World Cup will return to the lab after stopping her career.

“This was an impossible dream for me, and just being able to witness females at this event now makes this realistic for all women. Whether it be in refereeing, whether it be in a different sport, whether it be in something completely different — sometimes just having a visual like that can make something actually real. If I get to play even a small role in that, that’s really cool,” said Nesbitt for “Washington Post”.

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