Dagmar Damkova - a female football referee in a man's world

Dagmar Damkova, photo: CTK

Dagmar Damkova is the Czech Republic's best known female football referee. At the end of last season she became - at the age of 28 - the first woman to ever officiate at a Czech first division game, a men's first division game. Dagmar's day job is teaching, and when I spoke to her at the school where she works in Pilsen, I began by asking how she had first become interested in soccer.

Dagmar Damkova,  photo: CTK
"When I was a young girl I used to play football with my classmates in the afternoon. Then I started to play in a club. That's it."

I remember a few years ago watching a women's World Cup game with an old Czech man who laughed so much when he saw women playing football - how do people perceive women's football in this country?

"I think it's at the beginning and I think it's going to be better and better and nowadays women's football is going forward."

Do you think there could ever be professional or even semi-professional women's football here?

"Here in the Czech Republic, I don't think so, no."

So Czech women players have to go abroad?

"Sure, sure. It's Germany first and maybe Austria and to America, but I think only the best players."

How did you go from playing football to refereeing?

"It was because of problems with our coach. I started to think about other ways to be involved in football and two guys just persuaded me to try being a referee, so I started to be a referee."

Are you the only female referee in this country?

"I used to be the only one! But nowadays I think there are around 20 other female referees."

In general what has been the reaction of men refs to you?

"It depends; I would say 70 percent are OK with it, they say that's fine but around 30 percent don't agree with it."

How do they express their disagreement?

"It happened to me that one referee wrote something in a newspaper that it's not OK to have a female referee, it's nothing to do with football. And then he saw me refereeing a men's second division game and then he came to me and said I'm sorry, you are really good. It was nice."

I presume you referee at a lot of smaller grounds - do you have your own changing rooms?

"No, no, no, I don't need my own one. I'm satisfied when I am there with the other, male referees. We are only people."

How do men you meet socially react when you tell them what you do?

"Again, it depends. Some of them are OK, so no arguments. But there is also the other half, it's not good for them when women are above them. Sometimes it's hard but...they have to respect me! It's their problem, not mine."

Would you that players in general give you as much respect as they would give a man referee?

"In men's football I think they behave much better to me than to men referees. But in women's football they don't care."

I read an interview with you in which you said that women were more vulgar than men - is that true?

"Yes, it is, definitely it's true. They don't care if there is a woman or a man referee and they are vulgar in words to me..."

Sometimes when you watch football on TV you can lip read what the players say to the refs and the language sometimes is terrible - why don't they punish players more for using bad language?

"It depends on the referee, on the situation. Sometimes we say when it's quite clear that most of the other people can hear it then you should punish it, but when it's between you and the player you can accept it. But it's really up to you."

I go to football games sometimes here in this country and some of the language I hear from the crowd is just terrible. Do people ever shout abusive language at you personally?

"Sure, they do. At the beginning it was quite hard for me, because I heard everything and I was thinking about it. I was crying, I wanted to quit refereeing. But nowadays it's a bit different because it goes in one ear and out the other. People are different and I always say that they cannot scream at home, they have to be quiet, but when they come to watch football they behave in this way."

One thing I also hear from the stands is people accusing referees of being corrupt. It's a common perception that referees in this country sometimes are corrupt. Do you think there's any truth in that?

"I don't know, it's quite hard to say, but if they are - I cannot speak for them - if there is corruption it's from both sides. I mean they don't go and ask for money but somebody has to come and give them money, or whatever. I think that it's in the whole of society, in politics and everything. When there is an international game and the referee makes a mistake or a bad decision, in the Czech Republic everybody thinks about corruption. But it's an international game and the referees don't care about money there."

Speaking of money, can you to some extent make a living from being a football ref?

"Yes, if you are a referee in the top men's division I think it's possible. But again it depends, because you can make a bad decision and then you can be punished, and you don't referee other games and you don't have any money. Therefore I think it won't be professional and all refs will have another job to make a living. You can also get injured and again you won't referee for half a season, no money..."

You became quite famous, at least in Czech football circles, at the end of last season when you became the first women to officiate at a men's first division game. How was it for you to become famous overnight?

"It was nice, but on the other hand it was quite a hard time, because there was a lot of stress put on me. I did many interviews and after the end of the game there were a lot of cameras and TV crews. As I said, it was nice but hard."

Can you ever imagine a time when a woman would referee in a big competition like say the World Cup or the Champions League?

"That time will come. Two weeks ago Nicole Petignat from Switzerland was the first female referee in the UEFA Cup and she did a good job. I think she is one of the best in the world, maybe the best. I think she will also get a chance maybe in the Champions League. I think it's coming."

So will we see you perhaps in the World Cup in 2010?

"No, no, no, no. I don't think so, but there can be the possibility that also I can get men's international games. But it's up to me, it's up to me how I perform in our first division if I get a chance, how I will fulfil the fitness tests, so it's up to me."