- Lengwe hoping to be nominated for her second FIFA Women’s World Cup™
- She is the first woman to referee top-flight matches in Africa
- Lengwe was named Referee of the Year in Zambia in 2012
"This is a man's world, this is a man's world. But it wouldn't be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl."
These lyrics from legendary singer James Brown seem the perfect fit for the current generation of female referees, with a growing number of women overseeing men’s matches. The FIFA U-17 World Cup, for example, was the first FIFA men’s tournament where female officials were also used.
Among them was Gladys Lengwe, who has been refereeing at international level since 2002. She served as the fourth official in the group match between Germany and Costa Rica and proved that the time has come for female match officials to oversee men’s games alongside their male colleagues.
The Zambian official certainly never dreamed of pursuing her chosen career path, and initially had an ulterior motive for becoming a referee.
"I began refereeing when I was 17, as at that time referees in my region got tickets to go and watch matches for free,” she explained with a grin in an interview with FIFA.com. “When I heard about that I thought: ‘Why don’t I join them and get some free tickets?’ When I started it was just for fun. At that time I wasn’t really focused on becoming a referee, as they were all men when I was watching matches, so there wasn’t much to motivate me. My interest was really just in getting tickets.”
Lengwe attributes her change of heart to the encouragement she received from her male colleagues and the potential they saw in her. “In 2002 I started refereeing in the lower divisions, and did so for almost ten years,” she said as she recalled her first tentative steps into the men’s game. “It wasn’t easy, even at that time, to accept a woman as a referee in a male-dominated sport. But after days, months and years passed, they started to accept me and my decisions in particular. They started to feel more comfortable with me being in the middle because they saw that I was able to do a good job,” she added.
"Things changed in 2011. At that time FIFA introduced regional offices and we started to have referee managers,” Lengwe explained. “The referee manager in my association came to me and said: ‘I think you can handle the Super League.’ [Zambia’s top flight] At first I couldn’t believe it and thought: ‘What? Me?’ In fact he had more confidence in me than I did. He gave me the last two matches of the season, and that was the start of my career in the first division. The next season they stopped sending me to the lower leagues and I’ve been in the Super League ever since.“
The 40-year-old’s achievements speak for themselves. She became the first woman in Africa to officiate top-flight matches and was named Referee of the Year in her homeland in 2012. Lengwe also showcased her skills at international level when she became one of three female African match officials to be nominated for the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2015™ in Canada, overseeing the group match between Germany and Women’s World Cup debutantes Thailand. She also refereed at the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament 2016 in Rio – a tournament she will never forget.
"Of course I have good memories [about that tournament], but I would like to talk about another match,” she said. “It was the first time I felt bad and it took a lot of courage to come through it. I prepared well in advance and wanted to do a good job.” The game in question was New Zealand’s group stage encounter with Colombia. With the Football Ferns leading their South American opponents 1-0, Lengwe showed Abby Erceg a red card for a foul in the 88th minute.
"Later my fourth official said: ‘Are you sure?’ When I replied: ‘What?’ she answered: ‘She played the ball’. I needed that information before I made the decision; had I gotten it, I would have remembered that she played the ball before fouling,” the likeable Zambian recalled. “I had already restarted the match so I couldn’t change my decision. I then had to focus on the game again and ended up making another mistake because I couldn’t get the first one out of my mind. I couldn’t sleep after the match. I was not myself and sat awake the whole night. I really wanted to do well, and now this.”
Her story reminds us that referees are also human. As US author and Nobel Prize for Literature recipient Pearl S. Buck once wrote: "Great virtues make a person admirable, but little weaknesses make them lovable."