‘So proud’: Heba Saadieh, the first Palestinian World Cup referee

Saadieh tells Al Jazeera what she loves about refereeing, the challenges she’s overcome, and what it means to officiate in the 2023 Women’s World Cup.

action during the 2020 AFC Women's Olympic Qualifying Tournament soccer match between Myanmar and Bangladesh
Saadieh in action during the 2020 AFC Women's Olympic Qualifying match between Myanmar and Bangladesh in Yangon, Myanmar [File: Nyein Chan Naing/EPA-EFE]

Heba Saadieh is set to make history by becoming the first Palestinian – male or female – to referee in a World Cup.

She will officiate at the ninth edition of the Women’s World Cup co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand from Thursday until August 20.

The 34-year-old of Palestinian heritage grew up in Syria. In 2010, while studying sports education at university, she saw that no women were taking part in refereeing training, so she decided to give it a go.

She moved to Malaysia in 2012 after the Syrian war broke out and began refereeing there. She moved with her family to Sweden in late 2016 as part of a United Nations resettlement programme and now referees in the top flight of Sweden’s women’s league and in the second tier of the men’s league.

She has officiated in Women’s AFC Cup and Asian Cup matches, World Cup qualifiers, and games at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Saadieh has also worked with the Palestinian Football Association.

She is also a physical education teacher but is currently focusing on refereeing full-time before the World Cup and aims to become one of the top referees in football.

She spoke to Al Jazeera about what she loves about refereeing, the hardest aspects of the job and the challenges she has overcome, and what it will mean to officiate in the upcoming tournament.

“I’m so proud,” she told Al Jazeera. “And I hope I can open this door for others.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Al Jazeera: How are you preparing for the World Cup?

Heba Saadieh: Fitness is the main thing, and also watching videos and reading about the games. I train twice a day, morning and evening, and try to have a rest between, to give my muscles time to recover.

I do high-intensity, low-intensity, strength, running – everything – because we don’t run less than six km in the 90 minutes. You have to be ready to fully sprint. We have to prepare our muscles to avoid injuries.

Al Jazeera: How did your refereeing career develop in Malaysia and what challenges did you face?

Saadieh: I sacrificed a lot at the beginning to find a place for training. I was training everywhere: in the road, in the parking lot. I got injuries and I had to treat myself and I had to care for myself. It was not easy to find people to give me advice about that or to find some people to help me, to give me feedback – especially about my performances after the matches, but finally, I found these people.

And, unfortunately, in Malaysia there are not many women referees there. Malaysia’s a very big country and I think they only had two or three [female] referees.

In Malaysia, I was not refereeing women’s football, I did mostly men’s matches there. I can’t say that I [faced] angry people against me because I’m a woman, [but] maybe at the beginning, I met some people that didn’t like to see women in the match.

After that, more women started to come [into refereeing], so it became easier. The first step is always difficult.

I was a sports teacher – you don’t get paid a lot of money from refereeing in Malaysia. Sometimes, I paid more than what I got, I lost money. But I did it because I love what I do.

Al Jazeera: What is it about refereeing that you love?

Saadieh: [In refereeing] we travel a lot, and meet different people around the world, so it’s nice to see new cultures, new traditions … like when I travel to Thailand or Laos or Myanmar, for example, or Australia, in every country they have a specific culture that I’ve never seen.

[Also] we are between 22 players and in every situation, there are things to analyse to find the correct decision, so this is very interesting for me. Sometimes, we get things wrong because we are human. So that’s normal, but we try to be perfect.

Al Jazeera: I guess social media has made refereeing harder now, especially with the angry messages and abuse after games.

Saadieh: Yeah, that’s true. [But] we learn from each situation, we learn from every match. But the important thing is we have to just keep going and not let others affect us in a negative way. We just focus on our goal.

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Al Jazeera: What are the worst aspects of being a referee?

Saadieh: Ah, the worst thing is that we have to train all the time. It doesn’t matter what the weather is, just you have to keep training. [And] sometimes when we have competitions abroad we are away from our families for a long time.

Al Jazeera: How has the experience of refereeing in Sweden been? Did you get into refereeing in Sweden immediately or did it take some time?

Saadieh: Yeah, it took some time – at the beginning, it was not easy. Because I come from a different culture and a different place, so I needed to work even harder to show them that I deserved to be here and I deserved to be given matches.

When I came I was a FIFA [accredited] referee, but I had to start from the beginning in Sweden – from the [lowest league]. Now I am refereeing in the top league for women, and for men in division one. So, I’m lucky.

I think when we move to any new country, it’s not easy at the start. But after a while, I got some people who have helped me so and also the [Swedish football] federation helped me, especially when I was selected as a candidate for the World Cup. Without their coaching and physical training, it would not have been easy to improve my skills.

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Al Jazeera: What did you think when you heard you’d been selected for the World Cup?

Saadieh: I was so excited when I was selected. I was like, “Wow, this is where I worked to be.” But I’m still working hard – making this list is not the final [goal]. I have to work and work more and more.

Al Jazeera: What does it mean to be the first Palestinian referee at a World Cup?

Saadieh: Ah, I’m so proud. I’m so proud to be first-ever Palestinian referee, male or female, in the World Cup. That makes me feel a responsibility to show a very good performance during the tournament. And I hope I can open this door for others, for Palestinian women referees – and men also – to be selected in the future.

The Palestinian FA invited me to visit last year. It was the first time in my life to visit my country. It was great – to visit my country and where I belong, there are no words to describe that.

Source: Al Jazeera