A chance remark by Lina Lehtovaara’s younger brother when they were both teenagers set her off on a refereeing road that reaches new heights on Saturday, when she takes charge of the UEFA Women’s Champions League final between Barcelona and Olympique Lyonnais in Turin.
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The 40-year-old Finnish official, who will be refereeing her first final in the premier competition in European women’s club football, describes her initial step into the profession as “a total coincidence”.
“It was 1998, and I was 17,” Lehtovaara recalls. “We were sitting at the family dinner table when my brother, who was 15, suddenly announced that he was going to a refereeing course. I was playing football, but I promptly decided that I would try refereeing as well. That started things off. I obviously had no idea at the time that it would lead to the career that I’ve had!”
Lehtovaara, born in Kokkola on Finland’s west coast, but now based in Pargas, is overjoyed at her appointment for Saturday’s big match in Italy. A teacher by profession, she admits that the period between the appointment call and the official announcement proved to be more challenging than she could have imagined.
“I just wanted to shout out the news, but I had to keep my excitement inside and act as though nothing had happened, especially in front of my pupils,” she laughs. “It was a relief to be able to tell them – and now everyone says they are really happy and proud that they know me!”
Lehtovaara has been an international referee since 2009 and has previous experience of a Women’s Champions League final – acting as fourth official for the game between Potsdam and Lyon in Getafe in 2010.
She assisted another fine Finnish referee, Kirsi Heikkinen, on that occasion in Spain. “Kirsi has given me great inspiration to achieve something as a referee,” she reflects. By 2015, Lehtovaara’s qualities earned her the honour of handling the European Women’s Under-19 Championship final between Spain and Sweden in Israel.
The coming assignment in Turin at the weekend is proving to be part of a wonderful year in Lehtovaara’s refereeing life. In July, she travels to England as a member of the team of officials at the eagerly awaited UEFA Women’s EURO 2022 – her second stint at the event after duty as a fourth official at the 2017 tournament in the Netherlands.
“I’ve been working hard for the past years to reach this EURO,” she says. “And I’m looking forward to the challenge. England is a great footballing country, and I can’t wait to be there and be part of it all.”
Life at the refereeing summit has involved a steep learning curve for Lehtovaara and her colleagues, who have striven to keep pace with the exciting evolution of women’s football in recent years.
“I’m honestly a little surprised at how much and how fast it’s developed,” she admits. “We’ve had to really step up our ‘game’, especially in terms of speed and fitness, because everything in matches is happening so much faster now.”
Lehtovaara will be assisted at Saturday’s final by Greece’s Chrysoula Kourompylia and Estonia’s Karolin Kaivoja. The fourth official is Jana Adámková (Czech Republic), and Lucie Ratajová (Czech Republic) is reserve official. The VAR role has been assigned to Portugal’s Tiago Bruno Lopes Martins, and he will be accompanied by his compatriot João Silva Pinheiro and Italy’s Paolo Valeri.
“I’ll be responsible for the final decisions,” she says, “but I’ll obviously need my team’s support, and I’ll be giving them every bit of help that I can as well. With a fourth official and VAR also part of the team, it will be important to know what we must all expect from each other.”
When Lehtovaara gathers her thoughts on the pitch immediately before focusing fully on the final – “I’m naturally a very calm person, although I’m sure that there will be some nerves inside” – she knows that a group of special fans will be willing her on at the Juventus Stadium.
“I’ll have eight family members in the stand – my husband, my parents, two brothers and a sister, one of my brother’s children and my aunt. I want to underline that without their support, I would never have reached this stage and be refereeing this final.”
“I’ve been lucky and privileged to have enjoyed many experiences as a referee – life experience does help you to do the job – and I’ve met some fantastic people,” Lehtovaara emphasises. “And it’s extremely hard to describe the feeling of knowing that I’m going to be refereeing the Women’s Champions League final in front of a big crowd in a great stadium.”
“This is the prize for all the hard work and dedication that I’ve put into refereeing – I’m really very proud.”