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Esther Staubli: "The fire for refereeing still burns"

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The vastly experienced Swiss match official is looking forward to her second UEFA Women's Champions League final.

Esther Staubli has enjoyed a splendid refereeing career
Esther Staubli has enjoyed a splendid refereeing career SPORTSFILE

You’d be completely mistaken if you thought that Esther Staubli might consider her appointment to referee Sunday’s UEFA Women’s Champions League final between Wolfsburg and Lyon in San Sebastián as ‘only’ another milestone to tick off in an outstanding career. Not a bit of it…

“The fire still burns for refereeing and football,” says the 40-year-old Swiss match official as she prepares for her second Women’s Champions League final, having also taken charge of the 2015 decider between 1. FFC Frankfurt and Paris Saint-Germain in Berlin.

If you add the UEFA Women’s EURO 2017 final between Netherlands and Denmark to her list of refereeing honours, as well as other major world and European assignments, it’s clear that the teacher at an agricultural school and keen classical music lover from Berne has fully deserved her renowned status among Europe’s female refereeing elite.

Esther Staubli refereed the Women's EURO 2017 final
Esther Staubli refereed the Women's EURO 2017 finalSPORTSFILE

New challenges

Staubli has enjoyed a splendid journey with the whistle since she decided to take up refereeing in 2000 after featuring as a player with Rot-Schwarz Thun in Switzerland’s highest women’s division. “I felt I had reached my limits as a player,” she reflects. “I wanted to set myself new challenges in football, so I took up refereeing, and I loved it.”

Consistent progress saw her rise up the Swiss refereeing ladder, and the FIFA international badge also followed in 2006. “Refereeing became a real passion for me,” she says. “I think passion for refereeing and football is an important asset for any referee who wants to be successful.”

Staubli’s career has advanced hand in hand with the massive development of European women’s football over the years. “The game has moved forward considerably – physically, technically and tactically,” she says. “I’m not surprised, because of the amount of development and support work that has taken place. And women’s refereeing has also had to keep pace with this development, because the referees couldn’t afford to stay one step behind.”

'Passion' is a word that Staubli often uses to portray her refereeing life, which has also seen her officiate at matches in the Swiss men’s second division, the Challenge League, as well as acting as fourth official and video assistant referee in the domestic top-flight Super League.

Esther Staubli took charge of the 2015 UEFA Women's Champions League final
Esther Staubli took charge of the 2015 UEFA Women's Champions League finalGetty Images

Understanding and loving football

“You’ve got to have the passion to go to the limits in training, and want to understand and love the game,” she says emphatically. “If you want to make progress, you need mental strength and the ability to manage players on the field. I’ve never really had a role model as a referee – my coaches have been my biggest influences – I think it’s more important to be yourself.”

Staubli’s love of football has shone through after the uncertain months when the COVID-19 pandemic halted the game across Europe. “It was obviously a difficult time,” she recalls, “but I was glad, for example, to take part in UEFA’s online training – it helped me keep in touch with my colleagues as well as keep fit.”

“I remember my first match when football restarted – it was a friendly in Switzerland between the Servette and Neuchâtel Xamax men’s teams. The big moment for me was when I ran out onto the natural grass pitch before the match – I must say that it was an amazing feeling, an emotional moment.”

The preparation routine for Sunday’s big game in San Sebastián will include a late breakfast, a walk to relax and afternoon rest before leaving the hotel. Staubli's concentration levels will switch in fully with her refereeing team as the kick-off approaches. “I’ll be pretty focussed at the team line-up – I might allow myself a couple of seconds to savour the atmosphere, but then the concentration will take over.”

Step by step

What does the future hold? Staubli is already giving young Swiss female referees the benefit of her vast experience as part of the Swiss Football Association’s development programme, and there are still on-field targets to consider. “As time goes by, you learn to take things step by step, and look after your health carefully,” she explains. “And I really would love to referee at the Women’s EURO in England in 2022.”

Before then, an exciting occasion awaits in Spain’s Basque Country on Sunday – and Esther Staubli hopes that the Women’s Champions League final will be a celebration of women’s football, even though San Sebastián’s superb Anoeta Stadium will not be able to welcome spectators.

“It’s a good feeling to be back on the field, and it’s been a special tournament,” she says. “And I think that after the period we’ve lived through, we have to feel lucky that we have the opportunity to play football…”