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'Best seat in the house' for Women's Champions League final referee Welch

We speak to Rebecca Welch as she prepares for what she calls the biggest match of her career when Barcelona meet Lyon in Bilbao on Saturday.

Rebecca Welch
Rebecca Welch

It has been a year to remember for UEFA Women's Champions League final referee Rebecca Welch. Having fulfilled fourth official duties at last season's final in Eindhoven, she became the first-ever woman to referee an English men's Premier League match in December, and caps the campaign off with Saturday's sold-out showpiece in Bilbao, when Women's Champions League holders Barcelona face eight-time champions Lyon.

An international referee since 2015, the 40-year-old only took up refereeing in her mid-twenties, but has risen through the ranks to become one of Europe's top officials. Below, she speaks about receiving the call for Saturday's big match, how her career has developed and her advice for others interested in becoming a referee.

Rebecca, congratulations on your appointment for the final, how does it feel?

RW: The appointment really came out of the blue. When you look at the list of elite UEFA referees, there are some really strong candidates, so I wasn’t expecting it.

When I received the call, I nearly fell off my chair! I was made up, and very excited for the fixture. I've been wishing the week away so that it comes around quicker.

This game is probably going to be the biggest of my career so far, it's the pinnacle of European women's football. I know the game has sold out too, and it's unbelievable how much crowds at women's football have grown over the past few years. I was lucky enough to be at the Women's EURO in England, and it showed how women's football has really taken off.

How do you reflect on your journey as a referee within the game?

I've been a referee now for 14 years and on the UEFA list for ten, and in that time there have been a lot of positive changes for women's football, but we are not going to stop now and accept how far we have come, we are going to push on and hopefully in another ten years from now, things will be even better.

Referees have to move with the game as it develops, and we are fortunate that we get a lot of education, coaching and support now. I've had some brilliant coaches and mentors who have made me much better as a referee, and ultimately have enabled me to get this appointment.

Rebecca Welch in domestic action earlier this season
Rebecca Welch in domestic action earlier this seasonAFP via Getty Images

Whose support are you most grateful for during that time?

My really good friend, Lindsey Robinson, was a referee in England and is now New Zealand Football’s referee development manager, and I have her to thank for making me try out refereeing. Lindsey is over the moon for me with this appointment and we often keep in touch despite living on opposite sides of the world.

Off the field, my family, and especially my mum and dad, have been with me since the start of the journey. They came to my first game, where there were no corner flags and no goal nets, and I was panicking and thinking I couldn’t do it.

They've been behind me all the way and have also helped to keep me grounded or pick me up during difficult or disappointing times, refereeing can be a lonely job, so I'm super grateful to have had them there in my life. My dad is also my designated taxi driver, so wherever I go, he normally drives me there, and he will be coming with me to Bilbao.

Do those early experiences help you grow not just as a ref but as a person too?

Totally, the more experience you get as a referee, the more knowledge you get. When you first qualify, you come out of a course and know a lot about the Laws of the Game, but applying them in a practical scenario is very different.

I probably spent the first 12 months really just learning the trade and getting comfortable with being out in the middle. That 'on-the-job' training is great, and you build up resilience and confidence along the way.

I definitely had some occasions in those early days where I thought, 'I'm never doing this again', but ended up putting my kit back on and getting out there again the following weekend. Fourteen years later, I'm now preparing for the Women's Champions League final, so never give up!

Be a Referee! UEFA's campaign to attract more officials

With a Women's Champions League final and becoming the first female referee in the English men's Premier League, it really has been a special season for you?

It was a great landmark for me to referee in the Premier League, but probably even bigger for female referees within football. Now we have our first female in one of the best leagues in the world, I hope it can inspire others, both girls and boys, to take up refereeing.

I've been going through the levels throughout the season, and obviously wanted to do a Premier League game, but it was never guaranteed, so it was an amazing moment for me. When you start refereeing, everyone dreams of reaching the Premier League, just like as a player, but there's only a tiny percentage of people that can make it.

What's your advice for young women or girls who want to follow in your footsteps?

If you're interested, give it a go! You can take a course through your national or regional football association, and there is no entry criteria beyond a minimum age, which varies in different countries. You can give it a go, and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to continue, but it gives you so many skills you can apply outside of football.

I was also a terrible player, so refereeing gave me the chance to stay involved in the game and now I have the chance to walk out at stadiums and massive events like this Women's Champions League final, which as a player I could never have achieved.

And finally, what's the best thing about being a referee?

You get the best seat in the house. I used to go and watch football as a kid and I loved it, but now I walk out at the front and get to be a part of it. Women's football has grown so much and to be part of some of the biggest competitions in the world is just fantastic.

2024 UEFA Women’s Champions League final refereeing team

Referee: Rebecca Welch (England)
Assistants: Natalie Aspinall and Emily Carney (both England)
Fourth Official: Ivana Martinčić (Croatia)
Reserve AR: Sanja Rođak-Karšić (Croatia)
VAR: Stuart Attwell (England)
Assistant VAR: Katrin Rafalski (Germany)
VAR Support: Katalin Kulcsár (Hungary)

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