“At a time when everyone is still struggling with the pandemic, I would like to offer my support to sportspeople around the world and in particular to the wider family of referees, to which I belong,” said former Beninese referee Rosalie Tempa Ndah Francois as she sat down for an interview with FIFA.com.
“I’d also like to offer my sincere thanks to FIFA and CAF [African Football Confederation] for having chosen me.”
The fact is, however, that the 47-year-old Tempa has no need to thank anyone for her incredible refereeing career. “I used to watch football on TV when I was a child,” she explained. “There was hardly any women’s football in Benin and I played with the boys when I was at school. It was really tough, though, and I soon gave up. And then, when I grew up, I saw that women were refereeing games.”
That surprise discovery showed Tempa where her future lay. Pulling her boots on again, she went back among the boys on the pitch in her neighbourhood. “People didn’t think it was right and even my family refused to support me,” she said. “It was really hard. In the end, the coach suggested to me that I referee the team’s matches in training.”
A long apprenticeship
“I didn’t know anything about the laws of the game, so I just did what I could,” recalled Tempa. “Everyone shouted at me (laughs). I was refereeing all on my own. There were no assistants.”
Her experiences prompted her to find out if she could do some training in Benin, which is when she discovered the Central Referees’ Commission and decided to take one of their courses. “That’s when I really started to learn the laws of the game. When I was doing the course, I put into practice all the things I learned on the pitch and I trained with the male referees. They were very happy to see a brave woman come and join them.”
Tempa needed to be brave in taking charge of matches played on poor pitches, with no fencing, and often in a very hostile environment. “You got stones thrown at you and people coming on to the pitch screaming and shouting and even getting physically violent,” she said, managing to keep a smile on her face.
“It was when I started training with Lions de l’Atacora, a local men’s team, that I really began to believe in my abilities. Physically, I could keep up with the men and the coach congratulated me on that.”
A world-class whistler
In 2003, after eight years of hard work, she finally achieved her goal. Having caught the eye of CAF experts at a training camp, she became a FIFA assistant referee: “I was so happy. The newspapers were talking about me and I silenced all the doubters. My parents were very proud to see me make it (laughs).”
And that was only the start. That same year, Tempa, who is also a qualified hairdresser, officiated at the African Games in Nigeria, taking charge of matches in the women’s tournament, including the final. She performed so well that she then got the call to referee at the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament Athens 2004.
“It was absolutely amazing,” she said. “It was my first long-haul flight (laughs). I was very proud to be representing my country and Africa in front of the whole world. I learned so much just by being around other match officials from all over the world.”
Tempa went on to officiate at six FIFA Women’s World Cup™ competitions (U-20 and senior), two more Olympic Games and six CAF Africa Women’s Cup of Nations. “I have lots of great memories,” she added, “but if I had to pick one out, it would have to be the match for third place between Germany and Japan at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games (a 2-0 win for the Germans).”
Dedicated to helping others
“I retired in 2017 to become a referee instructor,” she explained. “I was still in shape but I wanted to make way for the youngsters, to give others the opportunity that I’d had and to devote my energies to the development of women’s and African refereeing.”
Asked to explain what has brought her the most satisfaction in her career, Tempa replied: “To see women making their way in the game. Women’s football took a while to get going in Africa and it hasn’t developed as quickly as elsewhere. That’s why, in my eyes, there’s no better sight than a woman with a ball at her feet or a whistle in her mouth. Women who play sport can only become even more intelligent and dynamic. It also helps them to break free, travel, discover things and make friends.
“Real change is happening here in Benin,” she continued. “The example I set has inspired lots of girls who have met with me and spoken to me. I give training courses and we talk a lot. The best piece of advice I can give them is to not lose heart and to work hard towards their objectives. They also need to ignore people who think that women in Africa are only there to have children and cook.”
As well as her football activities, Tempa runs a hairdressing college and a charity by the name of ACAL-DR. It organises open-air movie screenings in rural communities to raise awareness about development best practice and other issues, such as schooling for girls, violence towards women, birth registrations, child abuse and bullying.
Whether it is on the pitch or off it, Rosalie Tempa Ndah Francois is one of those people who is always pushing boundaries.
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