At Uvena Fernandes' job, it's commonplace to be called names, mocked, reviled and even attacked. She laughs and counts herself lucky for not having had to deal with any of it to a grave degree and also being spared of the 'get back into the kitchen' or 'go do the dishes' sexist jabs in her decade-and-a-half career so far.
In the fast-paced, testosterone-soaked world of football, female referees are at best seen an aberration. But Uvena has never felt out of place. "As long as you know your job and have the right attitude, nothing else matters," the 37-year-old tells ESPN after being picked on Thursday to officiate as an assistant referee in the FIFA Under-20 Women's World Cup in France in August. "Once you take a decision, you just have to stand your ground. The rest will take care of itself."
It will be Uvena's second World Cup opportunity in less than two years. In 2016, she became the first Indian woman assistant referee to officiate in a World Cup, the U-17 Women's World Cup in Jordan. "It's a proud and happy moment for me," she says. "More crucially, this is just the kind of chance I was hoping for since I'm working towards next year's senior Women's World Cup."
One of the toughest roles for the intensity and focus it demands, all refereeing fetches in return may well be an angry manager waving an accusing finger, irate players glowering back or a crescendo of abuse from fans. Simply put, a thankless job. "Since I was a player myself before I took to refereeing in 2003, it helps me have a wholesome view of any on-field situation," Uvena says. "Often, how players behave or what they say is just a heat-of-the-moment response, more like a reflex. They may not know that they've actually committed a foul, which is why they passionately defend their action. But that's where women referees are lot more superior. We have greater mental strength."
Apart from high levels of fitness, bottomless reserves of energy and an encyclopedic knowledge of the game, a referee's effectiveness hinges on a primary trait: assertiveness. And in the case of female referees, it's only doubly essential -- fuelled by the dominant perception of women having scant understanding of the game or being easy pushovers. That's the first barrier, Maria Rebello, Uvena's senior colleague, says she broke. "Early in my career, I could sense that players and everyone else around underestimated me," says Rebello, who made history by becoming the first female referee to officiate in an I-League match in 2014. "They probably thought I didn't know enough about the sport. But once they learnt that I had served as captain of the Indian women's team, their respect grew. They realized that I know what a foul is or what calls for a yellow card and I can't be fooled."
Rebello and Uvena, in fact, go back a long way. They played together for their home side, Goa, as well as for Mohun Bagan and were also part of the national camp at the same time on one occasion. "I encouraged Uvena when she was in Goa to take up refereeing after she'd quit playing," Rebello says. "And today whatever she has achieved is because of her dedication and willingness to work hard."
Posted in Ambala as a squadron leader with the Indian Air Force's air traffic control unit, Uvena finds parallels in the required skillsets for both her passion and profession: enormous degrees of concentration, presence of mind and quick decision-making. In a way, one job prepares her for the other. "I took up refereeing because of my good levels of fitness and what I thought would be a way to stay in touch with a sport I love," she says. "But after I entered the profession, I was intimidated by the fact that there were so few women in it. Over the years, the numbers have seen a rise and all of us women referees in India often keep running into each other at fitness tests and tournaments. Even my eight-year-old son, who travels with me during my trips within the country, knows each of them very well. He even sits beside me, watching me closely when I do at tests at home before a match and knows all the rules of the game."
Uvena, who was part of four matches in the U-17 Women's World Cup, picks the final between Japan and DPR Korea -- her biggest stage so far -- as the most special. It went on to win her the AFC Referees Special Award in 2016. Having begun her refereeing days with men's matches and having officiated in Subroto Cup and the second division league, Uvena says she doesn't find comfort in being part of a women's tournament just as it doesn't unnerve her to be on a field buzzing with 22 male players.
"For me, they are just players," she says. "Not men or women."