Eva Alcaide refereeing during one of this season's games. / BW FOTO

'When I step onto the pitch I put a filter over my ears'

The 22-year-old Malaga woman tells her story of personal growth in refereeing, five years after being harassed on a football pitch

MARINA RIVAS

She's only 22 years old and she's already a role model for young girls who want to follow in her footsteps in the future. Eva Alcaide is the perfect example of how to overcome a tough sexist attack and, through hard work and effort, turn that situation on its head to become a better and stronger person. If football referees in general already have to endure tough situations on a daily basis, it's even worse for women. Unfortunately, nowadays they continue to cause commotion in certain sectors.

Eva always dreamed of becoming a footballer, she's a Malaga fan from birth thanks to her dad, but like many other girls, she was scared about what her colleagues would say. But one day, she decided to get more involved in the sport, albeit taking on a role that she hadn't valued much until she met Malaga referee Mario Melero in a recruitment campaign at her school.

She studied hard; she passed the theory exam at 16 and at 17 obtained her qualification as a lower-category referee.

What she didn't expect was that, during one of her first games as referee and while still young, she would suffer the worst attack of her life. In an under-19s game between Alhaurín de la Torre and Fuengirola, a group of supporters started insulting her and launching degrading sexist comments. Verbal harassment that made Eva feel very scared.

"That was a brutal day and thank God it was an isolated incident; I've heard other comments but they were minor. That day they even threatened me and told me they were going to rape me after the game. I got home and couldn't stop crying with my mum and then I vented my feelings on Twitter," she said.

Eva Alcaide not only went viral in Spain after her post, in which she denounced what happened, but her story went global. "But if there was something that was clear to me it was that I wasn't going to let it make me give up refereeing," she said. From that day on, Eva Alcaide hasn't been the same. Now, she's a different person, thanks to her character and her eagerness to grow.

She went on to climb the refereeing ladder until reaching her current level. She works in the Andalusian men's first division; the first and second men's senior divisions; as well as an assitant referee in the senior División de Honor. Meanwhile, she's refereed in the women's second division and recently debuted as a fourth official in the top flight of women's football.

"It's my goal to reach the highest possible division, in both men's and women's football. My biggest role model is Guadalupe Porras [a female assitant referee in LaLiga]. I've watched all of her games," she explained.

Psychology

Despite her young age, her six of years refereeing and starting a degree in Psychology (through UNED, the Spanish National Open University), have made her mature much more quickly. "A 17-year-old is a lot more vulnerable when it comes to facing out-of-place criticism and comments. Also, back then I was new; receiving those comments from the stands at the beginning is different when you've done it for six years, I don't even hear them now. When I step on the pitch I have the ability to put a filter over my ears," she said.

However, she does admit that subtle sexism still exists in football. "For example, when I'm with my colleagues and the [pitch] delegate comes to give us the player sheets, they give them to my colleagues; I then have to say that I'mthe referee," she said.

But she added that the feeling of doing a good job after the game is the best reward, making it all worth it. "Refereeing has made me more sure of myself, given me more confidence, self-esteem, more decisiveness and a lot of life lessons, good and bad. I feel empowered when I'm respected, when players come to me arguing and shouting and I show them that problems can be solved by talking."

This tough profession for now is nothing more than a hobby, but Eva Alcaide hopes to make it her way of life, however difficult that may be.

"A lot of times, refereeing means that you have to be strong psychologically, because there are moments that can affect you. Regardless, I think that everyone should go to a psychologist at least once in their life, because mental health is also essential," she said.