The Rwandan match official, Salima Rhadia Mukansanga, became the first African female to officiate at a Men’s World Cup match, when she refereed at the recently concluded Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup. Here she was, making history. Yet, she says it was undreamed-of.
Up until the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, women had never officiated at the Men’s FIFA World Cup. But for the first time in the tournament’s 92-year-old history, FIFA appointed three women to officiate at the quadrennial event. The appointees included Japan’s Yoshimi Yamashita, France’s Stephanie Frappart, and Africa’s Salima Rhadia Mukansanga.
Mukansanga has already built a compelling refereeing career (more on this in a minute). Still, it seems reasonable to speculate that her bucket list must have included “referee at the world’s biggest sports event.” However, the Rwanda-born trailblazer said she never saw this coming.
“It was very exciting, and this is a privilege for me. I had never dreamed of going to the men’s World Cup… The first time I was nominated to go to a World Cup was in France, for the 2019 Women’s World Cup, so my next target was more at the Women’s World Cup in New Zealand in 2023,” she told law5 in an exclusive interview.
Mukansanga’s Earlier Record-breaking Success
In January 2022, Salima was in the news for being the first woman to officiate at the Men’s Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON). The trendsetter was one of four female officials at the tournament. However, only Mukansanga was designated as a primary referee.
In the AFCON game between Guinea and Zimbabwe, Mukansanga tossed the coin, leading the first-ever all-female officiating team at the continent’s top footballing event. In a calm and collected performance, she separated brawling players, gave 34 free kicks, and showed six yellow cards in the game. Booked players included Liverpool’s central midfielder, Naby Keita, who got suspended, since that was his second booking in the tournament.
African sports enthusiasts praised her expert and assured performance. And Mukansanga couldn’t be happier with the game’s outcome.
“After the final whistle, I was really emotional—I was really very, very happy… I was not alone inside the field of play. That emotion came from my colleagues and it produced happiness—because we made history and made the game go smoothly,” said Mukansanga.
Although Mukansanga holds a Bachelor’s degree in nursing and midwifery from the University of Gitwe Ruhango District, Rwanda, she’s had a passion for sports since childhood. And, as with other successful people, her rise to stardom was a challenging ride.
Born on July 25, 1988, Mukasanga, in her early teens, aspired to be a professional basketballer. However, her aspiration was neutralized due to a lack of resources. More so, at 15, she was told she was too young to join the U-17 national team and “maybe [she’ll] get another chance in two years,” Mukansanga revealed in a 2019 interview with DW.
In response to the unpleasant news, Mukasanga turned to football, and eventually fell in love with refereeing. She shares more details about her fascination with refereeing in a recent interview with ESPN:
“I used to play football at primary and secondary school, but when I used to watch games, I liked to watch the one who was on the field of play, who was taking decisions, leading players, talking to the players, the one who people are respecting on the field of play, and that person interested me.
“I wanted to be like that person on the field of play, I wanted to do what he was doing and I needed to learn more about that person, the one leading the game, giving them cards, sanctioning them.”
In her final year in secondary school, Mukansanga took baby steps towards realizing her dream of becoming a pro referee, when she officiated the final game of a school tournament. But then came rejection.
She had come upon an ad for refereeing training right after finishing secondary school, and jumped at the opportunity. But, again, the Rwandan Football Federation rejected her application because she was too young.
Eyes on the Ball
Undeterred, Mukansanga self-taught herself FIFA’s Laws of the Game. Her resilience was eventually rewarded when she got to study with other aspiring referees at the Rwandan FA.
“I didn’t know there was a lot to do—laws to follow, a mentality to follow, professionalism inside—but I started to learn step-by-step.
“It was very difficult. When you are reading the laws of the game, it’s easy to understand but inside the field of play, it needs some time to have a smell for the job,” she reflected.
Mukasanga honed her referee skills by officiating in the local leagues for men and second-division women. As she learned the ropes, she advanced into refereeing in a national league second division, second division women, and further to the first division men.
In 2012, she was promoted to center referee and officiated in several African matches. Her first role was officiating in the Confederation of African Football (CAF) Women’s Championship between Tanzania and Zambia. She then became a central referee for FIFA in the same year.
“It is because of how I handled that match that I proved my ability to lead matches at any level on the continent. It was an exciting experience. Since that day, I have been trusted to officiate countless international matches in Africa and beyond,” she told News Times.
From Africa to the World
In the 2015 All-Africa Games in the Republic of Congo, she took the reins at the Nigeria vs. Tanzania game, and the semi-final between Ghana and Ivory Coast. In 2016, she refereed the final match at the Women’s AFCON.
Then, she went on to officiate in the 2018 FIFA Under-17 Women’s World Cup in Uruguay, the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France, and the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
Her biggest breaks came in 2022, when she inked her name in the annals of Africa’s sports history as the first woman to officiate in Africa’s biggest footballing stage—the Men’s AFCON—and world’s biggest sports stage—the Men’s World Cup.
Mukansanga Says: “You Can Do It, Too.”
The celebrity referee had this to say to young girls and aspiring female referees: “Wherever you are coming from, don’t feel shy. Don’t feel depressed. Don’t let anyone ever say that you will never get there.
“You will, because of what you want to be. Today, I am here, and I never thought I would. It means you too can have that. Keep working hard, follow your dreams, and focus on what you want to be because the future is bright. Whatever you want to be, you will be,” said Mukansanga in her interview with CAF
Owing to her credible records, Salima Rhadia Mukansanga was recognized on BBC 100 Women—BBC’s list of inspiring and influential women from around the world—for 2022.
The New Times: Meet Mukansanga, Rwanda’s top female football referee