Esther Azzopardi has already established herself as one of the leading referees in Maltese football but her success transcends the local scene.

Her consistently excellent performances in international women’s matches have seen Azzopardi climb up the UEFA ladder over the past six years to the point that the Maltese ‘girl’ is now ranked among the top 20 female referees in Europe.

This was confirmed yesterday with the announcement by the Malta FA that Azzopardi has been promoted to UEFA’s Women Elite Development Category.

Azzopardi is one of only two referees to have made the step-up to the afore-mentioned class, the other being Morag Pirie, of Scotland.

“When I started refereeing, I never thought I’d come this far,” an elated Azzopardi told The Times.

“I didn’t even imagine that I’d become a FIFA referee but once I gained that status, I never looked back.

“I’m proud and delighted about my promotion to the Elite Development Category but I’m a very demanding person and I still see the glass as half empty. My ambition is to join the Elite Category.”

Football has always been part of Azzopardi’s life as her father, Ronnie Farrugia, had a successful career as an assistant referee.

“My father, himself a former assistant referee, used to take us to the grounds, especially those at Mosta and Sirens,” Azzopardi reminisced.

“I used to play football with the other kids and my father suggested that I followed the course for referees. My brother and I agreed to do the course after the school exams but he had second thoughts and I didn’t wait for him.

“I was 17 when I completed my first refereeing course.”

Although the popularity of women’s football has grown significantly in the last decade, football is still a male-dominated sport and female referees have to be competent and mentally strong to make the grade.

Dealing with male pride was one of the biggest challenges Azzopardi has encountered in her career.

“A man’s pride is... untouchable,” she observed.

“I used to get this feeling every time I controlled a game, especially the youths.

“Teenage boys become a bit rebellious and they struggle to accept that the decisions during the game are being taken by a female.”

Now 30 and with 40 international games under her belt, Azzopardi has the experience and temperament to take charge of top games from the Premier League.

An elite referee for the past three seasons, Azzopard made her Premier League breakthrough last season when she controlled 12 matches for a total of 24 to date.

“The first season in the Premier League was difficult,” Azzopardi said. “It was last season (2011-12) when I felt that I was really accepted as a Premier League referee.”

The scrutiny on Azzopardi will surely increase now that she’s officially recognised as one of the top 20 female referees in Europe but she’s unfazed by the added responsibilities.

“You have to prove yourself,” Azzopardi, whose dream is to officiate a UEFA Women’s Champions League final and the Women’s World Cup, said.

“I want to reach higher levels. If you think you’ve achieved something, the only way is down.”

Casha delighted

Azzopardi’s promotion to the Elite Development Category rewards the hard work of the MFA Referees’ Committee.

“Having Esther Azzopardi recognised as one of the top 20 female referees is great news for Maltese refereeing,” Adrian Casha, the MFA director of refereeing, said.

“Every six months, the UEFA Referees’ Committee meet to revise the categories but changes are usually very minimal.

“A few days ago, we were informed that Esther and a Scottish referee had been promoted to the Elite Development Category.

“We always believed that Esther had what it takes to advance in her career. The reports about her performances in international football have been excellent. If Esther came from a bigger country, her progress would have been faster.”

Slim and super fit, Azzopardi is one of the few female referees to have passed the fitness test done by her male counterparts.

“Esther is a role model for young ladies who love football and want to start a career in refereeing,” Casha said.

“We have involved Esther extensively in our Academy. The outlook is positive as the best grade in the academy tests has been achieved by a girl.

“Esther’s success is the best promotion for refereeing in our country.”

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