Dare to dream: Female Japanese referee Yamashita Yoshimi bound for men's FIFA World Cup

One of three female referees headed to Qatar - the first time in football World Cup history - Yamashita never saw it coming. But now, it's happening.

By Shintaro Kano
Picture by 2022 Getty Images

Yamashita Yoshimi never expected it. In fact, the thought of refereeing at the FIFA World Cup seemed so farfetched that she hadn't even wished it.

"The World Cup is a dream within a dream. It’s so much a dream that it was never real to me," Yamashita told reporters last month upon being named one of three women who will referee at Qatar 2022 - a first in tournament history.

"Being honest I was surprised at first. But now I have an opportunity to live out that dream. I’m just overwhelmed by a feeling of gratitude and appreciation," she added.

The Japanese official will be joined at the the top men's football tournament this November by female colleagues Stéphanie Frappart of France and Salima Mukasanga of Rwanda.

Yamashita, 36, had the whistle at the 2019 Women's World Cup. She also officiated at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in 2021, including Sweden v USA.

Yamashita Yoshimi's rapid rise

In May 2019, she broke the gender barrier in Asia by being assigned to the AFC Cup, the first time a woman took charge of a game sanctioned by the Asian Football Confederation.

That December, Yamashita became a Class 1 referee - of which there are 212 in Japan - and the following May, became the first female to oversee a match in the J.League.

In April 2022, she became the first woman to ref the Asian Champions League, the continent's flagship club competition. Yamashita is certainly going where no woman has ever gone before.

Japanese referee Yamashita Yoshimi here refereeing an Asian Champions League in April this year.
Picture by 2022 Getty Images

Japan's representative in Qatar

Out of an officiating crew of 129 referees and assistants for this World Cup, she is the only official from Japan.

"First and foremost, I am happy but do feel the weight of responsibility representing Japan," said Yamashita, who has never been to the World Cup as a spectator.

"There are a lot of emotions going through me but all I can do is try to do my job as well as I can. That’s my obligation.

"It’s the dream stage. I haven’t given it any thought (which match she will referee) but I just want to do a good job while I’m on the pitch."

Yamashita currently works the J.League's third division though the Japan Football Association could help bring her up to speed for the World Cup by assigning her top-flight and second-division matches.

Asked what she thinks is the biggest difference between the women's and men's game, Yamashita - who trains for an hour or two each day after her full-time work as a gym instructor - said, "I think anticipation is crucial.

"You get in a footrace with a player and there's no way you can keep up. I try to read where a player is headed and beat him to the spot to make up the difference.

"It’s the pinnacle of all events so I will have to adjust to the pace, the way the game unfolds. But all of us, we do train on a day-to-day basis with all that in mind.

"I don’t think I do anything out of the ordinary to prepare. But a lot of qualities are demanded from a referee - speed, stamina, agility, etc. I train to make sure I tick off all the boxes.

"This is not something I had been working for. But the World Cup is a dream for everyone involved in sports, not just football".

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