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Photo: Mainimo Etienne Salima Mukansanga officiating the Zimbabwe-Guinea game -- the first woman to officiate a match in the Africa Cup of Nations.
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Africans rising at the World Cup: A woman changing the continent’s narrative, and a Gambian star

Eight African match officials, included a history-making woman, will be part of the cast at the football World Cup in Qatar. Here is what you might need to know about them.

Whenever it is World Cup time again, the spotlight is always firmly on the players, naturally. The coaches also get a fair share of the limelight particularly in glory, or when the axe falls on them for poor results, and often the men on the touchline are the fall-guys when things go wrong.

Africa is being represented at the forthcoming World Cup in Qatar by five teams – Ghana, Senegal, Cameroon, Tunisia and Morocco. The African debate has largely been centred on the big question: can an Africa team go through to the semi-finals of the World Cup, a first in history for the continent, or perhaps even go a step further to do the unthinkable of clinching the biggest prize in world sport?

The furthest African has gone at the World Cup is the quarter-finals, on three occasions, courtesy of three different nations. All three, it is interesting to note, are part of the five in Qatar – Cameroon, Senegal and Ghana.

The other stand-out statistic going into the World Cup is that all African teams competing in the World Cup are under the stewardship of local coaches, a first in the history of the tournament.

Every World Cup has its own beautiful story and the biggest one, from an African perspective, is Rwandan top referee Salima Mukansanga

Let’s however, for now, shift attention to the less glamorous figures of world football who make everything possible behind the scenes, and package the World Cup into the spectacle that it is. Hundreds of men and women are involved in a big event like the football World Cup.  Africa is also contributing other expertise to this enormous gathering of the best footballing talent on the planet. These are the good guys who are only happy to do the unfashionable tasks to make sure that the tournament is played within the rules and spirit of the game.

Every World Cup has its own beautiful story and the biggest one, from an African perspective, is Rwandan top referee Salima Mukansanga, who is set to make history by becoming one of three women to officiate at the World Cup since the tournament was launched in 1930.

Mukansanga, Japan’s Yoshimi Yamashita and Stephanie Frappart of France will combine forces with 36 male counterparts who will be officiating at the first World Cup in an Arab country. It’s a credit for football – indeed the most popular sport on the planet can lay claim to be a universal phenomenon. Mukansanga’s East African country isn’t known for its football prowess, qualifying to play in the World Cup is a step too far for the Rwandese. 

Yet here is a female match official from this rebuilding nation being considered one of the best in the trade, worth of a place at the biggest stage, the World Cup. No doubt, she has done her country proud, and we look forward to her shining at the World Cup, with all eyes on her. 

34-year-old Mukansanga is a merit selection through and through, having officiated at the 2016 Women’s Africa Cup of Nations, impressing well enough to be put in charge of the final between Cameroon and Nigeria. Her sterling job at that tournament didn’t go unnoticed as she was selected to officiate both at the 2019 Women’s World Cup and the Tokyo Olympic Games, adding more feathers to her cap.

The biggest moment of her career came early this year at the Men’s Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon where she led an all-women cast by officiating in the final, in the process carving her own piece of history by becoming the first woman to referee a big match of a top men’s football event. The history-making and vivacious former basketball player is not your stereotype female athlete.  She represents the beauty and ability of African women at the biggest stage.

Mukansanga is definitely playing her part in changing the narrative about her country, which continues to provide some beautiful stories beyond the horrific genocide chapter that the name Rwanda was synonymous with. 

“As always, the criteria we have used is ‘quality first’, and the selected match officials represent the highest level of refereeing worldwide. This concludes a long process that began several years ago with the deployment of female referees at FIFA men’s junior and senior tournaments,” said former leading referee and Fifa’s referees committee chairman Pierluigi Collina.

“In this way, we clearly emphasise it is quality that counts for us, and not gender. I would hope that in the future, the selection of elite women’s match officials for important men’s competitions will be perceived as something normal and no longer as sensational.”

Mukansanga is one of eight African referees in Qatar for the World Cup. 

Africa’s top referee, Bakary Papa Gassama, leads the cast. The Gambian three-times African Referee of the Year will be officiating at the World Cup for the third time – a testimony of his consistency. His career has taken him to the Olympics in London in 2012, and then made his Word Cup debut in the middle at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. A year later he handled the final of the Africa Cup of Nations between Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, underlying his new found status as Africa’s best match official.

In 2017, Gassama was the sole African representative at the 2017 Fifa Confederations Cup in Russia and then officiated at the World Cup proper of the second time in his career the following year. Much is expected from him and following his commendable past performances, he will now be aiming to be handed a match or two in the knockout phase in Qatar.

Zambia’s Janny Sikazwe is another senior referee from the motherland who will be making his second appearance at the World Cup. Many didn’t give Sikazwe chance to be selected by the Fifa panel following a howler at the Afcon finals earlier this year when he prematurely blew to end a match between Tunisia and Mali.

It was however later reported that he was lucky to be alive after suffering from dehydration, which could have sent him into a comma due to heat stroke caused by soaring temperatures in Cameroon.

Off he is to Qatar. 

The other African match officials are: Maguette N’diaye (Senegal), Mustapha Ghorbal (Algeria), Balmak Tessema (Ethiopia), Redouane Jiyed (Morocco), Victor Gomez (South Africa), and Jean Jacques Ndala (DR Congo).

Here’s hoping for a clean World Cup that going to be played in the full spirit of fairness, and the few errant incidents be competently dealt with by the lady and seven gentlemen from the continent. 

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