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Just like many of the 336 players at the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup France 2018, Lidya Tafesse Abebe discovered her passion for football at an early age. The only difference is that the Ethiopian fell for refereeing.
“I just love it,” she told FIFA.com with a smile. “I played football at school when I was a young girl and I was at a club for seven years. Basketball was another of my favourite sports. Whenever I watched a football match, I would watch the referees and say to myself: ‘Being a referee is a tough job’. But I kept on thinking about it. My teacher was a refereeing instructor and he told me I could learn how to do it. And that’s how I started. I was 12 at the time.”
Her instructor’s words would prove prescient and Abebe made her dream a reality by becoming a FIFA referee. The 38-year-old was part of the team of officials at the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015™ and the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in Jordan the following year, while she has also been selected to officiate at France 2018.
“Being a referee is challenging and you learn for your life,” Abebe said. “For example, whenever I go out on the pitch, I completely change the expression on my face. I become strong and I make decisions. People love me for that. They come to me and say: ‘Hey Lidya, you’re completely different, on and off the pitch. Sometimes I’m funny, sometimes I’m strong. I referee men’s games as well and that’s why people say it’s challenging. But for me, it’s easy to do; it’s my life.”
It is that attitude that helped her find her way back to football after the birth of her child. “When I was pregnant, I thought to myself: ‘I feel like my body is strong’. One month after my C-section, I told my friends: ‘I might be big, but I feel light’. Four months after giving birth, I decided to start training again. When I arrived at the stadium, people started laughing and saying: ‘Look, that’s Lydia’. But I just weighed 20 kilos more than usual.
“I would go to the gym in the morning, go home, have a rest, eat healthily and then go swimming for almost three hours,” she continued. “People made fun of me, but I live for being a referee and wanted to come back and participate at a World Cup and the Africa Women’s Cup of Nations. That was my vision. Everyone, including the media, said I wouldn’t make it back. After three months of training, I took the fitness test for the Women’s Premier League and I passed. Everyone was surprised. I also did the tests for the men’s second division and the U-17s, and passed those too. Eleven months after giving birth, I was officiating a semi-final at the Africa Women’s Cup of Nations and ran for 120 minutes [the fixture also served as a qualifying game for Canada 2015].”
Such an impressive achievement did not go unnoticed, and later that same year, she was named as the best female referee in her homeland. The U-20 Women’s World Cup in France is next on the agenda for the likeable Ethiopian, who – like the 336 players at the tournament – has shown that it pays to follow your dreams.