Refereeing is quite possibly the toughest job in football, however for A-League and Capital Football official Georgia Ghirardello, it is a responsibility that she relishes.
The experienced referee has been a mainstay in the local competition for many years and has progressed up the ranks to become of the most respected officials both locally and nationally. Having grown up as a Canberra local, Ghirardello’s childhood was littered with football.
“My earliest memories in football would’ve been when I started playing at age 5 or 6,” she said. “I played in Canberra for 14 years [where] I played division one boys…and then finally made the switch to playing in a girls’ team for the first time in the representative teams.”
While in playing Ghirardello began to excel, the other side of the game became an ever-increasing presence in her life.
“I got into refereeing because [with] a friend at school, we both signed up to do the futsal referee course together for the 6 weeks of school holidays,” she recalled. “At the end of that…they had the outdoor referee course Level 4, and as soon as that popped up, I did that, and pretty much since then I’ve been refereeing for two decades.”
While she initially balanced both playing and refereeing, it was made clear to her that it needed to be one or the other if her intentions were to continue progressing to a high level for either.
“I got to a point where I could take the refereeing more seriously,” she said. “There was a clearer pathway towards refereeing, and I think you just get moments that define which direction you go in, and you get given a choice, and I believed that I could become one of the best referees in Australia.
“So, for me…I knew that I needed to be a more active referee in the community.”
Having made herself more known in Canberra’s football circles, it was only a matter of time before Ghirardello was recommended for a higher level of officiating, but in order to achieve this next step in her career, she was offered a platform to showcase her ability.
“When someone notices you, they’ll nominate you and then Football Australia (FA) will invite you to come and referee at these tournaments,” she said. “If you perform well, you’re already on notice, they’re watching your development as a referee.
“I had my viewing match, so you get watched on a game to see if you’re competent, and obviously if you perform well you get to be on the A-Leagues, it’s called the ‘probables’ and ‘possibles’ [list],” she detailed. “The first time I got my viewing match…I was only on the pathway of an assistant referee, and I think it just wasn’t my game.
“I had this phone call saying I was unsuccessful, but I still had to go to this tournament, and I know that people can drop their heads when things haven’t worked out, but I just made sure that when I went to that tournament that I was gonna prove myself.”
Given another opportunity to be assessed, Ghirardello achieved a place on the A-League panel after a positive performance in a viewing match between Canberra Croatia and Campbelltown City at Deakin Stadium.
She commenced refereeing in the A-League Women (ALW) for the 2017/18 season, however despite plaudits for her performances in her first two seasons as an Assistant Referee, the Canberran’s role at the time was not her main aspiration.
“I was very clear to them, no…I’m very much more in the middle,” she said. “I don’t enjoy nearly as much being on the line as I do being in the middle, being able to talk and manage players, because that’s where I’d say my strengths lie.”
Now well and truly established as a referee in the ALW and in Canberra’s top tiers, Ghirardello’s fondest memories in her career as an official are numerous.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” she admitted. “I’ve done two semi-finals on the ALW… [one] was Melbourne City versus Sydney FC and there were the two red cards.
“Doing any semi-final or any final is always a massive reward, so that game for me was massive, it really solidified where I was in terms of on the A-League panel as a referee.
Locally, there could only be one game that stands out in her memory.
“Last year I got to do the qualifying final with Monaro and West Canberra Wanderers at Deakin [Stadium] for the FA Cup [Federation Cup/Australia Cup],” she noted. “That game was, not for me as a referee, but for I think everyone’s viewership of the game a fairytale, or just a game that had everything in it.”
While Ghirardello has already accomplished so much in her career, there remain many further ambitions that she has her eyes set on.
“I want to encourage more people to pick up the whistle,” she said. “Let football players know that there are pathways to becoming an elite athlete outside of playing.
“The big goals in life would be to go to an Olympics, go to a Women’s World Cup, but to be able to do those things you’ve got to get your FIFA badge, so again it’s another process.
“If I can keep performing then hopefully, I’m the next person in line that can possibly take that next step further.”
These ambitions, though they require significant amounts of hard work, have never been more realistic for Ghirardello, having recently been accepted into the AFC [Asian Football Confederation] Referee Academy.
“[It] is a prestigious three-year program [where] the AFC develops Asia’s future elite match officials,” she explained. “Me and a guy from Adelaide will be representing Australia, with around 36 other member associations across Asia, and we’ll be heading to Kuala Lumpur at the end of September.
“I’m really glad that the FA [Football Australia] nominated me and saw my potential, I just have to prove it to them and thank them that way.”
Alongside her officiating career, Ghirardello works full time for the ACT Government in the Community Education and Communications branch.
“I enjoy supporting others and being able to serve the wonderful people of Canberra,” she said. “I’m really grateful for my family and friends who have supported me, and the hard work I’ve put in over the years to be in a position where I am with my work…I’m just grateful for it because it really allows me to follow my dream.”
With a bright future ahead, her achievements so far are a credit to Ghirardello’s character, traits that she emphasises are the key to succeeding as a football official.
“There’s lots of qualities you can have that develop you and strengthen you as a referee, mine would be having resilience,” she commented. “Especially in your role as a referee, you need to have integrity, understanding of the laws of the game. I honestly believe that you’ve got to be a really good communicator, [while] also understanding how to stay calm under pressure.
“At the end of the day refereeing is making good judgements in a split decision under immense amounts of different stresses, its physical fatigue, mental fatigue, you name it.
“I think if you would ask any of the players that I get to referee out on the weekend, I usually approach them with some level of patience, compassion, and just try to be consistent.
“All the players want to know is where the threshold is at, [and] are you going to protect me or my peers.”
Words: Sam Watson