Soumaia Fergani: The only woman in Algerian stadiums

Soumaia Fergani
Soumaia Fergani has moved into the world of politics after her career as a referee

For seven years, and in the midst of a gruesome civil war, Soumaia Fergani was the only woman in Algerian football stadiums when she was the country's only qualified female match official.

She now serves as a deputy in the National People's Assembly, but prior to her political aspirations, football was her true passion.

Fergani grew up playing with her brothers in Medea, one hundred kilometres from Algiers. As a student at the University of Blida she pursued a refereeing diploma alongside a bachelor's degree in English Literature.

"When I moved from my town to Blida, I met other female students who played often," she told BBC Sport. "We made our own team of six or seven girls and played indoors after classes. They were really good!"

An opportunity to really test themselves soon arose when the Federation of Algerian Football invited teams from Algeria's 48 provinces to attend a tournament in Annaba.

"We were the worst team there," she recalls. "Nevertheless, we were really proud to participate in such an event."

Some of the women in Annaba saw that the Federation of French Football were organizing a tournament in honour of Human Rights Day, on 10 December 1997.

They resolved to take a punt and write a letter to the FFF on behalf of the Federation of Algerian Football, asking them to invite an non-existent Algerian women's national team.

Twenty days later, the President of the Algerian Federation received a letter informing him the FFF would be delighted to welcome the Algerian Women's National Team for a futsal tournament.

"I barely made the team myself. I was listed as the team's third goalkeeper," Fergani explained.

Algeria's first women's national team were beaten comprehensively in their first non-official matches, but their trailblazing legacy is what will be remembered.

After her exploits with the national team, Fergani worked towards an officiating career and she quickly became Algeria's only qualified female match official.

Soumaia Fergani
Soumaia Fergani (centre) in her days as football referee

Political turbulence had plunged Algeria into what is now remembered as 'The Black Decade'.

An Islamist political party swept the preliminary rounds of Algeria's first true democratic elections. In a shrewd move, the military nullified the results of the election, and cracked down on public political discourse.

Football terraces quickly became a place where disenfranchised young men could congregate and voice their frustrations. Never in her wildest dreams did Fergani expect to officiate in such conditions, but a stroke of serendipity forced her out of her comfort zone and into the limelight.

"For seven years, I was the only woman in the stadiums," Fergani recalled. "I started refereeing youth matches before senior matches. Sometimes people came early to watch and when they saw me, said 'Go home and cook couscous. What are you doing here?'"

Although Fergani faced criticism, she also encountered many who supported and helped her.

"One day, after officiating a youth match, I entered the dressing room to change. An old man walked in and said, 'My daughter, I want to ask you for a favour. The match official is not here, I don't think he's coming. This is really a big match, do you think you could replace him?'"

Fergani accepted, not knowing she was to officiate a tense cup tie between NA Hussein Dey and ASO Chlef.

"Fans started whistling when the match started and I was truly petrified. I kept thinking of our first lesson in training: look composed at all times. Even if you are afraid, don't show it," she said.

Fergani's nerves soon settled as she proved her competence and established herself.

"The first call came early in the match. Sure enough, it was the hardest law in officiating: offside. I whistled and raised my hand and surprisingly the entire stadium started applauding. I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Algerians can be tough until you prove yourself."

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