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Out of Bounds.

A female referee blows the whistle on job discrimination in Argentina.

SINCE SHE WAS 7, WHEN HER BARBER FATHER SHAVED HER head and altered her documents so she could play in a boys' league, Florencia Romano has lived and breathed soccer.

But today, as Argentina's first female referee, she remains in a ghetto of reserve games, is ostracized by her male peers and barely works enough to eke out a living. "It's a constant battle, but I refuse to give up," says the determined 29-year-old. "I know what I want to be and I will either make it to the top or die trying."

Soccer is a serious matter in Argentina Families support the same teams for generations and passions over matches reach such a fevered pitch that fans have been known to shoot supporters of rival teams. To them, the idea of a female ref in what could be considered the last male bastion is particularly galling.

"The first thing we men do at night is watch soccer while our wives go read or knit or cook or whatever," says Lucas Saillance, a reporter for the sports magazine El Grafico. "To have women getting into soccer, which is ours, generally bothers us quite a bit."

Officials of the powerful Argentine Soccer Association (AFA) deny "machismo" has anything to do with their treatment of Romano. They argue her lack of advancement is linked to lukewarm reports on her performance in the field by AFA monitors. But Romano claims their very objectivity is compromised because they work for AFA, which resisted her from the start.

"Do you know why they don't want to give me a chance to work in a major game? Because I'm going to do it so well, so much better than the rest, that they are going to want to bang their heads against the wall in shame," Romano says.

The slight, black-haired Romano is no stranger to setbacks. After graduating in 1992 from a referee school in the province of Tucuman, she discovered none of the local leagues would hire her, arguing she could get hurt on the field. Romano then sought employment in Buenos Aires in 1994 only to be told she would have to take the entire course over again at a referee school sanctioned by the AFA. To get into one of these schools, Romano had to beg the director to accept her application despite being a woman, "which he only did because he felt sorry for me," she says.

Upon graduation in 1995, Romano saw how mule classmates prepared to sign contracts with the AFA while she was told she must take an additional nonexistent course. "There is still a lot of machismo, a lot of discrimination here," says Laura Pagoni, a researcher at the Foundation for Women's Studies. "The thing is, that it is veiled and underhanded, not up front and direct."

Congressional yellow card. Tired of the stonewalling, in 1996 Romano took her case to Congress, which ordered the powerful AFA head Julio Grondona to answer questions on Romano's discriminatory treatment. "Now this is a man who never explains any of his actions to anybody and suddenly he's called before Congress by a poor, insolent brat:' Romano says. "You can imagine that from now on, he is going to do everything he can to keep me from reaching the top."

Grondona told the Argentine Congress the new course was intended for all of the graduating referees, not just Romano. That did not endear Romano to her 80-some male classmates, who now found themselves obligated to take the year-long course with her. Training workouts with her classmates became brutal as they shoved her on the jogging track and walked impassively into the women's dressing room as she changed into workout clothes. Finally, she took to training alone. "They try not to talk to me. They are distant. They say I am too problematic and rebellious:' she says.

Romano's rebellious streak is inherited from her father, who bought Florencia her first soccer ball when she was a toddler and cheered her prowess in the boys' league. She played as goalkeeper from the age of 7 until the onset of puberty at 12, winning several championships. Her father died in 1998, but her mother fully supports her struggle. "She's the first one who suggested I try referee school:' Romano says.

Flagrant foul. To keep in shape while she battled the system, Romano roamed hardscrabble neighborhoods around Buenos Aires on weekends, offering to referee pickup games at no charge. One time, she officiated a game between the drivers of two public bus routes who marked off a playing field by parking buses around the perimeter of a dusty lot. During the game, a particularly burly driver committed an obvious foul after having already receiving a warning. He looked at Romano and snarled, "If you throw me out, I'll kill you," she recalls. "So I looked him in the eye, pulled out the red card and held it right in front of his nose. He stared at me in shock, shook my hand and left the field."

Romano finally landed an AFA contract as a referee in 1998, with a clause guaranteeing a salary equivalent to eight games per month to appease Congress and her lawyers. But so far, she only gets assigned four games a month. "It's not that we are against her; it is that she herself is making things more difficult," says Carlos Coradina, assistant director of the School of Referees.

A key conflict centers on Romano's penchant for following international soccer regulations by having players show their identification cards and sign in before each game, causing all others to run late. Coradina also says she relies a little too much on sanctions. "If she improves in her refereeing, I see no problem in promoting her," Coradina says. "So far, the crowds approve of her."

Players and coaches seem to approve of her as well. "She's a good ref. She's in good shape, she follows the game well and most of her calls are right on the mark," says Fabian Castro, a coach for the Atletico Atlanta team, currently in the minor leagues. "If she were male, I'll bet she'd be ranked much higher."

But to improve, she needs to practice, and to practice, she needs more games. But the AFA says she will get more games when her monitor's reports improve. "My colleagues get an average 20 games a month," Romano says. "So even if I'm guaranteed payment for working eight, they still get more than double what I do." Workplace rules. Referees in Argentina earn a minimum of US$47 a game. But in the top league games, pay is $700 a match. While Romano earns $400 a month, her peers get more than $1,000 because they are assigned more games at better-paying levels.

Double standards in the Argentine workplace are not unusual. A study by the governmental Women's Directorate of Buenos Aires revealed that in 1998, the average monthly wage for men was $1,235, while for women it was $910. "It is really hard for women to get access to important positions in government or business," says Bertha Sanchis, a representative of the women's advocacy group.

Romano's dogged struggle to shine as the country's first female referee has not reverberated among Argentina's young women. No support groups or petitions echo her nine-year fight for fair treatment. "There is a crisis in values here, an obsession with physical appearance," says Susana Bello, a representative from ALUBA, a group working with anorexic and bulimic youth. "The adolescents here all want to be models, not work hard."

When Romano refereed a game with two women who graduated from an AFA school after she paved the way, a local newspaper article focused not on the women's performance in a traditionally male venue, but on which of the three the players considered the prettiest. "There are still a lot of people here who think a soccer field is no place for a woman," says Enrique Escande, a veteran sports journalist who has covered six World Cups. "It's going to take us a while, but I suppose in the end, Argentine soccer will end up accepting women."

Until then, Romano will keep up the pressure. She is currently awaiting a civil court ruling on a request for an independent monitor to grade her performance on the field, citing "discriminatory treatment" by the AFA. "I'm never going to give up," she says. "If you don't reach for what you want in life, it ceases to have meaning."
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Publication:Latin Trade
Date:Sep 1, 2000
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