A woman who gets paid to whistle at men

Being the first woman from Latin America to qualify as a referee for top division men's soccer games is a daunting undertaking.

And for Colombia's Martha Liliana Toro some of the most formidable obstacles she has faced had little to do with entering a male-dominated field.

First, there is self-doubt.

"There are nerves, to feel like you're not capable of doing this," Ms. Toro says . "And then ... I have to train nonstop," continues the happily single ref, "And games are usually on weekends. One makes a lot of sacrifices in one's social life."

While female officials have made appearances at a handful of international tournaments for women this decade, their presence is still slight in the old boys' club of big-money pro soccer.

Toro's leap is particularly remarkable in light of Latin America's machismo culture. While the US was revering its women in the 1999 World Cup, Brazil made it to the semi-finals, won third place - and it didn't make any of the papers there. Her pioneering role in this bastion of male identity reflects a regional breakthrough, engendering roles for women in sports.

Two years ago, another woman referee, Sonia Denoncourt, managed to break into the top ranks of male soccer in Brazil, the global soccer powerhouse and home to greats like Pel and Ronaldo. But Ms. Denoncourt isn't a local girl like Toro. She's a Canadian, and many say it's easier for an outsider to break the Latin glass ceiling.

"When you're getting started, it's hard," says Toro, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, and donning small soccer-ball earrings. "You arrive at the field, and they say to you, 'So a woman is going to blow the whistle? No, no. If it's a woman, I'm not playing.' And they say it like that, in your face."

Petite, rambunctious, and friendly, Toro recalls how her first soccer match lasted a tense 25 minutes before the male players marched off the field in protest. Later in her career, an enraged player actually charged her. Others have teasingly tried to hold her hand.

She has given a player a yellow card for saying, "Hey - you have great legs!"

But Toro notes that such resistance has faded. And yet her treatment off the field is sometimes lacking in respect. Journalists often pose inappropriate questions - everything from which athletes she finds most attractive to what undergarments she wears while working.

Detached from the fast pace and glamour of the pro-soccer scene, Toro lives with her mother in a cement-floored house off a shady courtyard scattered with children's toys. Two siblings live in houses just opposite, along with nieces, nephews, several chickens, and a white cat.

As a child, "she used to play with the kids in the neighborhood, and if they took the ball away, she'd sock them," says Toro's mother, Blanca Pardo, of her daughter's early efforts to enforce fair play.

Serving up a bowl of changua, a milky breakfast soup of parsley and eggs, Mrs. Pardo says nothing much had changed, even if Toro had became a national celebrity. "She's very uncomplicated," Pardo says. "All my children have a harmony for living."

Several blocks away, at the colonial Loperena High School, where Toro also teaches computing classes, colleagues concur.

"She doesn't suffer from any kind of complex," says school director Joaquin Emilio Palencia. "She's authoritarian," he says, "but ... she's a person with her arms open to the world."

As a reminder of her place in the world, Toro's students have screen-savers that picture her smiling broadly in a line of fellow female referees from the 1999 Women's World Cup. Also working at the Cup were Canada's Denoncourt and Switzerland's Nicole Mouidi-Petignat - the only other women in the world to referee top-division men's games.

Among spectators, Toro has gained a reputation for overlooking small infractions in favor of a fluid game. Among sports commentators, her high profile also has meant more scrutiny.

In her first professional match in the capital city of Bogot, for example, Toro made a controversial call to annul a goal. A day later, radio stations were still inviting callers to air views on her performance, while Colombia's leading daily featured a lengthy appraisal by three experts.

Colombian sports commentator Carlos Antonio Velez says Colombia's characteristically ruffian players have adopted a genteel, even star-struck manner with Toro on the field. "I feel, in a strange way, that the players have been very respectful and very tolerant," he says.

Back in Valledupar, after a rained-out game, Toro's fellow referees serenade her with traditional vallenatos. They sing about a woman with an hourglass figure, whose miniskirt is driving the town crazy. In contrast, Toro is short, with powerful runner's legs. But no one seems bothered by this discrepancy.

"I'm in love with her, but as a referee," says Alfredo Ruiz, in a strong coastal accent. "She's a girl who defends herself well, and she applies the rules well. She deserves my admiration."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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