Photo Credit: OFC Media via Phototek: Left to right Yahya Alathwani, Reem Albishi,  OFC Instructor Alejo Perez Leguizamon, Maria Estefania Pinto, Andres Daniel Pena Garcia

OFC Futsal referees have benefited from the addition of two match officials from Argentina and two from Saudi Arabia at the OFC Futsal Men’s Champions League in New Caledonia.

It’s another sign of increased cooperation, sharing of ideas and knowledge between Confederations with the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL) officials bringing a wealth of experience to Oceania.

“The referee exchange is an amazing opportunity to improve football refereeing skills and benchmark with top referees, learn from highly qualified referees from top Futsal countries,” OFC Referee High Performance Coach and FIFA fitness instructor Alejo Perez Leguizamon said.

“Equally important is the exchange experience with other cultures and the chance to meet and connect with peers and fellow referees from all over the world. It’s also a unique opportunity for our match officials to gain exposure to professional Futsal environments with World Cup experience and is a great opportunity for all at OFC.  It has been great to see the excitement, dedication and professionalism displayed by our guest referees, as well as our OFC referees at trainings and games,” Perez Leguizamon added.

Photo Credit: OFC Media via Phototek: Argentine Referee Maria Estefania Pinto

37-year-old Maria Estefania Pinto started refereeing football and Futsal in Argentina when she was 22.

“I started refereeing because I love football, the ambience of football. I wanted to be a journalist but in my country it was expensive. I wanted to be a coach but to be a coach it takes five years. To become a Futsal referee, it takes one year,” she explained.

Pinto’s journey has taken her around South America and the world. She refereed at her first FIFA Futsal World Cup in Lithuania in 2021 and hopes to be selected in June to officiate in this year’s FIFA Futsal World Cup in Uzbekistan.

It’s been tough at times missing birthdays, weddings because of her Futsal commitments, but she has the unwavering support from her family.

Making the long journey from Buenos Aires to Noumea has been worth it, “for me it’s been fabulous, it’s a great opportunity for me to learn, to know other languages, other cultures, people and see a new place. It’s beautiful.” Pinto said.

(Photo Credit OFC Media via Phototek)

Estefania Pinto’s compatriot Andres Daniel Pena Garcia was a former goalkeeper but started refereeing when he was 15 because his uncle was a referee. Now 39, he loves officiating games because the decision making has to be very fast.

“In my country the Futsal referee is more intelligent. You learn to be a better football referee through Futsal because of the speed of the game,” Pena Garcia said.

He is also hoping to make the cut for this year’s FIFA Futsal World Cup, as well as next year’s Youth Olympic Games. With FIFA referee assessors in New Caledonia Pena Garcia feels this week’s experience has helped.

“I am very happy because for me this is a big opportunity. I learn all the time, sharing with other referees, other countries, other languages, other cultures.” Pena Garcia added.

Photo Credit: OFC Media via Phototek: Saudi Arabian Referee Reem Albishi

Reem Albishi has been refereeing since she was 19 in her home country, Saudi Arabia. This year she has been included on the FIFA Futsal Referee panel for the first time.

A squash player in her youth, Albishi played football in her late teens, but injuries took its toll and she switched to refereeing.

“It’s very hard but nobody can know what refereeing is like unless you experience it. You see the game from a different perspective when you are on the pitch refereeing,” said Albishi.

She has had tremendous support from Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF). In 2020 the SAFF started a women’s competition with female referees and they pushed each other for the chance to go up. There has been a lot of support from instructors and Albishi now referees both men and women’s games.

The FIFA Women’s Futsal World Cup will be held in 2025, and that’s a goal for Albishi.

“I’m on the list for World Cup Women’s. So, this is very important for me. When I came here (New Caledonia), I saw all the referees here and before I go to a World Cup I need this experience. It has been so beneficial for me in my development.”

Yahya Alathwani also hails from Saudi Arabia and has had many opportunities at international level. He aspires to one day officiate at a FIFA Futsal World Cup. He has relished the opportunity to travel to Noumea and meet the top OFC Futsal Referees and the officials from Argentina.

“I have learned many things, firstly to meet experienced referees like Anthony Riley who has been at World Cups.  You must referee at many different levels to get experience in different situations, and I have learned a lot.” Alathwani said.