Australia’s biggest league names first female umpire in 120 years

Melbourne, Feb 23 (IANS) A young Australian woman will become the first female to umpire an official Australian Football League (AFL) game this weekend, in a move the competition’s leaders hope will pave the way for more female involvement in the male-dominated sport.

In almost 120 years of Victorian Football League (VFL)/AFL history, a woman has never officiated at the elite level of Australian rules football, reports Xinhua.

But on Tuesday, the AFL announced that 23-year-old umpire Eleni Glouftsis would break the mould, naming the South Australian as one of three field umpires for Sunday’s preseason match between Essendon and Carlton in Melbourne.

Umpires boss Wayne Campbell said female engagement in the sport was at an all-time high, and Glouftsis’ journey up the ranks showed girls were able to make a full-time career out of football.

“We think umpiring is in a really good spot around Australia – our numbers are up by 15 percent on last year,” Campbell told reporters at AFL House on Tuesday.

“We still only have eight percent of that number as females, but we go to lots of community groups and there’s lot of females getting involved.”

The “Australian rules football” — a form of football played Down Under — is considered one of the toughest sports in the world to officiate due to its ever-changing rules and the laws of the game allowing for a high degree of interpretation.

Glouftsis moved to Melbourne, the birthplace of the code, in the middle of 2015 after she received an AFL Female Pathway Scholarship.

Campbell said Glouftsis could be a powerful tool in the AFL’s bid to create a more inclusive environment for females, in a sports discipline which has been dominated by men for more than a century.

“We need a trailblazer, and we’d love her to be that. We’d love her to umpire one AFL game (and) we’d love her to umpire 100 AFL games. That will depend on how she goes,” Campbell said.

“We might be a bit biased, but in terms of gender equality or females having an impact on footy, to have a girl in the middle of the MCG or Adelaide Oval bouncing the ball, we think would be a pretty good look.”

Despite her groundbreaking selection, Glouftsis was realistic about the prospect of earning an umpiring gig during this year’s AFL home and away season, beginning late next month, due to her “rookie” status.

“This year being a rookie will be a fantastic step, like being involved on gameday and talking to the umpires and seeing what they do on the field will be such a fantastic experience,” Glouftsis, who has umpired since she was 13 years old, told reporters on Tuesday.

“If I can keep progressing and see how I go in the next few years, I’ll be happy with that.”

The announcement is another example of the AFL slowly breaking down previously impenetrable barriers for women one-by-one.

In 2012, the competition picked Chelsea Roffey to be a goal umpire on grand final day in a league first.

The next year, one of Melbourne’s biggest teams, Richmond, elected Peggy O’Neal as club president – the first woman to reach the post in the VFL/AFL history.

On Saturday, the AFL put years of speculation to bed, establishing an eight-team women’s competition for 2017 and beyond.

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