As a teenage referee, Tori Penso knew her job would involve running. Yet taking charge of a heated game played between 16-year-old boys, she never thought running would actually mean sprinting to her car to escape three men enraged by her performance. Penso, though, can run fast. She made it to her car, locked the doors, fled from her pursuers, and then burst into tears.
“I said that I don’t want to do this,” Penso, now 37, says. “I don’t need people chasing me. I can do something else.”
Penso’s refereeing mentor eventually convinced her to pick up her whistle again and a weekend side hustle she used to save up for her first car led, 20 years later, to her refereeing this summer’s Women’s World Cup final.
Penso’s place in the final was down to talent – she had impressed in a string of earlier matches at the tournament – and the early exit of the United States. With the US eliminated in the last 16, the door opened for Penso, an American, to be appointed for the type of big games that would usually be blanked out as the USWNT progressed to the later stages of the World Cup.
“I remember the final like it was yesterday,” Penso says. “It was the most amazing experience of my life. [Finalists England and Spain] had worked four years for that moment and there is nothing more remarkable than being on the field at that moment. We had two quality teams and the football spoke for itself which, as officials, is something we hope for.”
The final, of course, was overshadowed by an incident that soon dominated the news cycle. Spain’s federation president, Luis Rubiales, kissed forward Jenni Hermoso on the lips, something the player would later describe as “a sexist act”. Rubiales announced his resignation last week, but not before the incident sparked debate about the sexism and misogyny that still exist in football.
“I was with my family and I didn’t see anything live,” Penso says of the kiss. “I wasn’t aware of anything that happened at the time until afterwards.”
She didn’t learn about the incident until after the whole event?
Is there anything she can offer about the incident?
“No,” she says. “I think ‘no comment’ is my best outlet here.”
What Penso does say is that she wants to see more women referee men’s games.
“It is still very rare to see females in male games,” she says. “I look forward to the day when it’s not a thing. While women may not be getting all the opportunities when we do get the opportunities we are delivering. We have seen many women be very successful in the men’s side of the game all across the globe.”
Penso is one of them. At home, she works exclusively with Major League Soccer – except for this year when she prepared for the World Cup with additional National Women’s Soccer League games. Her full-time role requires two training camps a month and she referees up to six matches every four weeks.
“There are absolutely differences between refereeing men’s and women’s matches,” Penso says. “Men and women are designed differently. There are different types of fouls committed because of our physical differences. There are psychological differences – we see a lot more reaction in the men’s game. A lot more instant reaction – and a lot more mass confrontation.
“Women are a lot more calculated in their response to things. Typically in the women’s game, the players don’t want to be spoken to. I don’t have a lot of conversations on the field with women. Men want to chip in about everything.”
Which brings us back to when a younger Penso was chased from a game by those three angry men. Abuse of match officials remains a pervasive issue in football.
“As a kid, that was incredibly difficult to handle,” Penso says of the chase. “Imagine if an adult came and screamed at you in your day job. I wish parents could just enjoy the seat on the sideline and enjoy the game.”
Social media also provides a platform for abuse – for players and referees. Penso, who teaches a course in social media and sports at the University of South Florida, says she and her husband (also a referee) read online criticism of their performances out loud to each other for entertainment. It’s their own version of Mean Tweets.
“Disagreement with our decisions is natural and almost expected,” Penso says. “You can’t take these comments to heart. Being able to handle criticism is part of being a professional. We have a channel through the Professional Referees Organization [where] we can report any threats and they handle it directly. It’s happened a few times in my career but most of the time it’s just fans expressing themselves.”
Besides there are plenty of upsides to life as an official. Penso says refereeing provides her the “best seat in the house in the world’s most beautiful game”. She tries to block out noise from the crowd during matches but also feeds off energy from large audiences – as so often occurred during the World Cup. An enduring memory is from the semi-final between Australia and England when the Matildas’ Sam Kerr received the ball near the halfway line and bore down on goal before lashing a brilliant finish from the edge of the penalty area. Cue chaos. But Penso, remember, can run.
“When Sam Kerr collected the ball [in that moment] the crowd got riled up,” Penso says. “If you see me in the video I’m beating the [England] defenders coming back down the pipeline. I didn’t realize how fast I was actually sprinting. The crowd was so excited and sometimes it can rally us as much as they do for the players.”
A few million Australians watching on TV were urging Kerr to pass to a teammate before she unleashed her shot.
“At one point I think I was that player on the left,” Penso says, laughing. “I had to slow down because I was blocking a [potential] pass. But she took it all the way. What an amazing goal and what an amazing moment to be a part of. The VAR was trying to tell me ‘check complete’ and let me know the goal was good but I couldn’t hear him because the crowd was so loud after the goal was scored.”
“That is why I love to referee,” she says. “That moment will live with me for ever.”