Yasmina and Heidi Al-Said have made quite the impression recently after refereeing the Egyptian handball league men’s final between crosstown bitter rivals Ahly and Zamalek. One of the hardest matches to referee, the sisters managed to handle it with professionalism and calmness, as good as the men, let alone women.
Earlier this year, the referee couple had made their first appearance at the Men’s World Handball Championship which Egypt hosted in January and where they made a big impression as they officiated crucial games. Their performance as female debutants in Egypt has brought them the admiration and support from observers, fans and viewers watching the matches the world over, not only in Egypt. As such, getting to know the behind the scenes of these amazing women was a must.
Yasmina is the older sibling, 26, while Heidi is 24. Yasmina graduated from the Faculty of Pharmacy in Ain Shams University in 2018 then ventured off to work in her field before shifting to an HR manager in Ezzeldin Call Centre. Heidi is a fresh graduate of languages and mass communication from the Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime Transport and was one of the top five students in her class. Currently she is responsible for the Cairo zone handball referees.
Inspired by their mother, a former handball player, they were only six when they started playing handball in Al-Tayaran Sports Club.
The sisters’ career saw them creating a balance between studying and being a referee. According to Yasmina “it was hard at first studying and officiating matches. I was the very first student in my faculty to have my exams postponed. My professors were not understanding: it was bizarre to them, until they finally grasped it all and thankfully I did not have to repeat any years. I only ended up taking summer courses to balance it all with working as a referee. We had to finish our studying as early as possible to go to our handball training. Our mum was very strict about us getting good grades. She’d go as far as not allowing us to train if we did not finish our homework or assignments.”
Heidi continued: “Ever since we were young we learnt that handball is a very important part of our lives, however, we needed to finish our studies first to be able to enjoy our passion. We had to go to our training and matches and at the same time not get bad grades. We got used to having to work on both simultaneously while not having any of them overlap the other. And it is still the same up until now, whether it be school, university or work.”
The Al-Said girls dedicate their success to the role of their mother throughout their journey as handball players first. “While playing she was of great support,” Yasmina said. “If for some reason we did not feel like going to training, she’d find ways to convince us otherwise and encourage us even more. She always has our back, attending our every single match whether we were playing or refereeing. Her insights are always useful; she has comments about things happening in the match that we might not take notice of, not necessarily in the rules of the game and how we’re handling the match, but more so in our attitude. She talks to us always and is not short of advice.”
The now famous refereeing couple revealed what influenced them to quit playing and become referees. “We played in Al-Tayaran, Al-Zohour and Al-Shams. We’d earn titles only in Egypt, but we always wanted more. We wanted to represent our country worldwide. Two options were in front of us: either become coaches or referees. We never really got into coaching and we had already been whistling friendly matches during our playing career. So, it just made sense to make this decision,” Heidi explained while Yasmina added that the French referee twins Julie and Charlotte Bonaventura were the ones who influenced and encouraged them to make the shift. “They are our role models. We looked up to them a lot even before becoming referees. Also the Spanish duo Oscar Raluy López and Ángel Sabroso and the Croatian duo that refereed Egypt’s match against Denmark in Egypt 2021: Matija Gubica and Boris Milosevic.”
As female referees, they definitely went through challenges. “Of course college and exams and everything overlapped, because the tournaments were at the same time. It definitely affected our lives as skipping tournaments was never an option. We cannot say we have a normal life, where we hang out with our friends whenever we want. We had to skip important events, but our friends and family are very understanding. We sacrifice a lot for handball,” Yasmina said, also recounting the first men’s match they both worked in. “It was back in 2015, a match between Heliolido Club and Horse Owners Club. The match was crucial because the loser would have had to play in a different league. It was a challenge for us before heading right off to the All African Games.
“Something important as well for that first Egyptian league match we adjudicated: We were not taken seriously at first as no female referees ever whistled a men’s match before. So that day we heard endless comments on how it was even possible that we’re here. Yet, throughout the match none of the players or coaches had any comments or objections on how we managed the game,” Heidi added.
At the All Africa Games, they handled a men’s match between Congo and Cote d’Ivoire. “This African match specifically was crucial. The team that lost would have to play Egypt in the semi-finals. Both teams did not want to face Egypt under any circumstances. From the beginning of the tournament, we were the only referees for the women’s matches, so it was a shock for us to be called suddenly into a men’s match, let alone one that critical. This was the first African match we whistled. It left such an impression that CAHB President Mansour Aremo gave us the nomination letter to become International Handball Federation (IHF) referees after we thought we had no chance,” Heidi said.
Talking about having any fears or worries while dealing with men’s matches, Heidi said that “every match we are selected as referees for, we prepare for it properly. For example, the Ahly and Zamalek derby was very intense for us, not because they’re men, but more so because of the sensitivity of the match: a single mistake would have been very critical in the final of the Egyptian League. We were not intimidated by the players at all. They all already knew it and were sure we were not biased.”
Yasmina continued: “It’s not that I don’t fear these matches, but I have this concept inside my head that says: ‘We’re still young, even if we made mistakes, what’s the worst that could happen?’ I stress on the fact that we’re still young and why not make mistakes and learn. We are referees, but humans who definitely might not do everything right every single time. We might whistle something wrong unintentionally, yet we feel like the players are accepting and understanding of that. As for the idea that we’re women and referees, we’ve been whistling men’s matches exclusively for three years with an exception of two or three women’s matches in the season. Everyone by now is accustomed to us; it’s no longer unfamiliar.”
The refereeing sisters shared their experience at the recent world championship in Egypt. “It was a great experience for Egypt to host the senior men’s world championship. We saw the biggest referees in the IHF matches in front of us and attended meetings with them. We learnt a lot from their experiences. Their meetings were very different than the ones we saw in youth and junior championships. Yes, the coronavirus was very restricting, but we managed to work our way around it and gain as much as possible from this championship. Interacting directly with our role models and referees that we look up to definitely helped in developing our own skills. Heidi was responsible for the referees in all four venues, while I was a floor manager in the New Capital venue. My responsibilities were a bit different than Heidi’s,” Yasmina said.
Heidi added: “Generally while watching any world championship, we do not really take into account the behind the scenes of it all. As a spectator, for instance, all I ever see is the entrance of the players and the match itself. Even as a referee, I do not take notice of the efforts and work of the organising committee, but this time, as a member of the Local Organising Committee I saw a lot of details and an entirely different perspective.”
The Egyptian couple, who are meanwhile looking forward to the Tokyo Olympic Games, revealed how thrilled they were to be selected to the world’s most prestigious sports event. “It is definitely a dream come true. The most important thing for an athlete is the Olympic Games, right after the world championship. We thought about it after whistling matches in Japan during the IHF Women’s Handball World Championship in 2019, but we did not get a nomination letter after the Olympics qualifiers nor did we join the qualifying matches. We told ourselves that it’s okay, we’re still young and we’ll surely make it to the Olympic Games in 2024. Even when we became the referees for the Ahly and Zamalek match, we did not have that in our minds at all. We are so happy with this nomination, but we know it is a great responsibility. We want to do a great job in the matches,” Yasmina said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly