9 May 2020 – On the pitch, she is “the boss”. Her job as a referee is to ensure that players adhere to the Laws of the Game, while she makes decisions that are not always popular and has to mete out disciplinary measures whenever someone is in contravention of the rules. But like everyone else at the moment, Riem is out of action in sporting terms.
“I’m really missing football,” she said in an interview with FIFA.com. “My working life has actually not changed very much. I’ve always had a full-time job away from refereeing, but now I’m missing sporting competition. I’m still obviously training in a very well-balanced way – perhaps more even than I would be during times when there are competitive matches because I can plan my training how I want. Games, travel and other considerations don’t have to be taken into account, so from that point of view, my life has calmed down a little bit.”
When Riem talks of her “working life”, she is referring to her job as a pharmacist. In 2017, the two-time referee of the year teamed up with her brother Fadi and sister Fadwa to take over their father’s pharmacy in the Bad Harzburg spa resort in Germany. Managing to balance her two occupations is not always an easy task. “When I’ve got matches or tournaments that I can plan a long time in advance, it’s no problem,” the 39-year-old explained.
“We work from Monday to Saturday lunchtime and we’re open throughout the day. A pharmacist has to be there at all times for legal reasons, which is a specific element to be taken into consideration when dividing up our working hours, and it’s tough. There are three of us though, and we manage to sort it out pretty well.”
“When I work in the third division as a referee or in Bundesliga 2 as a fourth official, the officials only get their assignments a few days before kick-off, and matches can be played at any time from Friday through to Monday. By then we’ll already have worked out our rosters a long time in advance, so when the assignments come through, that’s when I really have to start planning things.
“I swap shifts around with my brother and sister and try to balance my work and my free time so that no-one gets the short straw in terms of the shifts. I tend to work most of the weekends when I don’t have matches and have time off when I am refereeing. But this organisational stress is something that has quite simply disappeared in recent times.”
While one aspect of the stress has gone away, it has been replaced by a whole new kind, with pharmacists like Riem feeling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic at first hand. “March was a particularly stressful time for us. There was a lot of work and almost every day we had new announcements from the federal government to deal with or from the Robert Koch Institute (government agency for disease control).
“Experts made new discoveries on a daily basis and gave new recommendations on how to act. We always have to be there for our clients so we were the first point of contact when it came to questions that needed to be answered and clearing up uncertainties that the people we deal with were having. We’ve been advising, calming and dealing with people as well as giving them their supplies, and sharing the experience that we had acquired from other infectious diseases with our customers.
“We were on the front line every day, but we weren’t scared,” she says of how the coronavirus has totally changed her daily life. “I think that that was exactly the right way of doing things – letting people know that we were taking this very seriously but without curling up into a ball and hiding away. It was very important to send out a signal like that to those around us.”
When she is out on the pitch as a referee, Riem knows that she has to manage all sorts of different characters, from the regular kind to those who are a little tougher to handle, and that is also reflected in her working life.
“Every day, we have to deal with a lot of pressure as we endeavour to meet the needs and emergencies of our customers. There are supply bottlenecks at the moment when it comes to mouth and nose masks, disinfectant and a lot of other pharmaceutical products and that pushes us to our limits. My experiences as a referee help me to deal with all this,” said Riem, who was born and bred in Bad Harzburg where she now works.
“I use factual explanations and combine that with my personality to explain to customers what is happening and in most cases, we can come to a good understanding. As a referee you learn how to choose the right tone when it comes to addressing people and recognising the one to use in particular situations when you most need it. Fortunately I haven’t had to hand out any yellow or red cards in my pharmacy just yet. But it’s the same rules on the pitch as in the pharmacy. I make a lot of my decisions based on intuition.”
The last few weeks have had quite an effect on Riem and her team, physically and mentally, and have proved to be very demanding. “Weekends and daily training help me to recharge my batteries, as does the current fasting period of Ramadan, which means that this month I’m cleansing my body. Other than that, I try to get enough sleep and to put all of the worries that each of us has to one side.
“Fortunately I have a job which means that I don’t have to worry about my financial situation. I am incredibly lucky that my profession is part of an essential sector which was allowed to keep its doors open, even during times of lockdown. And the knowledge that my family is all safe and well gives me a lot of energy and strength.”
Dr Riem Hussein
- Born 26 July 1980 in Bad Harzburg
- DFB referee since 2005
- FIFA referee since 2009
- FIFA tournaments: FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup 2016, FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019
- Referee of the year 2012/13 and 2015/16
- Occupation: pharmacist
This article is part of our new series entitled ‘Women in Football’, where we take a look behind the scenes. Next week, we will be focusing on New Zealand international Abby Erceg.