Referee Natalie Simon is going into Black History Month, having already made history after becoming the first Black woman to receive a FIFA badge.
Last month, Simon was added to the international panel of match referees by FIFA, LA Times reports. Deemed as the highest-ranking a referee can have in the sport, Simon is one of four American women holding the badge and the first African American to earn the honor.
As part of soccer’s world governing body, Simon is clear to work international games and tournaments. She’s also become a trailblazer for future Black women in the sport.
In the 32 years Simon has spent on the soccer field, the Black and Native American sports professional says she’s rarely seen people who look like her.
“I haven’t had anyone to really identify with,” Simon said. “I was always the only Black person on every team I played on. I was always the token Black girl.”
Growing up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, traveling for games within South Florida, and attending college at Stetson, a small, largely white private school near Orlando, Simon struggled with feeling like an outsider.
“I spent a lot of time wondering if I belonged,” Simon said. “I spent most of my career questioning if I was good enough. I think a lot of Black people, especially Black women, can relate to that.”
Christina Unkel, a seven-year FIFA official, can’t believe how long it’s taken the sport to get with the times.
“I can’t believe it’s 2022 and your first Black referee?” Unkel said. “Maybe I was ignorant. ‘There’s no glass ceilings because that’s the American dream.’ But until you see someone that looks like you, do you truly believe it or think ‘Hey, you know, there are people that look like me that do that’?”
Now that Simon has received the FIFA badge, many are hopeful of the future Black women in soccer she can inspire.
“Seeing is believing and once people see that, people will then realize it was missing in the first place,” Unkel said. “Then there will be little girls or others” to follow.