In the latest of our Referee Spotlight series, sponsored by REFSIX, we spoke to one of the newest referees on the circuit, Leila Ataei.
If you spoke to all the grassroots referees working in Sussex today, you’d struggle to find one with a more remarkable journey to get there, than Leila.
Originally from Iran, her sporting journey started, not with a ball at her feet, but with a paddle in her hand.
“For years the main sport in my life was kayaking,” remembers Leila, “that and canoeing were massive for me, but when the weather got cold, we needed an indoor sport to play to keep us active, which is where football, specifically futsal, came in.
“Back in Tehran there was a big indoor sports complex where we would play and train, but we often didn’t have any coaches, so we had to watch videos on YouTube to learn what to do!
“For me though, if I’m doing something, then I want to be the best at it, so when the word was put out to come and try out for the new women’s futsal national team, I went along and made it as the goalkeeper.”
For Leila, this kick started a life-long love affair with the sport, and one that saw her represent her country in international tournaments, including the 2001 Islamic Games.
However, sport and politics are, and remain, very much intertwined in Iran.
“Throughout my life I have always been a fighter and defender of women’s rights,” she said.
“I have never wanted to wear the scarf or the hijab, and that was seen as unacceptable.
“I never wanted to be used as simply a political tool; for example, in the parades, we were always put at the front with the flag to show the public how ‘important’ women’s sport was
In 2009, Leila came to the decision that she could no longer live and work in her home country.
“I remember that at the World Dragon Boat Championships in Prague (Leila is also an International Race Official in Dragon Boating) all the Iranian Officials and competitors were effectively imprisoned in our hotel rooms each night for three days by the Delegation minders.
“The reason was they were terrified of more female athletes defecting and claiming asylum, as had already happened during the event.
“That was the final moment of realisation for me. We weren’t being treated like people, so I knew it was time to say goodbye.”
It’s impossible for many to comprehend making that kind of decision, but for Leila, it was clear that the actions of the government had left her with little choice.
“Before I left, I gave a lecture to the students at the university I was working at, reminding them that in my room they never need to wear a headscarf, and I encouraged them to push back against the regime.”
“I had been fighting for women’s rights for years, and I knew that it was only a matter of time before the authorities acted.
“I had previously been imprisoned for three months, for speaking out prior to our Presidential elections and so when a letter arrived summoning me to court once again, I knew I had to leave, because there was no fair court waiting for me.
“So, with just €500 to my name, I fled the country to start again from scratch.”
Cyprus was Leila’s first home after she left, but with the authorities in Iran preventing her from accessing any of her qualifications, she was forced to start her studies all over again.
“Leaving Iran was the hardest decision I ever had to make,” she said, “because I knew that I was leaving behind my whole life, and everything I’d worked towards.
“I was soon faced with a battle to survive on my own and making sure I had enough money to keep applying for a Cyprus visa every year, for 10 years now.
“And in a strange way, this way of living, having to make big decisions quickly, has led me to refereeing today, because it’s so similar in the way that you have sometimes only a second to think about something and then act on it.
“Every game in that sense reminds me of the journey I’ve been on during those 10 years, and that’s why I love it.”
It’s just over three months since Leila took her first refereeing course at Woodside Road, under the tutelage of our very own projects manager, Paul Saunders.
“That was a great course to do, and I remember after the two days Paul telling us that even though we’ve finished the course, the real course only begins when you start refereeing matches, which was completely true!”
Indeed, soon Leila was learning the ropes out on the grass and dealing with her fair share of vocal managers and parents.
“The youth games were a challenge at first, because I wasn’t used to, not only the coaches, but the parents on the side-lines being so vocal.
“I was shocked at how they were to some of the children, and how they were speaking to them, because I couldn’t understand it - these games weren’t the final of the World Cup or anything!
“I remember one game where the manager of the opposing team was being very aggressive to me and the players.
“When I gave a penalty against his team, he tried to talk down to me, and to my assistants, who were both very young and new to the role.
“But looking back now, I see that as a good experience, because it taught me a lot, not only how to manage other people, but how to manage myself.
“I believe that by learning how to manage a game, you learn how to better manage your life as well, and that was partly why I became a referee in the first place.”
But whilst such incidents show one side of refereeing youth football, in her short time working those games, Leila has also seen just what a positive impact the game can have on young people.
“In some of the youth games, the way the children are to each other is just so amazing to see,” said Leila.
“I remember one game where one team was 3-0 up, and the goalkeeper on the other team was getting so upset because he wasn’t saving any of their shots.
“So, when the team that was ahead had a chance to score again, seeing how upset he was they shot at him, they took a shot so he was able to save it, and then said really nice things to him and tried to cheer him up.
“That just reminded me of the lessons that children can teach all of us, because sometimes you forget that not everything has to be competitive, and the result doesn’t always matter.
“At the end of the day, for the kids, they were just playing with their friends and having fun, and that’s what matters.”
Away from youth football, Leila has also started refereeing women’s games, such as our Women’s Rec Festivals at Culver Road.
“I love working at those festivals because, for me, I started at the top in futsal, so never got to play in a grassroots environment back home.
“I never got to see women playing the sport, who might never have touched a ball before, playing for fun or friendship.
“This is the part of football we forget about, playing, not for a title or a trophy, but because it makes you happy.”
It’s clear from listening to Leila talk, just how important sport has been to her throughout her life.
“Sport has meant, and continues to mean so much to me,” she said, “because not only does it provide that small distraction from the world around you, but it also brings so many new people into your life.
“For example, since I started refereeing, I can say I’ve got 10 more friends than I had before I started, and that’s all thanks to working these matches.
“Going out to games and tournaments you see the same faces and speaking to all of them is great because they’ve all got so much experience to share with me, so I’ve been able to learn so much.
“Not every game will be great, and you’ll sometimes have to deal with angry managers and parents, but you end up talking to other referees about it and you start to look back and laugh about those times.
“It’s only been a few months, but I can definitely say that refereeing actually changed my life, and while it might have been something I started as a bit of fun, it’s now something I want to give my all to and see how far I can take it.”
For Leila, there’s no question of doubt in that statement, as she continues to apply that same drive, she’s had all her life.
“I want to be a top-level referee one day, because that’s just the kind of person I am,” she said.
“When I went to university, I said I wanted to get a PHD and I did (twice!), when I started kayaking, I said I wanted to get into the national team, and I did.
“I never get into anything and don't want to do my very best at it.
“So right now, I’m just a Level 7, but next season hopefully I can get to Level 6 and then who knows!?”
Indeed, with that determination and drive continuing to fuel her, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who’d bet against Leila.
For more information about refereeing in Sussex please contact:
T: 01903 768573