Sunday 14 May 2023, 08:00

Inspirational refereeing trailblazer Penso savours Women’s World Cup challenge

  • The American made her refereeing debut at 14, but later pursued a marketing career

  • In 2019, having become a mother to three girls, she decided to make a profession out of her hobby

  • She will be one of the US referees at the upcoming FIFA Women’s World Cup

Tori Penso was ten years old when her mother allowed her to play football for the first time. But the refusal to grant permission up to that point had nothing to do with her gender. “Quite simply, she didn’t want me to have bumps and bruises all over my legs, but I saw my two brothers kicking a ball around and all I cared about was doing the same,” Penso – one of the US referees who will officiate at the FIFA World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023™ – told with a grin.

Her family also played a role in her initially picking up a whistle. “My brothers refereed in local leagues in Stuart, Florida, where I was born and grew up,” she explained. “When I was 14, I told my mum I’d like to start earning some money for myself, and she replied, ‘You can do it on the pitches where you spend so much time already’. And so I started reffing matches for money – both boys’ and girls’ games.”

That same year, in 1999, the United States women’s national team lifting the World Cup on home soil had a profound impact on Penso. “One of my favourite memories is Brandi Chastain’s celebration after scoring the penalty kick that sealed the win,” she said. “It was the first time that I had viewed a woman as an athlete. It was inspiring, and it changed my whole perspective.”

Subsequently, when she was 18, not only was she able to buy her first car with what she had earned from her refereeing work, but her abilities earned her an invitation to a refereeing camp run by the Olympic Development Program in Texas. “It was the first time I’d been out of Florida; I’m still in touch with a lot of people that I met there,” the 36-year-old recalled. “But most importantly, I began to appreciate refereeing as the art that I see it as today.”

At the time, she was playing football while studying for a university degree in marketing, but she did not yet view refereeing as a potential job: “There were no full-time female referees in the States, and so I didn’t really see it as a career. I did understand, though, that it was more than just a temporary job for me, and that maybe it would enable me to get to know my country a bit better, and maybe even the world.”

Tori Penso of USA check on tv during a VAR class

Prior to deciding to give up her job in an advertising agency in favour of refereeing, Tori met Chris Penso, also a referee, to whom she would eventually get married and with whom she would have three daughters. In fact, according to her, her career-changing moment came at the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France, while holding her youngest daughter in her arms.

“I knew I couldn’t keep performing both activities to the best of my abilities, and I could see that professional refereeing opportunities were starting to open up to me, and so I made the decision, with the support of my family, to see how far it could take me,” said Penso. “And it has given me more than I could ever imagine.”

And what was the importance of the Women’s World Cup in France? “Learning the stories of so many of the women on the pitch, some of whom were mothers, was inspiring. And I thought, ‘Maybe in four years’ time I’ll be out there.’ That’s why I still can’t believe it when I look back.”

Penso began to hit significant milestones in her new career: in September 2020, she became the first woman to referee an MLS match in over 20 years. “Five years ago, it was one of my long-term goals,” she said. “Achieving it, and doing so more than once, was fantastic. Now I’m one of the Professional Referee Organization’s MLS referees. And so we keep working and testing ourselves.”

In 2021, she made history again, but at continental level this time: in addition to being the first woman to referee and lead an all-female officiating team in a Concacaf-run men’s competition, in June she became the first woman to referee a FIFA World Cup™ qualifying match. “I’m proud – if you look around the world, it’s astounding what women are achieving,” she said humbly.

In 2022, Penso took charge of five FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup™ matches in Costa Rica, including one of the semi-finals. With these accomplishments to her name, it stands to reason that she is now an inspiration to others, particularly to her three daughters. Are any of them ready and willing to carry on the family legacy?

Referee Tori Penso speaks with Liz Rijsbergen of Netherlands (L) during a FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup Costa Rica 2022 Semi Final

“During the last SheBelieves Cup, the three of them filled out a poster where they had to complete the line ‘I believe that…’: my eight-year-old wrote that she would become a professional footballer, the six-year-old that she would play football and never give it up, and the five-year-old that she would become a referee,” Penso recounted, laughing. “Of course, they’ll all have our complete support!”

These days, Penso divides her days between her officiating duties and preparations for the forthcoming Women’s World Cup. “I have healthy discussions about refereeing at home with Chris, who is also a FIFA Video Assistant Referee, and that helps me to see things from another perspective when taking charge of games.”

Penso acknowledges that she sometimes suffers from gameday nerves, and that she prefers to focus on “working on the finer points and improving by one per cent every day to arrive at the pitch in the best possible shape.” Soon, she will need to think about packing her bags, in which she will be sure to place one item in particular: “A photo of my family, who accompany me everywhere I go. If it weren’t for them, I would never have been able to make this work.”