Football Australia and the Japan Football Association have entered into a historic Referee Exchange Program, giving unprecedented opportunities for female officials to experience different football environments.
The core part of this program is the chance for officials to take up the whistle in professional games overseas.
Australian referees Casey Reibelt and Isabella Blaess will be officiating three WE League games in Japan as part of this exchange, starting Sunday 19 November. Japanese officials Azusa Sugino and Asaka Koizumi will officiate two A-League Women’s games each.
Blaess spoke to Our Game about the program – the uniqueness of the opportunity, what she is looking forward to the most, and where she thinks her learning experiences will occur.
“I was lucky enough to be nominated by Football Australia to come work here with the JFA,” she explained. “When they asked if I was interested – if I would accept the invitation – I said of course!”
The former South Australian NPL player decided to pursue refereeing seriously at the age of 18, and has not looked back since. She has officiated 42 games in the A-League Women since debuting in 2018 and is considered one of the brightest prospects in Australian refereeing.
Blaess has been a part of the AFC Academy since 2022, where she has undergone training and seminars overseas. However, this exchange has given the South Australian her first opportunity to officiate in a competitive game outside of Australia.
One of the most important things for referees is to prepare for each game, so that they have a greater understanding of how best to manage the teams on the park. This exchange provides an opportunity for Blaess to officiate teams with a different style than she is used to at home in the A-League Women.
“The Japanese style of football is very different,” she explained. “it’s very tactical, very technical. They’re very quick.”
She is looking forward to refereeing under different conditions, and described that would be where her greatest growth came from as well.
“I’m most looking forward to just experiencing something new,” she said. “Football is football, you whistle what you’re seeing in front of you, but it’s going to be very different. The stadiums are very different, I’m not at home or in my home country.”
“I know what to do to prepare for Australian football, but maybe not so much for Japanese football. So that’s what will be the biggest challenge to adapt to, but it’s what I’m most excited about as well.”
“How do you get to the game? How do you prepare for the match? How do you communicate with your team? English is my first language, but maybe not my assistant referees. So how do I communicate with them to make sure we have the best performance on the field?”
This exchange is about enriching the referee pathway and setting the stage for a more diverse and inclusive future, a key focus for Football Australia through the continuation of Legacy ’23. That rings true for Blaess, who is already seeing the benefits of the program.
“It exposes you to different football and I think that makes you a better referee,” she stated. “You get to experience a different game. You get to try new things. You get to have new situations happen in your match.
“You don’t get to learn if you keep doing the same thing every time, or referee the same football every time. So I think it’s going to be really important to see a different style of football.”
She spoke passionately about the interpersonal side of the program, and the way that the people involved in the exchange enrich the experience.
“It opens opportunities for women refereeing as well, to be able to have this exchange program and go to another country,” she explained. “Experience the travel, meet new people, network, all of that sort of thing is really cool.”
“That’s the other thing – it’s a lot to learn from people here in Japan, and I think we’ve got a lot to give them as well, that they can learn from us. I hope they get over to Australia and learn a lot from the football and the setup and system in Australia.
“It’s just a really good opportunity to make everyone better.”
She hopes that the exchange program and partnership with the JFA will bring “more opportunities and more experiences” to referees across Asia.
“I really appreciate that the JFA and Football Australia are so open to having this shared partnership with each other and allowing us to travel to different countries and experience international football,” she said.
“I think it will make us a lot better in our refereeing and really push us to that next level, to keep wanting to improve and keep challenging ourselves every day.”
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