When did you decide to become a referee, and who were some people that influenced your career?
I decided to become a referee when I was about 10 years old. The motivation arose after I experienced a referee who failed to make an effort to referee my soccer match. Instead, the referee was only “going through the motions.” From then on, I dedicated myself to becoming a referee who always strive to ensure that I gave my 100% to the game so that the players I refereed would not have a similar experience as I did.
More people than I can name have influenced my career. Notably, the Florida Referee Program (administrators, assessors, and fellow referee peers) have instrumentally affected my referee career. Additionally the US Soccer Staff who identified me early on helped further my referee career on a national and international level.
However, most importantly, my husband Ted Unkel has significantly influenced my referee career. He has taught me, and continues to teach me, how to handle my referee career in a mature manner and to always maintain a healthy balance between my referee career, my legal career, and my personal/family considerations. By teaching me how to keep my life balanced, my husband has helped me create a healthy environment that allows me to continue to do what I love to do – refereeing – without sacrificing the other parts of my life.
What do you think is the most misunderstood aspect of the refereeing profession by coaches, players, fans and the media?
There is usually a less comprehensive understanding of the Law of the Game compared to officials, which is understandable because their primary focus is elsewhere. How hard the officials work to see the bigger picture instead of only a snapshot instance in isolation is also often misunderstood.
From your perspective as a professional referee. What are the best and worst aspects of being a referee and/or assistant?
Best aspect – continuing to share in the passion of the game at such a high level, and to continuously strive to perfect my game and confront the challenges.
Worst aspect – Being a team’s excuse or scapegoat for why they did not win that day, and lack of respect by the media and fans.
In your opinion, what key attributes must a modern-day referee have to be successful domestically and internationally?
Ability to be reasonable, have empathy, emotional awareness of others, confidence, courage, ability to adopt appropriate roles or “personalities” throughout the match, interpersonal skills, ability to anticipate, to understand the big picture and how the small snapshots help develop it, fitness, knowledge of the Laws of the Game and appropriate application.
How do you diffuse a volatile situation that you know players are about to explode?
Immediately identify the spark/the source that caused the volatile situation and have courage to address it promptly, before it snowballs into something uncontrollable.
For example, if it is that one player who committed the foul and the players are about to confront that individual, I isolate the fouler from the group. By doing so, this action sends a two-fold message: first, to the fouler, you have been identified and if you don’t cooperate it’s not going to get easier for you; and secondly, to the rest of the players, the referee has it under control.
Another tactic I sometimes employ if the conditions are appropriate is to simply ask the explosive player, “what is going on, I am listening.” Usually the player is caught off-guard and it gives them an opportunity to understand and realize that they have an opportunity to engage in respectful and meaningful conversation. It allows them to be heard, diffuses them, sometimes you learn something you were unaware of, and at times that player can turn into a peacemaker for you instead.
What are your impressions about the proposal to add additional assistant’s referees on the field?
Intrigued, but this would significantly change the dynamics for the referees, players, and spectators. It’s deeper than just adding referees to the match and magically everything will be perfect; there are several aspects that still need to be considered before implementing this type of system.
What do you thing about the ‘RESPECT” campaign that U.S. Soccer has launched?
This game needs it, and it is worthy to pursue. Our game is a “beautiful game” that has been marred by disregard along different lines: racial, gender, and the interactions between players, referees, coaches, and spectators. This game should be a game that generates an environment that brings us together, not one that divides us.
With the new Professional Referee Organization (PRO), what do you think about the future of the refereeing in United States?
Simply put – encouraging.
What’s your pre-match routine?
Nothing crazy or unusual. For a professional or international match – fly in the night before, eat a meal with good carbohydrates, get a good night sleep, wake up early on game day and relax until the lunch-time pre-game with the crew (I like to have my pre-game over a meal because there is something about sharing a meal with your team that helps build and foster unity on the field), and then arrival to stadium at least two hours prior to the match kick-off.
Pre match meal?
Breakfast – oatmeal and fruit. Lunch – Panera (Kim Oberle loves Panera also….)
We all have bad games, how do you mentally deal with such a match?
I accept it, and I don’t deny it. I am realistic with myself and engage the opportunity as one for growth. I am also realistic and understand that, yes I am human and I will make mistakes, but I make it a part of my history and learn from the lessons by working hard to not repeat them.
Personally I believe the best testimony to one’s growth is being able to take one of these matches, analyze the mistakes, find the fixes, apply the fixes, and see yourself grow. The next time a similar situation occurs you find that you are able to rise above it and understand your options and implement them successfully. It is crucial to be your own best critic, and to truly know yourself. If you are unable to acknowledge your mistakes and to learn from them, you are building an unstable foundation for yourself that will not support you in the long-run.
Tell us about your style of officiating how would you describe it.
Practical but passionate. I always step onto the pitch looking to serve the game to the best of my abilities by creating an atmosphere that is competitive, enjoyable, and the reason why we all either play, referee, coach, or watch this game.
Most memorable game moment?
Hearing the FIFA anthem and stepping out of the tunnel in Jen-Weld Stadium in Portland in control of my first International match as the center referee between US and Canada in front of a sold-out stadium – and not dropping the revolving ball when I picked it off the stand and the ESPN cameras where focused on me!! Mission accomplished.
How often do you train?
3-5x’s a week.
What are your plans or ambition as a referee for the near future?
Embrace this honor and blessing to represent my peers and country by continuing to develop my skills and abilities and improve upon them on both the international and domestic levels.
What advice would you give to anyone who desires to become a referee?
It as an opportunity to give back to the game, but one in which you must always give it your best effort and be proud of your effort. Also, don’t get complacent. Be willing to put your pride away for the betterment of you, the team, and the game. Finally, respect the referee community – your administrators, your assessors, your instructors, and most importantly your peers. By doing so, the referee community will also respect you back and support you when you need it most.
Christina, thank you very much for your kind and insightful contribution to our Referee Community.
US Referee Connection is pleased to welcome Ms. Christina Unkel, FIFA referee. She lives in the beautiful city of Sarasota, Florida where she works as an Attorney who practices business litigation and business matters. Recently she has focused on sports business law.
Christina, please accept a warm welcome to US Referee Connection.
Christina E. Unkel