Sara Telek on being a female referee, the challenges and differences to male colleagues

In a fascinating interview, experienced Bundesliga and UEFA referee Sara Telek gives us an in-depth insight into her multifaceted journey through the world of sport. From her beginnings as a schoolgirl playing football in the school playground at break time to her impressive career as a referee. A unique insight into the challenges and triumphs in the life of a woman asserting herself in a male-dominated industry.

She not only talks about her own career, but also expresses her views on important football topics such as the VAR, the development of women's football in Austria and her experiences as a referee in an environment characterised by emotions. Her frank and clear words not only give us an insight into her personal development, but also provide valuable perspectives on current trends and challenges in football, particularly in the context of women's football.

Video-Interview: Sara Telek

From brushes to football

zone14:  Sara, how did you get into football from an artistic background? 

Sara Telek: It actually came about during art school, because back then I used to play football with my friends in the courtyard during breaks.

And that's how I developed a passion for football, which gave me more passion for this sport than I had for art.

Beginnings as a footballer

zone14:  You played for ASC Erla, Wiener Viktoria, Wiener Sport-Club and you were also one of the founders of the Dornbach Girls. Was it ever your goal to become a professional?

Sara Telek: No, I realised that I started too late.

I didn't start playing football until I was 14, in sixth grade. I realised that I had potential with my feet and with the ball and that I had a talent for the sport because I was a very quick learner. I thought it was a bit of a shame that I hadn't found my way into football at an earlier age because I think there would have been options and opportunities for me then.

I realised from the start that I was just doing it for myself and for the fun of it. Playing football in the park was something I really enjoyed. And for me, it was just for the feeling, for the joy, for the fun. That was how I started.

For a long time, I wasn't even aware that there was an opportunity to play in a club. I come from a family that doesn't like sports, where football was never a topic. As a result, I didn't have access to sports clubs, sports training or football training. I took this path quite accidentally.

The path to becoming a referee

zone14: So how did you become a referee? 

Sara Telek: Certain rules have to be followed during a 90-minute match. I thought it would be an advantage if I, as a player, was interested in the rules and knew them. At least to know them. That was the motivation for me to sign up for the refereeing course.

It was never my goal to referee a game, I just wanted to go through the theory and learn it for myself. But then you automatically have a test after you've learnt the theory. Then you've got the first game and then the next game and then you kind of automatically get into it. It just took its course.

Paths to the top

zone14:  What paths do you take to get to the top?

Sara Telek: To get to the top first of all, you have to know where you want to go. Otherwise, it's just like being a player, you can go up and down. You will also be scored, which means you can earn points based on how you perform in the games. Things like fitness and knowledge of the rules are also taken into account.

It is exciting, of course, and you will have guidance in the early stages of your career. You will get a lot of feedback as well as an observer who will write reports and provide input. The more you get involved and the more you are in this world with your colleagues, the more you understand the whole system. Then you also understand the opportunities that open up. That you can go from junior leagues to competitive, and from competitive to pros. Then you can get into the list of the best talents, and you can become an international assistant or even referee. There are a lot of options and opportunities, and of course, ambition quickly makes you want to pursue more.

Personal experiences and challenges

zone14: What kind of challenges have you had to face in your experience as a referee?

Sara Telek:  I think the early stages are always very challenging for a referee. Everything is new. You don't have the confidence, the routine. You also have to learn how to assert yourself. You're under a lot of pressure from the outside world and sometimes you're not even aware of it. If you can get through this phase and stick with it, you can make it. 

The dropout rate is particularly high at the beginning because a lot of people have negative experiences and maybe have completely different expectations. And then they get disappointed. Or they find it difficult to deal with the criticism they receive on the pitch. Not just game-related criticism, but also personal criticism. You just have to learn to distance yourself from it very early on. Criticism, insults, whatever comes your way. You don't let it get to you, because it's not about you personally, it's about the function and the role that you're playing, where you might not be perfect or you might struggle at the beginning. 

It's always challenging, every game is different, every game is in a different location, and you've got 22 different personalities out there and that makes it very exciting, varied, and challenging.

Fairness and leadership on the pitch

zone14: You have refereed over 300 matches and have shown a total of 463 yellow cards, 21 second yellow cards, and 17 straight red cards. Would you say you are a strict referee? 

Sara Telek:  No, I wouldn't really say I'm strict. I'm more of a referee who lets things happen, and who also thinks from the perspective of the game. As a player, I liked to play physically myself, but now I don't think I'm a referee who is quick or easy to show a card. Unless a certain limit is reached.

I've just found a good instinct, I suppose. I know when to let a game go. Of course, I can't let every game go straight away, sometimes players or challenges are just too heated. You just have to be aware and know that you can't let go too much or let the game become too physical. Otherwise, it becomes more difficult to manage.

A feel for characters

zone14: Would you describe yourself as a good judge of character? In the sense that you quickly understand the personalities within the teams?

Sara Telek: I think this ability has helped me a lot. If you can read people or characters from the beginning and recognise situations in advance or before they happen, then you've already gained a lot. You can prevent things from going too far in the first place because you can see that things are about to get critical. In other words, I think that if you are good at interpreting facial expressions or gestures, the role of a referee will be easier for you.

Concerns and downsides

zone14: Have you ever had doubts during a match? About your performance, but also about comments from fans and players.

Sara Telek: I think I've had one or two matches, especially at the youth level, where I've realised that I have a lot to learn or work on and that one match certainly wasn't my best day.

I may have been overwhelmed at the time, but I don't think I ever considered giving up. That was certainly over ten years ago now. But I think it's a problem for a lot of my colleagues. You need a tough skin, and I'm sure I've developed that over the years.

Same playing field, different criticism

zone14: Are there any differences between a woman and a man in charge of the game?

Sara Telek:  Basically, I think it doesn't really make a difference if we assume that they both perform at the same level as a referee. If someone isn't good, isn't recognised or accepted, then it doesn't matter if you're a man or a woman. Then there will be criticism or confrontation from the players. 

I think any weaknesses are just picked on, criticised, and used to insult. And in the case of a female referee, it's probably the issue of women being asked to go into the kitchen, whereas in the case of a male referee, it's some other characteristic, maybe he's a little bit fatter, a little bit shorter, maybe he's bald or wears glasses. Then you look for some detail that stands out.

Fair play against prejudice

zone14: What about misogyny in the workplace? Have you experienced anything like that?

Sara Telek:  Of course you hear about it, especially from the crowd, there are sexist reports. Rarely from players and coaches. I think everyone is aware of their responsibilities and their role. Of course, there are moments when players don't pull themselves together or, let's say, make verbal comments. And depending on how out of line it is, I react accordingly. If it doesn't bother me, I ignore it. Sometimes it's something where I have to say something back to them and give them a bit of a verbal slap. Or if it's really something where I say it's no longer acceptable and the game can’t continue, then you have to apologise, work in a disciplined way, and explain it to the other players.

Technology as support

zone14: As a technology start-up, we are naturally also interested in your opinion on VAR, i.e. video assistance for referees. Has it made life easier for referees? If so, is there still room for improvement?

Sara Telek:  Yes, definitely. On the one hand, VAR has made football fairer, as the statistics show. But it has also made it more difficult because there is now another component to it, the technical one. In my opinion, the most important thing here is communication, on-field communication. The referee team is on the pitch, but so are the players. And in the background, with the video referee, you have to make sure there are no misunderstandings. Nevertheless, in the end, everything is more transparent now, which I think is very positive.

Potential, professionalisation and the future

zone14: In our campaign we are focussing on women in football, in which direction is women's football currently moving in Austria?

Sara Telek:  Women's football has come a long way in the last 10 years and a lot has been done to improve it. However, I believe and am convinced that there is still so much potential. We have to be careful not to stand still or even go backwards. You have to keep going and keep moving forward, create additional structures, and build professionalism. It is clear that Austrian football is developing, also in the professional sector. From a financial point of view, of course, the first movers will benefit enormously in the long run and will almost certainly be the winners in the long run. Those who only move up step by step will find it very difficult to catch up or maintain their level.

But overall, I think Austria can be proud of what it has done. I just think that the broad masses are perhaps still not reached enough. Quality comes from quantity, and I believe that the more young players are exposed to the game and simply have fun, enjoyment, and passion for the game, the more potential there is for the future. Not just in terms of players, but in football in general. To get more coaches, referees, and officials, at all levels and in all areas. To create even more diversity and therefore more opportunities.

Focus: Women in football 2024 - The Talk

zone14 invites you to the highlight of its month-long campaign on Monday, 4 March at 5.30 pm: "Focus: Women in football - The Talk". This is a panel discussion with prominent guests from the world of women's football. The event will take place at the FH-Technikum at Höchstädtplatz 6 in the 20th district. 

The head coach of SK Rapid Vienna, Katja Gürtler, the 74-time ÖFB team player and sporting director of FK Austria Vienna, Lisa Makas, the sporting director of LASK Linz, Walter Weiss, and the sporting director of Sturm Graz, Michael Erlitz, have been announced. Also present will be the project manager of the fairplay initiative, Nikola Staritz, the Bundesliga and UEFA referee Sara Telek, Anna Ressmann from the WFV women's committee and Jasmine Sommer from The guests will discuss everything to do with sport in two highly interesting constellations. The evening will be hosted by Sky reporter Nera Palinic. 

As a thank you for reading this blog, the first 10 of you can use the discount code "blog1" to get the tickets completely free .

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