‘The sky was the limit’ – Trailblazer Sapir Berman on making history as first transgender referee
In the latest episode of the Power of Sport, we hear from trailblazing referee Sapir Berman who, in 2021, became the first transgender referee to take charge of a professional football match in Israel. In the episode, Berman explains her decision to become a referee and the reception she has received from players and her fellow referees.
‘The sky was the limit’ – Trailblazer Berman on making history as first transgender referee
Sapir Berman detailed her journey to becoming the first transgender referee to officiate a professional match in Israel in the latest episode of The Power of Sport.
Berman became the first transgender person to referee a professional match in Israel when she took charge of the match between Beitar Jerusalem and Hapoel Haifa in May 2021. She told the Warner Bros. Discovery series that after failing to make the grade as a professional, she knew that she wanted to stay in the game, deciding to become a referee.
“In my childhood, when I was about eight, nine or 10, life for us was football, football, football. When I understood that I wouldn’t be good enough to meet my own expectations as a football player, I decided to become the person with the whistle and to involve myself in the game from that perspective.”
Berman knew she wanted to transition and started to buy her own clothes as she entered her teens.
“Outside, I played a role. At home, I was who I wanted to be: a football lover and a woman!
“When I was a bit older – say 15, 16 or 17 years old – and I had my own money, I began to buy myself women’s clothes. I would buy high-heeled shoes and I would also paint my nails. I would remove it immediately with acetone and there was often a smell of acetone in the house. There were all kinds of little things that I was scared of, but I needed to do them for myself.”
After completing her national service and reaching the top flight in Israel as a referee, Berman decided to come out. Despite some uncertainty about how she would be received, Berman says she has been happy with the reaction and now has her sights set even higher.
TOPSHOT - Israeli football referee Sapir Berman (L) gestures with the whistle during the Israeli Premier League match between Hapoel Haifa and Beitar Jerusalem at Samy Ofer Stadium in Israel's northern Mediterranean coastal city of Haifa on May 3, 2021. -
Image credit: Getty Images
“This understanding helped me establish my identity, it helped me to come out with confidence, and with the knowledge that everything that I want to do is attainable. I was of the mindset that I’m going to embrace my dreams in my best possible form.
“I recall my first conversation with my brother after I came out and we tried to imagine how life would be after my situation became public knowledge - once word was out, beyond the small family group who knew that I identified as a woman. We speculated that some people would accept it, others maybe not.
“There was great fear, but once I received such a warm reaction from the referees’ association and the Israel Football Association, for me, the sky was the limit. There was a feeling of uncertainty, but as soon as I walked out on to the pitch and I started refereeing games, I was received with warmth and love. Everything just exploded.
“That was the moment I felt all the butterflies in my stomach turning into a giant fireball. I was ready to take on this challenge, finally feeling my best in the correct gender, in the identity in which I feel most comfortable in the world. I think that I’m treated with more respect. The players address me using the correct gender terminology. If one of them is stressed during a game, and speaks to me in the male gender form, they’ll quickly revert to the female form, apologise, and then return to protesting about my decision.
“From a personal standpoint, I want to start a family with my partner, get married and have children. And on a professional level, it’s a dream of mine to officiate in the Champions League, to referee in the European Championship and the World Cup. That would be a huge achievement for me. We only live once!"
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