She’s known to her friends as JJ but when Jawahir Roble steps onto the pitch to take charge of men’s teams playing in London’s amateur leagues, it’s no time for nicknames. The first female Muslim referee in British football commands respect, not just because she’s very good at her job but also because of the extraordinary story behind how she got there.
I wasn't born in the UK – I am from Somalia. My family were just living normal lives. We would play football on Lido beach every weekend and I will never forget that. It’s the best memory ever. Then there was the civil war and things got really, really bad.
I remember vividly what happened. It was horrible. The kids you play football with, your neighbours – everyone would just leave as soon as possible. Then you have to go. You want to say goodbye but you can’t, because everyone’s literally running for their lives. We had to seek refuge in the UK. Nothing was going to be the same. We had to accept the facts and start again. But new is not always bad. With my family being football fanatics – especially me – coming to England and living in Wembley, right next to the stadium… what more can you ask for?
At the beginning I couldn’t speak a word of English. But I integrated with the kids because of football. In class I’d be so quiet but on the pitch I’d be the loudest: “Pass me the ball!” How did I learn all this stuff? Because, I don’t know, football. And my confidence started to grow.
It’s random, refereeing over playing – evenI’m like, “How?” But it was a struggle with my parents. They knew how crazy I was about football but they thought I’d grow out of it. As I got older I was asking questions: “Can I please play for a professional team one day?” They were like, “No, JJ. Football’s not for you.” I know where they were coming from: I am a black Somali girl, visibly Muslim. They thought, “OK, if JJ gets into that environment, she will get bullied.” They were kind of looking out for me.
So I picked up refereeing and, honestly, I don’t regret it. I’m so glad I stuck to what I believed in because now my parents see me as being resilient. The Somali community in London is so supportive too. I still get calls from back home, like, “So, JJ, are you sure you’re not going to do something else?” They have that same mindset my parents had at the beginning. But, you know, we can change them too.
Growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, Barcelona star Asisat Oshoala had one burning ambition: to play football for a living. But her route to that goal was blocked by parents who wanted her to concentrate on her studies and a lack of obvious support within the game for female players at the time. Here she tells us how she found a way to realise her dream.
I started playing football with my friends – I was just doing it for fun. Then it became something I liked to do more often; my parents were always complaining that I would come home late after school.
Then, when I was just running in a stadium one day, I found out there was a football tournament going on. I played for a team – I didn’t know them, I just played for them. A professional team in the same tournament saw me and said they wanted me to play for them. I said, “No, my parents are not going to allow me to do that, so don’t even bother trying.”
Growing up, my parents didn’t support me, obviously. But as time went on, growing from FC Robo, the team I ended up playing for in Lagos, to Rivers Angels, I started becoming more passionate about it – started seeing football as my job. Now I play for Barcelona. What else could I want? I’m on the biggest stage.
The only person who was supportive was my grandmother. When my mother and father would say, “We’re not going to give you food today because you played football,” my grandmother would say, “Don’t let your mum see that I’m feeding you.” I wish she was still alive to see me play professionally, but I’m pretty sure she’s proud of me.
There were several times I sat down alone, asking myself if I was doing the right thing. There were moments I cried because I just felt like, “I don’t want to fail.” Then, at some point, I felt I had to deliver. Even if everything wasn’t working, I had something to push me:I have to go more, I have to get this sorted out. After the 2014 U20 World Cup, when I won the
Golden Ball and the Golden Boot, my parents said to me, “OK, now we realise you have this talent, we’re not going to let it die.” Now, they’re happy. My father wears my jersey everywhere.
I don’t care what anyone says, just be yourself. Sometimes it’s not all smooth. You have times where things are not working out. You just have to stay strong.
Lyon and Netherlands forward Shanice van de Sanden had to cope with the separation of her parents at a young age and left home early – before becoming a European champion with both club and country.
I remember I used to have a paper route so that I could afford a season ticket for FC Utrecht. Me and my brother used to go watch the men’s first team together. The atmosphere in the stadium was insane. I realised that was what I wanted. I wanted to play in a stadium in front of huge crowds, score a goal and celebrate it with everyone. At that point I had no clue whether this would be possible for me.
But it happened! The Women’s EURO was held in the Netherlands in 2017. The stadium was sold out during our first game andI scored the opening goal of the tournament. My dream really became reality – I scored in a packed stadium and celebrated it together with my teammates and thousands of supporters. At that point, I knew: this was the result of working hard and believing in my dreams.
To me, being strong means being yourself and especially staying true to you. Sometimes the world we live in makes this quite hard. You need to remember who you are and keep chasing your dreams. I want to show people that believing in yourself is enough to make your dreams come true. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from – keep on fighting for the things you want. It will not always be easy, but just remember: the word ‘weak’ exists to show what ‘being strong’ is like.
Football first entered Nadia Nadim’s life during her time in a refugee camp in Denmark, after her father was killed in her native Afghanistan, and she has since risen to the top as a forward for Paris Saint-Germain and the Danish national team.
We used to play with everything. When we had a football, we’d play with a football; when we had a tennis ball, we’d use that. Sometimes it was bottles or bottle caps – it really didn’t matter. Snow, rain, sun…whatever, I would be outside playing. I was intense about it, but it’s definitely whereI learned the most.
Being strong means being yourself no matter what, and not changing who you are just to fit in. And that isn’t easy, especially when social media bombards people with what the ‘perfect you’ should be. Since I was young, I’ve felt like I didn’t fit in. I’ve experienced people trying to change me and I think that’s where I was strongest: I refused.
Because... I actually like myself, and I want to be the way I am. And now I’m here, and I’m super proud that I resisted as it’s not always the easiest choice. I want to inspire other people to be themselves, to dare to have big dreams and to follow them.
I play football because it makes me happy. When I’m with a ball, I kind of forget everything around me. It’s pure joy. I also love the fact that there’s so much to learn; there’s always something new and you can always challenge yourself. It’s also so easy to play – you just have to have something kickable and suddenly you’re playing football.