If there was anything positive about the US team’s early exit from this summer’s Women’s World Cup, it might have been on Friday when four American referees, led by center referee Tori Penso, were selected for Sunday’s tournament final between England and Spain.
This is the first time US soccer referees have led the refereeing team in a senior FIFA World Cup final. Alongside Penso, who will officiate the game, Brooke Mayo and Kathryn Nesbitt will be on the pitch as assistant referees, while Armando Villarreal will act as video assistant referee. None of this would have been possible if USA had reached the final as they have at the last three Women’s World Cups, as FIFA prohibits referees from refereing a game if they are from the same country as one of the teams.
“There is nothing more beautiful than this moment that I am living right now,” said Penso, who only received her FIFA badge, which entitles her to play international matches, in 2021. “For me, for the whole team, what we are.” “We’re about to kick off, it’s groundbreaking and it’s a moment I’ll never forget.”
Coverage of the 2023 Women’s World Cup
Penso learned of their selection when Pierluigi Collina, head of the FIFA Referees Committee, stood before a meeting of World Cup officials and said he wanted to apologize for having committed to having the center referee wear black on Sunday.
“Sorry Tori,” he said, handing her a t-shirt with her name on the back. Penso immediately burst into tears.
“It was really a very special moment for me to be with a lot of my mentors, peers and peers who had an amazing tournament,” she said. “We all salivated at the opportunity and the chance, and when he flipped that over to present my name, I melted.”
Collina added: “She is the best possible choice. She deserved to be in the middle. She did very well throughout the competition, especially this one [England-Australia] semifinals We firmly believe that the final referee must be the best and she was the best.”
One of the first to congratulate her was Kari Seitz, head of FIFA’s women’s refereeing department and the most successful US soccer official in history. One of the first women to referee an MLS game, Seitz also competed in four World Cups but never a final, as the US team made at least the semifinals in all four tournaments.
Penso, 37, was in elementary school when she began following her brothers to the soccer fields near their Florida home. When her brothers started running games to earn some loose change, Penso decided to do the same and bought her first car with that money.
But the turning point in her career came during the last Women’s World Cup in France, which Penso watched on TV while holding her baby daughter, Brinley. If she wanted to break through as an official, she decided she would have to quit her job at an advertising agency and devote herself full-time to football, just as her husband Chris Penso, a former Ohio patrolman and MLS referee since 2011, had done.
Sunday’s finale won’t be the first time she and Mayo have made history together. Earlier this season, the two refereed an MLS game alongside Felisha Mariscal. This was the first time that three women had been on the referee team for a premier league game in the United States
Mayo, who grew up in Tennessee, started refereeing as a girl to earn extra money, but dreamed of going to the World Cup as a player while on the Tennessee Technological University team. Now the former high school and university teacher is in the final as an official.
“I immediately started thinking about my mom and dad,” she said Friday. “Since I started, they’ve been livestreaming every single game. They have been my biggest supporters.”
For Nesbitt, who served at last year’s men’s final in Qatar and was part of the first all-female refereeing team at a men’s World Cup match, Sunday’s game is the only American referee to win two FIFA medals from a World Cup final.
“I’m a little shocked and speechless,” said Nesbitt, an analytical chemist who taught at Towson State in Maryland before leaving the company in 2019 to become a full-time civil servant. “This is a dream come true. It’s what everyone in football works for, which is to be in a World Cup final.”