I met JJ in February 2020 for a film I was shooting in London and I can honestly say it was one of the best random encounters of my life. I immediately knew I had to shoot a project with her, I got interested and did some research: from what I could find on the Internet, I knew that it was going to be a great experience with an inspiring young girl, but I could never have imagined meeting a person like her. JJ is one of the purest human beings ever: a tiny girl with a huge heart. The kind of person you meet once in a lifetime if you’re lucky. She’s pure fire and energy and I’m proud to call her my friend.
Other than a referee, who is JJ?
JJ is a kind and lovely individual who is crazy about football. I just recently graduated from a football coaching and management degree.
Football has always been a “man’s game”, but it’s not at all: it’s a game for everyone. It has the power to bring people together across from different genders, ages and backgrounds to play by the same rules, on the same field. And Britain has always been at the centre of this culture. What is football to you? Why has it been so important in your life and what lies behind your interest to it? How did you first get into this sport?
To me football is friends, company and family. My love for football came from watching the local kids playing back in Somalia. From there, my interest started to grow and I learned to love the beautiful game as a 4-year-old. I think what really got my interest is the fact that when you’re playing the game, nothing else matters. You see a group of people playing and it feels like they’re not really there, they’re just in the zone, focused on the game. I really wanted to get into that zone. I love that zone! And that zone has really made me happy. As time went on, I started to learn more and more about the game, and it helped me to forget about bad situations back home. As I got older, I understood what football actually is: it’s discipline, teamwork, adrenaline, health, being in the zone where nothing else matters, and the fans as well. I never went to a stadium to watch a football game when I was a kid but here in England I’ve been to a lot of stadiums and it’s really beautiful: the vibe is amazing. I’m just like: «Yaaasss, I wanna be here forever!».
You started playing football and then switched to refereeing which is something very unusual: usually players go from playing football to coaching or managing teams. What got you into refereeing? What was the first match you ever refereed like? Have you ever had any weird refereeing experiences?
The first match I ever refereed was for a junior girls league. A friend of mine asked me to cover for another referee. I remember being a little scared. I was walking to the pitch and I could see all the parents staring at me and I was just gone. But they were really friendly and it was a fun game. The parents accepted me, and the girls seemed to like me, which is probably why I kept refereeing because of all the positive feedback. Now I go onto the pitch with so much confidence. As long as I’m not late… My worst fear is being late to a game. When I’m on time, I greet the players, watch them warm up and get myself comfortable on the pitch. I do the pitch inspection, I warm up. I’m really used to it now. I always feel a rush of adrenaline though because you don’t know what’s gonna happen. Whether it’s gonna be a boring game, or exciting. I literally don’t know what’s gonna happen so I’m very excited and I really like that feeling. What can the players give me? What’s gonna happen? What’s the game going to be like? Do you know how hard it is to concentrate on boring games? Oh my god. How do you concentrate? I end up thinking about food, bro! It is so difficult to referee a boring game. You think 7 minutes or 8 minutes have gone by and it’s only like 50 seconds in. You know it’s gonna be a long day. Not all games are boring, obviously. Weird things happen too! Like two weeks ago I had one player who was running with the ball and then something tore on his Achilles. I heard it pop. And all the players rushed towards me shouting that it wasn’t a foul! I stopped the game and went towards the player and knew I had to call an ambulance. They helped him up and took him off the pitch. Next thing I know, he’s like: «Ref can I jump back on and play?» and I’m like: «Bro, no no no no! You need to sit down and call an ambulance». And then on the same game, one of the players on the other team had his wrist bone pop out. Honestly, I really thought that was it for him. I helped him with the sling and told him we were calling an ambulance. But if he went off, his team were down to 10 men and he wanted to help. I was like: «Why am I having this day?». So many injuries. It was so funny. That guy with the hand injury jumped back on his feet and told me again he was an adult and he could play. He was smiling at me the whole time he was on the pitch! He was playing and I was like: «You need to jump back off you know. It’s dangerous». He had all that adrenaline. I knew that if he calmed down, he would see what he was doing was wrong. But he didn’t listen, he carried on playing.
When we first met, I came to your house to meet you and your family. You offered me tea and biscuits, and we started talking about random stuff. I immediately felt like I’d known you for my entire life. And that’s when I realised you have a wonderful ability to attract people to you and bring them all together to have fun and enjoy life, you’re a point of reference to every kid, teen, and adult in your neighbourhood. You bring people together through football. Why is it so important to feel a sense of belonging to a community? And why is it so important to have a point of reference to look up to? Do you feel like you’ve become one?
We are brought together by a sense of belonging. Being a member of a community can make us feel like we’re part of something bigger than ourselves. It can provide us with opportunities to communicate with others, to achieve our objectives, and to feel safe and comfortable. It is important for everyone to feel a sense of belonging. People in my community and the girls I mentor look up to me as a role model, so having a point of reference is crucial. They are motivated and inspired to pursue the road that I have paved for them by seeing me on my path. Role models and mentors are important in someone’s journey because they make them feel that they can accomplish anything. I aspire to be a role model for young girls, particularly those from diverse backgrounds, and I hope that they will follow in my footsteps and become future leaders.
Do you believe that your faith, your family, and your community have helped you to achieve your goals or not?
My family hasn’t always been supportive, but that hasn’t stopped me from accomplishing what I set out to. In my life, I have always pursued two philosophies: holding true to my beliefs and believing in myself. Setting those goals enabled me to become the best version of myself, and as time passed, I consistently achieved my objectives. My parents began to value me after I accomplished my goals. How did my faith help me? It has nothing to do with it. Honestly, in Islam, they teach us to be healthy, to look after your health, to be mindful of what you want and to exercise as much as you can. So when people say you’re a Muslim girl, you shouldn’t be refereeing. I’m like that’s exactly what Islam teaches us: to look after ourselves. And as I got older and more educated, I saw that culture and religion have been mixed but they shouldn’t be mixed. It’s general culture that says girls should not be playing sports. Islam teaches us to look after our health so I’m like: «Bye!!!». Football is so healthy. It helps with everything, every aspect in your life. I met most of my friends through football. If I was in another industry, I wouldn’t be who I am today. I’ve learned so many things from football and I know the more I keep going, the more amazing people I will meet. I’m happy that I’m in this industry, it doesn’t feel like I’m working. Last week I did 6 games altogether. Back to back. I get home really tired but I could do it again, I don’t mind. I’m shattered. My eyes are red, my legs are numb, but I’m gonna have a shower, go to bed and start again tomorrow. I’m super happy with my job, honestly. I’m happy now. There are hurdles but no journey is easy. No job is easy, but at least I’m in a job that I enjoy. I’m super passionate about football and I’m working in football. That’s so lucky. Anything can happen, you just go with the flow, I swear to god. My season is coming to an end now and I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m tired and I’m stressed but as soon as everything stops, you miss it. It’s crazy! I miss the hectic days, you get addicted to it. I miss refereeing when I’m not doing it. Even when I know I was so tired, I miss it. We are created to move, to keep moving. We get tired and bored so quickly if we don’t do anything.
Who is your favourite football player?
Andres Iniesta is one of the players who has made me fall even more in love with the beautiful game. He is one of the most intelligent and down-to-earth players of his generation. His playing style, accuracy, and vision were all out of this dimension. He was a genius who adored representing his country and club.