A ref of fresh air: meet the law student who’s got the football world dribbling
Having amassed in excess of 140,000 Instagram followers, been the subject of numerous articles and run out in front of thousands of fanatical fans, Karolina Bojar has already achieved what many can only dream of, a fact made all the more impressive given her young age.
Named earlier this year by the best-selling British daily The Sun as being ‘The World’s Sexiest Referee’, the 21-year-old’s blooming career as a football ref has found her standing in the spotlight on plenty of occasions with her striking looks garnering no shortage of attention from the foreign tabloid press.
“The article in The Sun surprised me a bit,” says Karolina, “and I definitely didn’t expect the reaction to be so global – of course it was nice, and all the compliments I get make me smile, but I’ve not let any of this go to my head and effect the kind of person I am.”
A law student at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, her full-time studies at one of Europe’s most revered seats of learning have been combined with a burgeoning second life as a football official – yet as incredible as it may sound, Karolina’s unlikely trajectory has not been entirely unexpected.
“I grew up with football,” she says, “with my passion for the game instilled from an early age by my granddad – he was a referee himself, so thanks to him I didn’t just view matches through the eyes of a regular fan, but also through the perspective of the referee.”
Eventually, just watching was no longer enough. Officiating her first game as a 17-year-old, Karolina immersed herself in the inscrutable world of football refereeing.
“The first matches were difficult,” she admits, “and I immediately learned that just knowing the rules inside out wasn’t nearly enough. As well as having the knowledge acquired on refereeing courses, you need that ability to make split-second decisions, stay focused and keep control of all the many things that are happening on the pitch.
“I can look back at those days with a smile now,” continues Karolina, “but I remember during my first match as a lineswoman I even forgot my left arm from my right.”
Amusing as some memories are, others are less so. “For my debut as an actual referee,” she recalls, “I took charge of a match contested by 15-year-old boys. I gave a penalty that was such a stonewall decision that even the players didn’t protest much, but their coach ran onto the pitch hounding and cursing me – I was stunned, it was literally the first time in my life someone had spoken to me using such language.”
Quickly, Karolina learned to adapt, desensitizing herself to the “locker room” vocabulary so prevalent in football: “I’ve never encountered abuse that was specifically gender related,” she says, “but as referees we’re always exposed to vulgar and aggressive criticism – fortunately, we have the power to deal with it, either by sending a coach to the stands or giving a player the red card.”
Though overt sexism has bypassed her, the issue of gender, given football’s historic reputation as “the working mans’ game”, is never far away. “Well, if someone wants to think that this is a man’s game, then I can only really smile,” says Karolina, “I know that I’m here on merit and that I’m the right person in the right place. I want to be viewed as a referee, not a female referee – I’m not looking for favours, I don’t need them.”
The learning curve has proved steep, but Karolina’s focus has rarely wavered. “Sure, I’ve made mistakes,” she says, “but you’re talking about pretty standard ones that all referees make – being a ref involves constant self-analysis, as well as the analysis of your peers, and only through looking deeper at such blunders can you reach the very top.”
Likewise, says Karolina, a hardnosed character is essential for success. “If you’ve got something wrong, you need that strength of character to carry on – you can’t let it eat away at you, you need to put it to the back of your mind and only return to it after the match has ended.”
As her professional stock rises, so too have opportunities to prove herself among the best. A highlight, she says, came running the line for a friendly match between Hajduk Split and Górnik Zabrze.
Played in front of 23,000 rabid supporters from two of Central Europe’s more boisterous footballing hotbeds, it was a moment when her ambitions seemed to crystallize. “It was an amazing feeling, one of the best of my life,” says Karolina, “and although I had some difficult decisions to make I never let the pressure of the occasion get to me – after that experience, all I knew was that I wanted more of the same.”
Certainly, this is not some pastime that stands to be discarded. Though harbouring future plans to enter a job related to sports law, refereeing is not simply a stop-gap hobby, rather an almost spiritual extension to her natural being.
“Refereeing is my passion,” reflects Karolina, “there’s something in my character that feels instinctively drawn to it. More so, it’s thanks to refereeing that I’ve untapped dormant character traits and become decisive and self-confident – now, I look at the football pitch as a place where I can express myself. Without refereeing my life would be empty.”