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Quiet Please!

There’s more to being a snooker referee than maths, as Desislava Bozhilova has discovered…

By Shabnam Younus-Jewell

You can probably get away with eating crisps at the Berlin Tempodrom, where up to 2,500 beer-ferrying fans cheer loudly and applaud almost every shot. The German Masters is more like a concert than a snooker event and at this year’s final, it was one woman’s job to keep the biggest crowd in the game under control.

When an errant phone went off during the match between Kyren Wilson and David Gilbert, the ringing echoed around the circus tent-esque building and was quickly met by a stern warning by the referee, Desislava Bozhilova.

“We have to make a point,” said the Bulgarian, who was officiating her fourth ranking final. “Not only to control the crowd but also in this way we show the players that we can deal with the crowd, so they can focus only on the table and not be distracted.”

This professionalism since first taking charge of a World Snooker event in 2012  earned Desislava her selection to referee at the World Championship for the first time this year. She became the fifth woman to referee at the Crucible, after Michaela Tabb, Zhu Ying, Maike Kesseler and Peggy Li.

Growing up in her hometown of Sliven, Desislava played pool before moving to the capital Sofia to pursue her dream of becoming a snooker referee. She learned confidence, concentration and control are the key attributes needed to do the high-pressured job. It’s not just about adding up quickly in front of an audience, it’s about building a relationship with the players so they trust your judgement, which is crucial when any disagreements arise.

She said: “I suppose with the players, all of them can get frustrated and referees can make a mistake – we are not robots. But the most important thing is how you deal with those situations. As a referee I know I’m right and I would do my best to tell the players so they could understand what I mean but usually we don’t get into big arguments. When they trust you, when they know you and it’s much easier.”

The 26-year-old thinks other sports can learn from snooker, which is leading the way when it comes to employing women to make the calls at the top level of the professional game (which is open to both men and women). It was a big deal when Sian Massey-Ellis was chosen to be an assistant referee at a Premier League match in 2010, and it was a prominent appointment when Amelie Mauresmo became Andy Murray’s coach in 2014. But it’s been a slow process for female officials breaking through into major sports.

Since Michaela Tabb’s high-profile arrival on the snooker tour in 2001 however, there are now more female referees at the pinnacle of the sport than ever. “After Michaela, everything changed,” Desislava said. “Everybody could see her doing this on TV and all the women around the world thought: ‘I could do it too. If I like it, why not?’ She gave this thing to all the women in the world, to believe in themselves and try to do it.”

The 5’3” referee said she faced a twinge of doubt from some when she first started out, but has admitted that being a woman can also have its advantages.

“Probably at the beginning it was more difficult because they don’t know if I’m good,” she said. “When I started I was 20-years-old and they see this little girl. They see me and they wouldn’t trust me that much, but it was probably only for the first few games because when they see that you do your job, it doesn’t matter if you’re female or male. If you’re good, if you’re concentrated, if they see that you know what you’re doing, then there is no problem and it doesn’t matter, woman or man. Being a female also has some pluses. Let’s say, if something happens, I’m a girl, I would smile and they wouldn’t react as bad. They try to be kind with us.”

Away from snooker, Desislava has a Masters degree in Landscape Architecture and creates 3D visualisations of homes. But building a career in refereeing is her main ambition. And working at the Crucible for the first time was a huge step forward.

“It’s totally different to usual venues because it’s so small, tight and you’re actually so close to the table,” she said. “You can see all the faces in the crowd, people are so close to the players, the table and referees. It’s a totally different feeling. It’s definitely a special place.

“You start the game and you concentrate on the balls and you forget about everything else around you. You forget about the people, you forget about the crowds. Of course, if there is a noise you have to take control of it but otherwise you just look at the table and there is nothing else around you.”

This year’s final was officiated by the Scottish veteran Leo Scullion, who was awarded the honour at the age of 61. Tabb remains the only woman to have taken charge of the final, in 2009 and 2012, but Desislava, has certainly imagined herself following in those footsteps: “One day I hope to have the final at the Crucible, but step by step!”