Bibi and Howard: A Referee Love Story

What We All Can Learn From the Married Former Cops, Both of Whom Have Refereed a World Cup Final and a UEFA Champions League Final

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NEW YORK CITY — On a recent early morning in Denver, the world’s most famous male sports referee of the past 15 years woke up in a hotel room with the planet’s most famous female sports referee of the past 15 years and couldn’t believe his eyes. Staring and speaking at Howard Webb in his skivvies on a Zoom call were FIFA president Gianni Infantino, superstar forward Alex Morgan, former USWNT coach Jill Ellis and the other members of FIFA’s new committee to develop women’s soccer—a group that also happens to include the Englishman’s German wife, Bibiana Steinhaus-Webb.

“I’m sort of half-asleep, and I open my eyes and they’re looking right back at me in bed,” Webb says, laughing, while recalling the scene. “And I’m thinking, Oh my God, what’s my world become?” He pauses for dramatic effect. “And it’s great, yeah?”

“It is,” replies Steinhaus-Webb, who’s holding hands with her husband and can’t stop chuckling herself. “It really is.”

After dating for nearly six years, Howard and Bibi got married on March 26, 2021 in Germany (Wedding photographs by Jürgen Wegner; Other photographs courtesy of Bibiana Steinhaus-Webb)

Webb is telling the story a few days later while riding in a van from the couple’s modest apartment in Jersey City, N.J., to Yankee Stadium for a game between New York’s two MLS teams, City and the Red Bulls. Webb, who refereed the final match of the 2010 men’s World Cup and 2010 men’s UEFA Champions League, has overseen officials in the U.S. and Canada for the Professional Referee Organization (PRO) for the past five years. Steinhaus-Webb, who refereed the final women’s matches of the 2011 World Cup, 2012 Olympics and 2016-17 Champions League and then became the first female center referee in one of the world’s top four men’s leagues (the German Bundesliga), just took over as the director overseeing officials in England’s top two women’s divisions for Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL).

For years, Webb’s bald head and Steinhaus’s blonde ponytail were ubiquitous at many of the world’s biggest soccer matches. Tonight the couple will sit unbothered in the stands with other fans at the MLS game, something neither could do in England or Germany after their long tenures in those countries. Soccer referees are known more widely to the public than officials in other sports for a few reasons. For starters, there’s only one referee on the field of play in soccer, and the low scoring means your decision can have a more significant impact than in other sports—and make you a regular talking point in the postgame discussion. What’s more, soccer has a far larger presence globally than any other game. Which is to say that Steinhaus and Webb would be recognized in a bunch of African and Asian countries, unlike, say, former NFL ref Ed Hochuli.

Do you bring order to your disagreements any differently from a non-referee [and non-cop] couple? They laugh. “We don’t yellow card each other,” Howard says. “No,” cracks Bibi. “And we don’t handcuff each other either!”

Bibi, 42, is finishing up a monthlong visit to the States, a godsend after she had to go six months without seeing Howard, 50, during the worst of the pandemic last year. During her stay, they spent a week in Colorado at a refereeing clinic, went running together nearly every day, completed a half-marathon in New York City and watched a lot of soccer, both for work and fun. Theirs is still a long-distance marriage; she’s about to return to Europe, secure her UK work visa (now required for Germans after Brexit) and move to England for her new job. Soon they’ll be back to their regular routine of connecting virtually for hours at a time and cooking together—they bought Jamie Oliver’s cookbooks in English and German—from different sides of the Atlantic.

What drew Bibi to Howard?

“I love how Howard is taking care of people,” she says, “how he interacts with the people who are close to him, family and friends or in his working relationships, how he treats people. H is always very, very fair, very transparent in what he does. You can totally read him, and when you ask him a question, he would never lie to you.” She looks at her husband and cackles. “And he”s a freaking hot guy.”

Steinhaus shows red to Japan’s Azusa Iwashimizu late in the 2011 women’s World Cup final, won by Japan over the USWNT on penalties after a 2-2 tie (Photo by Joern Pollex/Getty Images)

And what drew Howard to Bibi?

“It's interesting with Beebs,” he says in his British baritone. “She’s very striking. I like the fact that she has shown so much determination and against the odds has been incredibly successful. They’re the superficial things that attracted me to Bibi, but when you meet her there’s so much more than that. She’s got a huge heart, she’s a proper girl”—she laughs out loud at this one—“and she’s really loyal and thoughtful. You think strong German dominant character, and she is that sometimes. If somebody is trying to get off the plane quickly and climb over you, the German will come out.”

This is a story about two of the world’s best-known referees, both former police officers for more than two decades, both children of referee fathers, who have deeply philosophical views on their professions and are actively engaged in taking their sport to the next level.

It’s also a love story.

How did you meet?

It’s a staple question for couples at a dinner party, and Bibi and Howard’s story stands out more than most. Back in 2007, Webb first heard of a female referee who had started working in the German men’s second division. He remembers asking his English refereeing colleague Martin Atkinson, who was also a police officer, after he’d returned from the World Police Games: Did you meet Bibi Steinhaus? Atkinson had. “She was a bit of an icon in our little referee world,” Webb says. “So I knew of her, but I’d never met her.”

That changed in 2013 in Rome. For the first time, UEFA invited top female referees to its twice-per-year seminar with their male colleagues. Webb remembers walking toward the hotel lobby, encountering Steinhaus with some female colleagues and introducing himself. 

“Hi, Bibi, nice to meet you,” he said. “My name’s Howard Webb.”

“Hi, I know who you are,” she said. And that was that.

“I was a bit of a nerd,” he says now.

Howard Webb sends off the Netherlands’ John Heitinga for his second yellow in the 2010 men’s World Cup final, won by Spain. In a historically chippy final, Webb issued 14 yellow cards, nine to the Dutch. Webb says he should have given a straight red early in the game to Nigel de Jong for going studs-up on Xabi Alonso’s chest but didn’t have a clear view of the play (Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)

What stood out the most at that seminar, they both say, was the influence the women had on the interactions. “It’s a pretty big statement from the confederation to acknowledge that the women should be treated equally to the men, and they want to run this together for the benefit of both,” Bibi says. “Knowing both worlds inside-out, I would say the women’s perspective could learn a lot from the guys regarding professionalism, but the guys can pick up a lot from the social awareness and responsibility the women are having.”

They recall the dynamic of the analytical discussions changing, too. As Webb says, “I remember sitting with Damir Skomina or Viktor Kassaï or Cüneyt Çakir or Björn Kuipers, and we’d say, ‘What do you think? Depends on the score, on the context of the game, on how I’m feeling, or how the players are feeling.’ And the women would say, ‘It was a red card. It was red.’”

Steinhaus-Webb nods. “We were like, ‘Speed, point of contact, intensity of the challenge, pull a red card. Next.’ And the guys were like, ‘Oh, okay.’ This is nothing like they would have expected, I guess.”

“Yeah,” Webb says.

“And the women are very outspoken,” she continues. “So if you ask them for their opinion, you get the opinion, and it's a lot of interaction. They don’t buy into everything. It”s always, ‘Why do you think that way? What are your considerations? You have to convince me.’ It's a great challenge for both sides to think about the process as much as the actual result, or both together, basically.”

“The women have to be quite strong characters to get to elite level,” Webb adds. “They have to go through some difficulties. It was really interesting about you being more forthright than I am, for sure.”

“That’s true!” she says, smiling.

They connected again at the same UEFA seminar a year later, this time in Lisbon, and posed for their first photograph together when they received the respective IFFHS awards for 2013 world male and female referees of the year. They kept in touch occasionally, and in late 2015 Webb contacted her saying he had an eight-hour layover in Frankfurt one Sunday and inviting her to dinner.

Long before they started dating, Bibi and Howard posed for their first photograph together when accepting their awards for being the world’s top female and male referees in 2013 (Courtesy Bibiana Steinhaus-Webb)

“To be fair, I would not have made the effort going all the way from Hannover to Frankfurt, which is three and a half hours, to meet you for dinner,” she says. “Probably not.”

“Really?” he says.

“Today I would say, ‘What a chance!’” she says. “But I have to say, six years ago I would probably not have thought about that. Anyway, it ended up that I had a match on Sunday in Frankfurt, totally by chance. And I said, ‘Seven o’clock is fine. I have final whistle at five. I can make that, no problem.”

The soccer-viewing world remembers that day as the one when Steinhaus sent off Fortuna Düsseldorf’s Kerem Demirbay, who turned back and said to her: “Women have no place in men’s soccer.” She included the comment in her match report, which resulted in Demirbay receiving a five-game suspension. But for Bibi and Howard, the lasting memory of that day was their dinner in Frankfurt. “I took the train back to Hannover, and Howard took the train back to the airport, and this was the moment I realized the world was different,” she says.

“I know what it’s like to referee in the top division of a country. Not only has Bibi got the pressure of it being her first game in the top [men’s] league, she’s got the entire responsibility of female officiating on her shoulders. Because if she messes that up, the next chance for a woman is being pushed right down the track.” — Howard Webb

Webb was in the final days of his marriage, and he told his wife, Kay, and their three teenaged children that he was moving to Hannover to live with Steinhaus. “Our relationship had changed, but we’re still fine now, and it’s okay,” he says of his former wife. “The kids are fine. But like any breakup, it’s painful. [My relationship with Steinhaus] didn’t come out in the media [for a year], but Bibi and I weren’t hiding it.”

The elite refereeing community is a small subculture, and Bibi and Howard say mutual friends were concerned they wouldn’t last as a couple, and that a breakup would be messy as colleagues. “But we were obviously going to stay together, and we knew that from early on,” he says.

“They didn’t know you in the same way that I do,” she says.

They’ve been together ever since, even after Webb moved to the U.S. for his PRO job in March 2017. Later that year, Webb was on hand in Berlin when Steinhaus made history by becoming the first female to referee a men’s Bundesliga game. He still recalls driving her from Hannover the day before on the Autobahn, where he forgot that the left lane had no speed limit and nearly got rear-ended by a sports car going 180 miles per hour. (“I almost stopped your career before it started in the Bundesliga,” he cracks.)

Hertha Berlin offered half-price “Bibiana tickets” to female fans that day. “I’m there in the stadium supporting her, and I’m shitting myself,” Webb says. “I know what it’s like to referee in the top division of a country. Not only has Bibi got the pressure of it being her first game in the top league, she’s got the entire responsibility of female officiating on her shoulders. Because if she messes that up, the next chance for a woman is being pushed right down the track.”

“You realize that you have a lot of responsibility,” Bibi says of that day. “You probably don’t think about it too much, because otherwise you’ll never get out there and referee, right? My way of dealing with pressure was I was always really well-prepared. We take 300 decisions per match, and the likelihood that one of them might be wrong is pretty high. You just hope it’s one of these minor decisions, like a throw-in on the halfway line. If you feel you prepared in the best way you can, if you know you have a strong team with you, then you have to go and kick off the game. The dish is made, you just have to eat it at some point.”

Steinhaus’s first Bundesliga game went off without a hitch. The next day, a German newspaper ran a photo of the couple with the caption: “Bibi Steinhaus has arrived in the Bundesliga, and she’s even got Howard Webb as a bag-carrier.”

She ended up calling 23 Bundesliga games before retiring as a referee in August 2020 after working the German men’s Super Cup between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. Last March 26 in Germany, Bibi and Howard got married in a ceremony that, due to Covid, didn’t include wedding guests. Her ring just arrived from England that morning due to tax delays from Brexit, and they had to rush to city hall for the proceedings, which started two minutes behind schedule.

“A late kickoff,” Howard says, beaming. His German didn’t fail him, and he knew when to say ja at the right moment.

Watching a game with Bibi and Howard isn’t quite like seeing a match with fans who aren’t referees. For one thing, they’re the only people in the stands who cheer the officiating crew when it’s announced on the Yankee Stadium scoreboard before the game. Howard rattles off an extensive list of information about tonight’s man in the middle, Armando Villarreal, who’s from San Antonio. When the crowd comes alive for a City scoring chance, Bibi and Howard turn and lock eyes. “Possible offside?” she says.

“Possible offside,” he says. (They’re correct in the end; it’s offside.)

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