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Christina Unkel: Team president, attorney, app creator and breakout star of Euro 2024

Follow live coverage of England vs Netherlands in the Euro 2024 semi-final today

The breakout star of this summer’s European Championship only played her first game on Monday.

ITV’s referee analyst Christina Unkel speaks to The Athletic before setting off for the media match against the BBC in Berlin. First, she will meet up with Jill Scott for a coffee — one of the players she booked in her former life as an elite referee is now a colleague — and on Wednesday she will be on hand for coverage of England’s semi-final against the Netherlands. She has worked on all of ITV’s matches during the tournament, plus their highlight shows.

It is a wonder she finds the time. Unkel is also the president of Tampa Bay Sun, a new team due to play in the inaugural USL Super League season starting in August, a founder of fitness apps and a litigation attorney. She is well known to U.S. viewers, having featured on Fox, CBS and Paramount Plus’s football coverage, but Euro 2024 has marked her UK breakthrough and she has garnered widespread acclaim for her calm authority.

The 37-year-old is whipsmart and her contributions have often made for the most compelling parts of ITV’s half-time and post-match coverage. Unkel is often challenged by pundits Gary Neville, Ian Wright, Roy Keane and Ange Postecoglou, who might keep abreast of football’s changing laws but still do not like all of them.

“That’s the whole point of why I did this in the first place,” she says. “I encourage them. Everyone’s like: ‘I feel like they’re beating up on you.’ Not at all! Ask me questions! If they’re struggling with those questions as professional footballers, the general population is struggling.

“If I just wanted to collect a paycheque and walk out, I probably would be cringing. But those are the opportunities I desire. Those are the conversations that IFAB (the International Football Association Board, the game’s lawmakers) might need to hear from the football community.

“They have such a high level of football understanding and sometimes they don’t even know — justifiably so — some of the nuances we have. You can take a look at the laws of the game, but the nuances or the application — what I call the case application — aren’t included.”

Unkel began her own refereeing career at the age of 10. She had been the kind of player to feel unjustifiably aggrieved with officials, to the extent that her coach told her she needed to be quiet or take a course and actually learn the rules. The treatment of referees was kinder when she was coming up — had it not been, she says, she is not sure she would have stayed in the game — and when faced with any kind of sexist invective about getting back in the kitchen, she would shrug it off with a wish that her detractors would come up with something more original.

Primarily, she was focused on becoming the kind of official she had yearned to encounter as a player.

“Being a female soccer player, people would be assigned to our games and either not take it seriously or think they’re not much of an issue,” she says. “For somebody to not care about our game — because it was a girls’ game — drove me nuts. We still deserved fair treatment and quality and care and concern. There are times you just remember a ref for how good of a job they did. I always wanted to be remembered for that.”

Unkel graduated from college to find there was little infrastructure for women’s professional soccer in the United States. Playing abroad was not an option when pay was still so poor. Officiating was the best way to stay involved — even if in the early days of her refereeing career the pay was so paltry she would actually lose money giving up her day job.

Her goal was to reach the point where she could referee sides such as the U.S. Women’s National Team. Those were the most thrilling games of her career “because of the environment that they were creating. I’m a referee and no one’s obviously going to come to see me except for my parents, but you were part of that tapestry in some way”.

She took her first television role before the 2019 Women’s World Cup, taking on 53 games for Fox Sports. She joined up a day before Fox announced their line-up. It meant giving up her role on the FIFA Panel and, having made that sacrifice, she was keen that her involvement amounted to more than just critiquing her former colleagues. That, she says, is why “this role is very taboo”, although the stigma is shifting.

“Not many people had done this role in the way I envisioned it, which was to educate the masses,” she says. “If the referee got a decision correct, break it down: here’s the play, here’s the law, here’s what should have been the answer. It’s very rare that officials get something incorrect just because it’s a pure misapplication of law. That’s easy to explain without destroying an official. My job is not to rate the referee; my job is to explain the laws.

“When I stepped into that role, it did ostracise some people. Some friends of mine didn’t agree.” They came around when she was picked up by CBS for their Champions League coverage in 2020 and they could see what she was trying to do. This tournament has underlined that it’s worthwhile work.

“It’s been a little enlightening to me to see so many people tearing down English referees but they’ve actually been some of the best-performing officials in this tournament,” Unkel explains. “To just enlighten people so they are making opinions, or decisions that are more fully educated, is really the goal.”

At ITV, she has the benefit of a full-time video operator to help her select clips for analysis; for domestic matches, she pulls up the best angle herself. The pair treat her secluded studio booth “as if I were stepping into a VAR room” and it helps that Unkel was part of the first cohort of referees trained in VAR in 2017, with Howard Webb as her instructor.

That boot camp involved sitting in video-operating booths with timers in the corner of the footage she was watching. “At 10 or 15 seconds, it goes from green to yellow, and then it goes to red at, like, 30. So it does feel like you’re in a spy movie about to blow up.” It was good preparation for the three to five seconds she has in-game to explain decisions. “Sometimes I have to break down something I’ve learned over 20 years. What are the one or two really important things you want people to walk away with so they can connect it very quickly without having taken all the referee courses I did?

“You know what kind of checks are being reviewed. ‘Here’s what I need to look at, and here’s what I need to break down.’ And as soon as I have that answer, I’m always like: ‘Let me in! Let me in!’ If they bring me in before I have the answer, I’m commentating while I’m looking for it: ‘The VAR is looking for this specific angle that’s going to be showing this.‘ I’m basically running the audience through the exact same mental protocol that’s happening in live time.”

Among the most divisive features of the tournament are the semi-automated offsides, facilitated by additional cameras and limb-tracking technology, which denied Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku three goals in his opening two matches.

“As a striker, I’m never going to be able to accept that kind of offside,” Wright said in the aftermath of Belgium’s 2-0 group-stage win over Romania. Unkel went on to outline how certain players might have to adjust their running style to stay within the law. Spurs manager Postecoglou has also been critical of laws now punishing what previously would have been ignored. “I don’t think that is why we brought in technology,” he has said.

“We’re just in this Goldilocks period of figuring out how we want to use our technology to better the game,” Unkel says now. “Everyone hates toenail offsides. Players hate it. Refs hate it. Fans hate it. Coaches hate it.

“We see these toenail offsides because of law and the technology that’s given: the semi-automated offsides and the lines that drop. In Major League Soccer, even to this day, they can’t afford those lines that drop. We have not had issues in Major League Soccer about toenail offsides because when you do VAR in Major League Soccer, if it is really close and you truly can’t tell, you leave it be. The goal stands. It remains that way and nobody is upset by it. They might have been off by a centimetre.

“Whereas here, we know they’re off by a centimetre. And that’s what really frustrates people. I kind of laugh and advocate for: competitors and competitions can save millions of dollars if they just get rid of the offside lines. The technology is really expensive. Importantly, (in punditry) now you get someone to be able to use the naked eye to say: does that make any sense? Would that be taken back or not? How close is that?”

go-deeper

The coverage has exposed a gap between expectations of the technology and how it has worked in practice. Unkel is keen to point out that each law change is deliberate and meticulous; debate at major European tournaments can accelerate changes to laws but, generally speaking, tweaks take a couple of years before they are signed off. They go through technical and practical advisory boards, directors for IFAB, FIFA representatives, players, coaches and confederations.

“When people are like, ‘I wasn’t expecting this,’ either you or somebody from your coaching staff needs to be focusing on this because it does affect how you might be setting up for games or understanding the implications,” says Unkel. “You can voice an opinion prior to application so that we have a better understanding of how it’s going to play in the game, and not do so after the fact.”

With Unkel on their case, they just might.

(Top photo: ITV)

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