Marlene Duffy didn’t ever think she would be a good enough player to advance to a high level. Although she loved the game, her 5’2” frame didn’t lend itself well to her position as a goalkeeper and eventually she chose a different way to be involved with the game by becoming a referee.
Duffy began that track at age 12, eventually rising through the ranks before joining the FIFA Panel, qualifying her to officiate international matches as an assistant referee in 2008. After nearly 25 years and 10 international tournaments, Duffy announced her retirement this week because of health reasons.
"I feel so lucky to have had the experiences I've had, travelled to some amazing places, and met so many great friends,” she told ussoccer.com.
After becoming a referee himself, Duffy’s father encouraged her to become an official. Like many, her early view of the work was to make extra money, but as time went on, Duffy became more interested in improving upon every performance.
“It wasn’t just about going out to get money for doing whatever game I could get anymore,” Duffy said. “It was about growing and doing better and better. I was trying to improve and excel and I wanted to see what the highest level I could achieve was.”
She went pretty high.
Her first big game came in 2004 when she worked Mia Hamm’s final international match. Her first international tournament came four years later when she officiated during CONCACAF Qualifying for the 2008 FIFA U-17 World Championship[NW1] . She stepped up the ladder later that year, running the line in a first round game of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing – a rematch of the previous year’s World Cup Final between Germany and Brazil.
Duffy’s most memorable match though came during the opening game of the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup Final between France and Nigeria.
“The World Cup is the pinnacle,” she told ussoccer.com. “Everything is faster and there’s just a different level of experience when you get there.”
She would go on to work CONCACAF qualifying and the tournaments themselves at the 2012 Summer Olympics and 2014 U-20 Women’s World Cup. Nearly all of her big international matches came working with one of the top female referees of all-time in Kari Seitz.
Marlene Duffy (left) and Keri Seitz (center-right) officiated together for many years at the pinnacle of the women's game.
Having retired herself in 2013, Seitz is the only referee – male or female – to work four FIFA World Cups and three Summer Olympic Games. The veteran referee garnered professional admiration from Duffy early on.
“I was amazed at how much preparation she put into every single game and her professionalism,” she said. “I don’t think I know of anybody who could say a bad thing about her. She was an excellent referee who I was pleased to have the ability to work with and learn from.”
Seitz had the highest praise for her former assistant referee.
“Marlene has been a wonderful representative of quality assistant referees in the USA,” Seitz told ussoccer.com. “She never stopped working hard to maintain the very highest standard. I am personally very fortunate to have the distinct pleasure of working with Marlene in many games including her first Women's World Cup and Olympic games. These are incredible moments in one’s referee career and I am incredibly proud to have shared them with Marlene. It's been an honor to work with her and she will be missed."
While she’s still trying to figure out how she wants to stay involved in the game, there are opportunities for Duffy to pass 25 years of experience along to a younger generation of referees as an instructor and assessor. Having surveyed the referee landscape, Duffy said the development of the Professional Referee Organization has seen her side of the game continue to grow.
"It’s getting better and becoming more professional,” she said. “It’s possible that’s a factor of me getting higher in the ranks and seeing more of it, but it seems more organized now and the experiences you get going to PRO camps now is more similar to what you see going to a tournament. The education is getting better.”