This interview was originally published in Radio Times magazine.


At Euro 2024 we’ve been treated to fresh talent both on the pitch and on television.

Many viewers agree that ITV has made a winning start with the acquisition of refereeing and VAR analyst Christina Unkel, whose insights have cut through with impressive insider knowledge. It seems the former FIFA referee caught the bug very young.

"I’ve played football since I was a young girl – my parents are from Central America and football was part of my family in Florida. When I was growing up there was no football on TV, men’s or women’s, but there would always be a soccer ball in the house, and we’d go to the fields and set up some goals – it was part of our culture.

"I fell in love with refereeing when I was 10 years old. I was yelling at the officials on the pitch [as a player] and my coach told me to take the refereeing class or be quiet. I took the class!

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"Getting my officiating licence really changed the trajectory of my life – you’re essentially managing irate adults, coaches and parents, so it did a lot for me later in my career as an attorney. I did litigation and argued in the courtroom for 12 or 13 years.

"It’s only recent in Major League Soccer that you can get a full-time salary as an official, so while I was finishing my law degree I was paid next to nothing for my refereeing! But it was a way to stay part of the game after my university years.

"My first international was USA women [then the number one team] versus France and it was pretty mind-blowing. In my 20s as a FIFA referee, it was an honour to be on the field with some of the best players in the world. The Lionesses were always one of my favourite teams to officiate!

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"In 2020, with COVID, I decided to go into TV punditry – taking the experience of being on the field and explaining the rules to football lovers like ourselves."

But when her fellow pundits were men, and former players at that, her role must have required a great deal of diplomacy?

"It’s an interesting predicament: how do you respectfully tell someone they’re wrong without discrediting them? I was working in the US, for CBS and Paramount Plus, and the producers liked how I handled it, so that opened opportunities.

"I got to cover four UEFA European finals. I’m a believer in listening. Some of the best players in the world have been yelling at me on the field and they don’t even know the laws!"

Christina Unkel in the ITV studio overlooking the Brandenburg Gate
Christina Unkel. ITV

Has having intelligent, lively women pitch-side and in the studio changed TV punditry for the better? "Yes, it’s opened up the beautiful game – when girls see Eni Aluko, some will think, 'She looks like me, so maybe I can do that...' I worked with her at the women’s Euros for 30 days, and to see her analysis and insight, it doesn’t matter what her gender is."

Unkel is now president of a new women’s soccer club in Florida, Tampa Bay Sun FC, whose vision is to "shatter the notion of the great glass ceiling, one goal at a time".

"We kick off in August and we’re really excited," she says. "We’ve brought over a Manchester girl, Natasha Flint, as one of our main strikers. In the US, it’s never been a right, but a fight, for women to play any kind of sport. In Tampa Bay we’ve never had a women’s team before – but now we’re going to have young boys and girls think it’s normal to watch women.

"It’s been changing slowly race-wise, too, in the US. I covered the CONCACAF final in March [for Paramount Plus] and it gave me goosebumps, because in my entire career the women’s US national team would only have one or two Black players, but at one period there were six Black players on the field.

"In the US, soccer is expensive, which takes away the opportunity for many people from diverse backgrounds. It’s becoming more diversified, though at the grassroots level it’s a struggle. Adding new teams is massive for us."

Unkel’s strength is having the expertise and confidence to call it as she sees it. Once in a big play-off final she declared her husband Ted, who’s a full-time MLS referee, wrong for issuing a yellow card when it should have been a red. So, how did the conversation go that night? "Well, we’re still married!" she laughs.

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Radio Times.

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