First female referee in Chinese Super League aims at men’s World Cup

Chinese referee Xi Lijun officiates in the Chinese Super League match between Shanghai Port and Shandong Taishan in Shanghai on April 14, 2024. Photo: IC

Chinese referee Xie Lijun officiates in the Chinese Super League match between Shanghai Port and Shandong Taishan in Shanghai on April 14, 2024. Photo: IC

In the 2024 season, women referees have written themselves into the history of Chinese soccer. 

At a game during the sixth round of the Chinese Super League (CSL) between Shanghai Port and Shandong Taishan, international assistant referee Xie Lijun served as the second assistant referee, becoming the first woman in the Chinese mainland to officiate in the country’s top-flight men’s soccer league.

On May 4, during a game in China’s third-division league, Tian Jin became the first female referee to officiate a professional men’s match as the head referee.

Currently working as a yoga, soccer, and volleyball teacher at the Sichuan University Jinjiang College in Southwest China’s Sichuan Province, Xie told the Global Times that her debut at the CSL opened a new chapter of her career and she looks forward to officiating the men’s World Cup in future. 

“Before the match started, I was a little nervous. But as soon as the whistle blew, my entire focus shifted to the game, and the nervousness dissolved. I believe I have reached a new milestone, with a clearer sense of direction for my future,” said the 34-year-old. 

Defending champions Shanghai came from behind to edge past Shandong 4-3 in a high-voltage game where Xie’s calm performance added a delicate touch to the intense competition. 

When questioned to assess her performance on a scale from 1 to 10, Xie rated it at 7.5. There’s a notable contrast in the physicality and intensity between men’s and women’s soccer games, she noted.

“I took the time to review the previous matches of both Shanghai and Shandong, focusing on analyzing their technical and tactical strategies. Having ample awareness and understanding of the fast-paced technical and tactical strategies in men’s soccer is crucial in preparing for the game. I have also improved my physique, especially enhancing my ability to initiate rapid movements,” Xie said. 

Nuanced understanding

Hailing from a village in Bazhong, Sichuan Province, Xie said she never imagined herself pursuing a career related to soccer when she was a child. 

Xie specialized in athletics when she was at school and it was not until college that she embarked on the path of soccer refereeing thanks to her exceptional physique and the guidance of her soccer coach.

Starting from scratch to learn soccer knowledge isn’t easy for Xie. She admitted that it’s not the rules of the game that are difficult, but rather the understanding of the sport itself.

Becoming an outstanding referee requires abundant physical fitness, proficiency in English, a deep understanding of soccer, robust psychological resilience, and keen insight, she said. 

Tian echoed Xie’s sentiments, saying that she needs to improve stamina to keep up with the pace of men’s game.

“The men players moved 1.5 to 2 times faster than I had imagined. The pace of their actions, the frequency of fouls, as well as their passing and shooting all require intense concentration. I need to have abundant physical stamina and speed to keep up with their game,” Tian told the Xinhua News Agency. 

“I covered a distance of 1.3 kilometers during the game, according to the post-match statistics. It is rare in women’s matches. However, I think it’s still not enough for men’s games, and I need to work harder,” Tian noted. 

However, compared to male referees, Xie said women tend to have a more nuanced understanding of the game, with a heightened “intuition” on the field, particularly for assisting referees. 

As an elite assistant referee under the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), Xie has officiated in previous FIFA events. After ascending to the ranks of accredited international referees, she took charge of the AFC Women’s Asian Cup in 2022 and was the only Chinese referee at the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup held in France.

Motivation, confidence

These milestone moments in the Chinese league are sure to get more women interested in soccer and sports officiating while setting a powerful example for fellow female referees, encouraging them to aspire to greater heights in their soccer careers. 

The recent publicity about female referees could give young people who strive to pursue this career more motivation and confidence to persevere, said Tian, who works at Zhejiang Yuexiu University as a physical education teacher.

“Many sports major students have sought my advice on how to become a soccer referee since my debut at the CSL in April,” Xie said. 

In this season of the CSL, Xie and another female referee Dong Fangyu have respectively officiated in four matches as assistant referees and video assistant referees. Selecting outstanding women referees to officiate men’s professional matches is one of the fresh initiatives of the Chinese Football Association (CFA) this year, that is dedicated to providing more opportunities to eligible female referees to showcase and enhance their abilities.

The initiative is also in line with the international tendency. In recent years, FIFA and the AFC have mandated that elite referees must officiate men’s matches in their own countries because women’s soccer has increasingly adopted a style similar to men’s, particularly in Europe and the Americas, with the players’ physical conditions, the intensity of attacking, and defending comparable to youth men’s matches. 

Therefore, if female referees only officiate in domestic women’s leagues, it’s challenging for them to meet the requirements of matches at the World Cup level, according to the CFA.

“Modern women’s soccer has tended toward the men’s game, and female referees officiating men’s matches is very common in Europe. Therefore, I have also been working hard in this direction,” Xie said. 

Talking of her goal, Xie has already set her sights on the 2027 Women’s World Cup. 

“I hope more Chinese women referees will take part in the women’s World Cup and Asia’s elite men’s competitions. In future, I wish to step onto the stage of men’s World Cup,” she said.