by sportswriters Dong Yixing, Xiao Shiyao and Shen Nan
BEIJING, Dec. 29 (Xinhua) -- With great pride and yet still some regret, Chinese referees Ma Ning, Shi Xiang and Cao Yi ended their 2022 FIFA World Cup journey.
Despite not getting the chance to officiate a match together, the three college P.E. teachers were still the first Chinese officials to feature at a FIFA World Cup for 20 years.
Just two weeks after returning to China, Ma and Shi made their next appearance in the Chinese Super League (CSL).
"Face the gap and forge ahead!" Ma wrote of the conclusion of his World Cup journey on social media.
PASSION BROUGHT IT ALL
Ma was admitted to Shenyang Institute of Physical Education in 1999, majoring in athletics. It was here that he began his career as an amateur referee.
"I've loved playing football since I was a child and changed my major from athletics to football after I entered college," Ma recalled. "I started with class matches and then matches at college and grassroots levels. I took every single chance when there was one."
"I never thought I could become a World Cup referee when I first started my career. I didn't think about becoming an international referee or even a CSL referee, let alone the World Cup."
It was the same for Cao. "I wanted to become a football star, but it wouldn't guarantee a place at college. So my teacher told me, 'why don't you start refereeing if you love football so much?'"
Ma's wife can still remember clearly how her husband would take buses to go to grassroots matches.
"He would spend two yuan (30 U.S. cents) for an hour-long bus ride to get there and another two yuan for the hour-long ride back. And the money he got for one match was only 20 yuan."
"It was then I understood how much he loved being a referee," she added.
After graduation, Ma became a P.E. teacher in 2003. And a few years later, when he had already turned professional, Ma would still volunteer to officiate youth matches.
"Youth matches didn't pay much, and it was not a perfect reason to ask for leave. But it was definitely a good opportunity to learn and improve," Ma said. "I didn't consider the payment at all; it was just a passion for football."
PART-TIME REFEREES IN PROFESSIONAL LEAGUE
From 2009 to 2012, the reputation of China's football referees hit rock bottom after a series of match-fixing scandals.
In 2010, Ma started to officiate CSL matches, while Shi and Cao entered the professional leagues at the same time, as a new generation of Chinese referees struggled to make a fresh start amid controversy.
"It was an important stage when our worldview, philosophy and values gradually developed. As a young referee, I was quickly promoted to the professional league and learned one thing: there are certain things that can never be done," Shi said. "Because I have higher goals and higher aspirations."
Bigger stages require higher standards.
"If I just took refereeing as a hobby, I could stop training for a break whenever I felt tired. But now, as a professional referee at a high-level, I must be very self-disciplined," Ma admitted. "We rarely have an instructor with us during daily training. What we do is stay very strict with ourselves, while trying to push our limits."
"Regardless of the season, weather or temperature, I go to the playground to run right after I get off work as long as it is not too crowded. Some people would make fun of me saying, 'the psycho is running again,'" Cao said.
For Ma, who had been playing football from a young age, he almost quit playing after turning professional because of the high risk of getting injured. "When my students invite me to play football with them during classes, I always say no. But from the bottom of my heart, I would really like to join in."
Despite the CSL being a professional league, professional referees are rarely seen, as most referees do it as a part-time job. "We'd always say we are amateurs, but what we do requires professionalism," Ma noted.
GOING FOR THE WORLD CUP
After more than a decade of persistence and commitment, the once-distant World Cup dream became within reach. By the end of 2018, the trio made the referees' shortlist for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
"The idea of officiating at the World Cup first occurred in 2011 when I became an international referee," Ma explained. "The expectation didn't come from nowhere. It was the effort we made and the performance we had had in past matches that gradually shaped our expectation."
However, as referee selection for the 2022 World Cup entered a critical phase in 2020, the COVID-19 outbreak brought uncertainties to their World Cup future.
In January 2020, Ma received an email to attend the second-phase seminar in March for candidate referees for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. However, Qatar had a policy that required travelers from China to go through a 14-day quarantine after their arrival, and many flights were canceled at that time.
In order to attend the seminar on time, Ma made a quick decision and departed home ahead of schedule.
"I couldn't find a proper place for quarantine, so I contacted a local friend for help, and he lent me a room that had been converted from a garage," Ma recalled. "In that room, I did a lot of core strength training to maintain my physical fitness.
In the following two years, the trio officiated in the Asian Champions League, AFC Cup and World Cup Qualifiers, undergoing intense testing from FIFA and the AFC.
"FIFA tests are all-encompassing, including daily physical training monitoring, regular physical tests, theory tests, video case tests, English tests, and refereeing level assessment," Ma introduced. "It requires us to have no weaknesses and make no mistakes. We had to do our best."
A long time far away from home has become the norm for the trio. "When we were abroad, we had to calculate the time difference and set an alarm every day to call family back home," Shi said.
"At the beginning, my son would talk to me for a while. But later, when I was away for long periods, he would just reply with a few short sentences and give the phone to his mom. And that was it," added the 42-year-old. "To be honest, I felt really sad. I failed to take on my family role and responsibilities. I feel sorry for my family."
However, their struggle and endeavor was no guarantee of anything. In the final stage, three of the eight male referee groups from Asia had to be eliminated, and the Chinese group was never among the favorites to progress.
"There were people who are more experienced than us, those who had been to the World Cup and the Olympic Games. We were there as challengers. As long as we did everything we could, the result wouldn't matter anymore," Ma said in a trembling voice.
On May 19, 2022, FIFA announced the referee list for the World Cup, with the Chinese trio being selected. "At that time, Cao was not with us. If he was there, we three would probably have cried in each others' arms," Shi chuckled.
In June, the trio attended the first formal referee seminar. "During the second phase, FIFA released data from five physical fitness tests. I ranked first in four tests and third in the other," Ma mentioned. "When I saw the results, I told myself that my hard work and persistence throughout the years had finally paid off."
QATAR REGRET DRIVES FURTHER IMPROVEMENT
The World Cup dream was eventually one step too far. Ma was appointed fourth official in six group matches, while Shi and Cao were reserve assistant referees in three matches, respectively. However, due to multiple reasons, they failed to take to the pitch as a group.
"It was indeed a pity. We made it to the World Cup but didn't get the chance to officiate a match together," Ma said.
"The biggest takeaway throughout the years is that now we know what we needed to have," he added. "Only after we got to the World Cup did we truly understand the charm of football's highest-level showpiece through training and matches. We understood what should have been done and which direction should have been taken in order to officiate matches better."
The trio say they have learned a lot from referees of different styles and from different countries.
"The understanding of football and refereeing business from top referees has inspired us a lot. There are some aspects that are quite different from what I had initially thought," Cao said.
Shi added that "I hope the experience we brought back home can help more young referees find a sense of direction and purpose."
Cao admitted that everyone on the team had done their best in Qatar, saying, "Imperfection is also some kind of perfection. I achieved something with my greatest effort. I felt so happy for myself."
"Although it is probably the highest dream and goal, the World Cup is just a goal for the current stage. This is not the end," said 43-year-old Ma. "I will continue because I love this job from the bottom of my heart."
"We will bring our experience back to the domestic leagues, officiate more international competitions in the future, and hope to have better performances."
As FIFA abolished the age limit of 45 years old for international referees, the Chinese referee trio is still full of possibilities.
"Now we know our future directions, we will face the gap, look to eliminate our weaknesses, accumulate experience, summarize and improve. I believe that Chinese referees will eventually make their way to top level," Ma said.
"I hope that Chinese referees can appear at every future World Cup." ■