- Cui Yongmei officiated at several FIFA tournaments including Canada 2015
- Chinese referee missed out on France 2019 due to a dangerous heart problem
- Recently returned to the game as a referee assessor after a 606-day absence
Cui Yongmei has proved there is nothing in this world which can deprive her of the love for refereeing. Not even a life-threatened event.
One of the best regarded female referees China PR have ever seen, Cui was announced to join the match officials’ team for the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup France™. Just as she was working against the clock to prepare herself for her second women's football extravaganza - she worked as an assistant referee at Canada 2015 – Cui was urgently taken to hospital at the start of last year after an unexpected heart attack.
It proved to be an extremely dangerous heart problem which left her family and friends despairing. Despite that Cui had things on her mind, other than just her health. When she recovered consciousness from a coma, the first question she threw at the doctor was: "Can I continue my referee work? Will I be fit to go to the Women's World Cup?
"This happened just under five months before the Women's World Cup," the 40-year-old physical education teacher of Tianjin University of Traditional Chinese Medicine told FIFA.com. "I was expecting to work at my second Women's World Cup. I had spent three years training hard and living a self-disciplined life. So I really didn't want to let the chance slip away and see my efforts be in vain.
"The doctor asked me to rest for at least three months. But I couldn't wait. Just nine days after I returned home from hospital, I flew to Doha for a Women's World Cup referees' seminar. Then I began my daily routine training. But again the doctor sent a warning note - I must put France 2019 aside for safety reasons.
"As a result, I had to quit my job at France 2019," she continued, the anguish and disappointment still evident in her voice. "My Women's World Cup hopes were devastated. But my colleagues from FIFA, AFC and CFA encouraged me and I was aware it was what I must bravely face up to."
The only girl in the boys’ club
Born in Tianjin, Cui's passion for the game was inherited from her father, a fervent supporter of the local team.
"My father took me to the stadiums for football matches when I was very young,” she said. "That was how I started my love affair with the game. As a little girl, I played football with neighbouring boys. When I went to school, I kept playing football with boys' teams because there were no girls teams.”
As a teenager Cui enrolled at Tianjin Sports University, and didn't hesitate in choosing football as her major. It was a decision which left her teacher puzzled.
"I was the only girl majoring in football - all the other 40 students were boys. My football teacher asked me to change to other sports because he couldn't organise a girls' football team with me as the sole player. I begged him to allow me to stay. So I continued my football development. I played as a forward and scored a lot of goals against the boys."
Cui's career took an unexpected divergence in her second university year when Mr Zhao Gong, a renowned referee, took over as their football teacher. Instead of encouraging Cui to play, he advised her to learn refereeing. He instilled the basic referee knowledge into Cui and sent her to referees courses.
"Mr Zhao taught me refereeing because he didn't want to see me get injured by competing against boys. My interest in refereeing great fast and I made consistent progress."
Cui's rise to fame was meteoric. She became a national referee in 2005 and in three years was an international assistant referee. She joined AFC's referee team for a series of continental competitions before officiating matches in her first FIFA tournament - the 2012 FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup in Japan.
She went on to work as an assistant referee at Canada 2015, before another career high at the Women's Olympic Football Tournament at Rio 2016.
Return to the game
Although her flourishing career was brought to an abrupt end, Cui's passion for the game remained undiminished. Instead, she locked her target on a new role as a referee assessor.
"I reluctantly had to call time to my refereeing career. But having worked as a referee for the past twenty years, I hope I can pass on my experiences to a younger generation. I want to find a new place where I can help unearth and develop young referees.”
The kind of person who lets her actions do the talking, Cui embarked on the new adventure and recently became a qualified CFA referee assessor. She announced her return to the game after 606 days when she worked in her new role in the 2020 Chinese Women’s Football League last month.
"My passion for the game never ebbs away. I may have quitted refereeing, but I can continue my football passion in the referee assessor role and even my job in the university is teaching football.
“My next goal is to become a referee instructor. I took the FIFA FUTORO III Instructor Course in July and I think it is a job where I can better help the young referees. Of course, there are difficulties when you try something new. But whatever challenges face me, I will take them and move forward.”