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Chinese students become football referees in Czechia

Thanks to their stay at Masaryk University, 18 Chinese students have had the opportunity to referee lower-league football matches.

While 21-year-old Xianghao Kong alias Harry (in the middle) would sometimes go to the matches in a pair with another Chinese student, there was always a Czech referee accompanying them.

Along with ice hockey, association football (commonly known as football or soccer) is the Czech national sport and is revered and played even in the remotest village. The situation in China is completely different, as organising sports competitions in such a huge country is far from easy. This academic year, 18 Chinese exchange students at Masaryk University gained first-hand experience with just how different the two countries were when they refereed lower-league football matches.

The Chinese students have spent a whole year in Brno, and refereeing weekend matches in regional competitions – mostly in Southern Moravia and Pardubice – was a huge experience for them.

The 16 young men and two women arrived from Beijing Sport University, which has a partner agreement with the MU Faculty of Sports Studies. Preparations for their stay in Brno, which would last almost the entire academic year, took them several months.

“We had to pass exams in football rules, physical tests and an English test. There were around 100 of us in our group when we started, but only 18 passed the selection process,” says 21-year-old Xianghao Kong.

In the Czech Republic, people simply call him Harry. “It’s really hard for Czechs to pronounce my Chinese name, so my classmates and I opted for this easier solution. I completely understand what it’s like – I can’t even pronounce the names of all the villages where I refereed,” he says with a laugh.

The Czechs are better organised and rougher

Over the past academic year, he has studied in Brno and spent his weekends refereeing lower-league football matches, which has been a huge experience for him. “The Czech competitions are much more organised, there is an electronic system in place where you enter the results,” says Harry excitedly, showing a screenshot of an app on his mobile, which tells him what matches he has already refereed and what lies ahead of him.

“In China, the referee mostly just comes to the match, does his job, and then goes home again,” he says when comparing the Czech football system to the Chinese system. Moreover, matches in China take place over the course of the whole week, not just over the weekend as in Czechia. “The Czechs are larger and heavier, which shows on the pitch – they put more strength into the game and are rougher,” added Harry.

For Harry, coming to the Czech Republic was a big challenge: he really wanted to do it but was also a little apprehensive.

While he would sometimes go to the matches in a pair with another Chinese student, there was always a Czech referee accompanying them. After all, the Czech lower-league matches are not without their peculiarities: the atmosphere heats up fairly quickly over the smallest of matters, and it is not always possible to communicate in English. “It’s a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it is sometimes better when the referee doesn’t know what the players are saying since strong words are obviously the order of the day. On the other hand, and just as obviously, it can prevent you from getting your point across,” says Harry.

He has many pleasant memories, as well as some less pleasant ones. “Many of the players are really nice. At one of my first matches, one of them came over to me when the second half was about to start to say that it was going well so far, wasn’t it?”

However, some matches have been more stressful. One of the first matches that Harry refereed was between two rival clubs and the game was rough straight from the kick-off. “The fans of the home team were shouting at me, the whole match had a bad vibe about it, and for a while I was considering just running away. In the end, I came through, but I was angry with myself that I lost my grip like that. However, it was an important experience,” says Harry.

For Harry, coming to the Czech Republic was a big challenge: he really wanted to do it but was also a little apprehensive. Now that he is about to leave, he says his time in Brno has met all his expectations to a T.

The first swallows

While this group of 18 students is the first to arrive in Brno from Beijing, it should not be the last. Beijing Sport University is interested in the study programme of the Faculty of Sports Studies, which might be the only one in the world that focuses specifically on refereeing collective sports.

“This season, our students refereed district competitions in the Blansko and Brno area, regional matches in South Moravia and Pardubice, and youth championship matches in the region of Hradec Králové,” says Oldřich Racek, vice-dean of the MU Faculty of Sports Studies, who headed the whole project.

There are even more opportunities planned for the exchange students next year. “There is a general lack of referees, especially in the lower leagues, so we are actually being contacted by clubs who would appreciate our students’ help as this is a rather large issue that we can help them to resolve,” says Racek.