It’s not often a referee is asked to take a photo with an athlete who played in the game he or she just officiated.
But that’s not the case for Qin Liang, a FIFA-certified official who’s taken many photos with players at this week’s Schwan’s USA Cup in Blaine.
Qin, as well as fellow official Fang Yan, has been recognized by several players and parents because of her recent stint refereeing in the Women’s World Cup.
On Tuesday, Qin and Fang will be featured in an Olympic-like torch procession in the Schwan’s USA Cup opening ceremony. They will receive the torch from a team from Winnipeg, and then pass it to a club from the Dakota Revolution program.
“What we’re trying to do is symbolically connect the World Cup to us,” said Barclay Kruse, chief communications officer at the National Sports Center. “They’re going to get a huge ovation.”
The high-profile officials are another sign of growth for the Schwan’s Cup, which this year has a tournament-record 1,132 teams. Already the world’s fourth-largest youth tournament and the largest in the Western Hemisphere, the tournament has become a symbol of youth soccer’s growth in the United States.
It is also a sign of the sport’s increasing popularity — especially in the women’s game — among casual U.S. sports fans. Sixty-eight teams competed in the first year of the tournament in 1985. Now some games can be streamed online.
“I’ve been through several World Cups here and you can see [soccer is] growing,” said Jen Een, the Schwan’s USA Cup tournament director. “I think it was 2011 when the World Cup was in South Africa, soccer was starting to become really huge … And now with the Women’s World Cup and the Minnesota United, that’s been huge for us.”
Said Kruse, “You can have that debate on whether soccer has arrived. But the public knows way more about soccer than they did 30 years ago. I mean, look at the ratings for the Women’s World Cup.”
The U.S. women’s 5-2 World Cup championship-game victory over Japan was the most-watched match in U.S. history. Three Schwan’s USA Cup alumni — Aya Sameshima, Saki Kumagai and Asuna Tanaka — represented Japan in that game.
Qin, who is from Beijing, refereed games at this World Cup between France and Colombia and France and Mexico. She also worked at last year’s U-20 Women’s World Cup in Canada and at the 2012 U-20 Women’s World Cup in Japan.
But Qin said she especially enjoys refereeing in the Schwan’s tournament because of the tournament’s dedication to enjoyment and sportsmanship. She also likes the high numbers of female athletes. In China, there are only 100 fields in her area, and she often refs youth games. But not many are girls.
Fang, who is from Shanghai, is refereeing the Schwan’s Cup for the second time. A FIFA official since 2010, Fang mostly officiates in Asia (she has worked in Malaysia, Lebanon, Jordan, Japan and Bangladesh), but also has did major tournaments in Portugal and Canada.
Fang said she often meets with other referees from around the world, and they sometimes talk about the growth of U.S. soccer. Fang said she “very much” sees players at tournaments like the Schwan’s Cup who have the skill to compete in a World Cup.
For Fang, the United States’ passion for soccer is something she enjoys, and it’s something that may surprise those in her home country.
“If we’re in China we just know, ‘In the U.S. they like to play basketball, ice hockey, baseball,’ ” Fang said. “I’m surprised people, especially the girls, they play soccer.”