Being part of a FIFA World Cup is something that everyone involved in football dreams of. Be it as a fan in the stadium, cheering on your team and enjoying the atmosphere, or even as a player, vying for the ultimate prize and representing your country. This dream came true for Ri Hyang Ok in a number of different ways. She played for her home country of Korea DPR at two FIFA Women’s World Cups, in 1999 and 2003 in the USA. She did not get her hands on any silverware, with her team bowing out after the group stages both times, but that was not the end of the World Cup adventure for Ri. Twelve years later, she was again part of a tournament, this time in Canada and in a completely different role. And she aims to be suiting up again with the whistle in hand during next year's Women's World Cup in France.
"As a player I never made it through to the final. The group phase was as good as it got and then we were on the plane back home. But I really wanted to experience another World Cup, so I asked myself, 'how can I do that?' “, the North Korean said in an interview with FIFA.com. And then inspiration came to her. "I experienced the 1999 and 2003 World Cups as a player, and I was surprised to see female referees. That was so exciting, since I’d usually only seen male referees. I watched them during the matches and thought to myself: I’d like to follow in their footsteps and be like them, so I became a FIFA referee." Ri was in charge of four matches in Canada, including the last 16 tie between Germany and Sweden and the third-place match, where England edged Germany 1-0. Ri has also found that the two activities have more in common than you might think. "My experiences as a player and as a referee are actually quite similar," she said. "I'm in a big stadium, out on the pitch and all around me are players, referees, coaches, other officials and plenty of spectators. There are differences though of course. As a player, I needed to know all about the opposition, whereas as a referee, I need a knowledge of both teams. And although I'm a former player, I'm still constantly learning new things, out on the pitch or in the classroom. I’m learning wherever I go." One thing that has changed significantly is the game itself, which has become quicker, more athletic and more direct. And this is another reason why the 40-year-old loves the sport. "To be honest, football is something that I simply find wonderful. Being a player in the stadium was my whole world. I felt free-spirited and liberated, and it was a feeling that I wanted to keep hold of. As a referee, I can sense the excitement and the emotions of the players, and feel what the spectators are feeling. It’s really special".