From elite player to elite referee – Cheryl Foster has experienced both sides of football on a unique journey within the sport she adores.
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The 42-year-old from Llandudno in North Wales scaled impressive heights in her career as a player, captaining her country and breaking the Welsh women’s national team appearance record, while also starring for Liverpool over a nine-year period between 2003 and 2012.
After bringing down the curtain on her playing career in 2013, Foster set her heart on staying in football and took up refereeing – readjusting so well to her change of direction that she earned her international badge just two years later.
Now, after rising through the refereeing ranks at home and abroad, the physical education teacher at a secondary school in the English-Welsh border city of Chester is savouring the accolade of being assigned to take charge of Saturday’s much-anticipated UEFA Women’s Champions League final between Barcelona and Wolfsburg at the PSV Stadium in Eindhoven.
‘I’m really proud’
“It’s a huge honour for me – the biggest I’ve had in both my playing and refereeing careers,” Foster told UEFA.com as she prepares for the premier annual occasion in European women’s club football. “I’m really proud to have been chosen, because there are a lot of outstanding female referees out there.”
Her decision to become a referee has proved to be a wise and successful move. “I knew I wanted to stay in the game when I stopped playing,” she reflects. “Refereeing has given me the opportunity to do that. I decided that I wanted to aim as high as I could and take every chance that came along.”
“After a couple of years, I got my [international] badge and began refereeing mini-tournaments – it was all part of my refereeing education. I got positive feedback from observers – and I had a ‘light-bulb’ moment and realised that I could make progress. I was fortunate enough to be promoted every year as well.”
Consequently, Foster has officiated at the highest level of both men’s and women’s domestic football in Wales for several seasons, and she was recently in charge of the 2023 Football Association of Wales Women’s Cup final.
Her qualities were soon recognised beyond home. Foster is now a regular match official in the high-profile English Women’s Super League. She was promoted to the UEFA elite list of referees in the 2020/21 campaign – and the international football bodies have come knocking on her door with important appointments.
Last year, she won a place in the UEFA Women’s EURO 2022 refereeing team in England – the first Welsh female official to enjoy the honour – and impressive performances saw her eventually referee the semi-final between Germany and France. This summer, in another ‘first’ for a Welsh female referee, Foster will travel to Australia and New Zealand as a member of the referee team at the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Fond playing memories
Foster looks back fondly at her distinguished playing career – she won 63 caps as a striker for Wales between 1997 and 2011, and her long stint with Liverpool included the first two seasons of the English Women’s Super League in 2011 and 2012. “I’m extremely proud of every cap that I won for my country, especially because it wasn’t easy at that time to get so many caps,” she says.
“One of my happiest memories is making my 50th national team appearance. Playing for Liverpool was also very special, particularly when we played at Anfield. I remember scoring at the famous 'Kop' end, and looking through the goal-net and seeing my Mum and Dad raising their arms. These are things you don’t forget.”
Does Foster’s previous ‘life’ as a player help her as a referee? “You do have a certain understanding of the game,” she reflects. “I’ve always enjoyed being on the pitch in the middle, both as a player and a referee. I just love football. On the field, I feel that I’m in the best seat in the house!”
“Having been a player also helps you to know what players are feeling, their particular emotions and frustrations. I like to think that there’s a mutual respect between myself and players because they know that I played at a certain level, and because I know what they’re experiencing.”
Women’s football flourishing
These are exciting times for European women’s football – last year’s memorable Women’s EURO in England and the high-profile UEFA Women’s Champions League are just two of the catalysts for flourishing standards across the continent. “There’s increased investment,” says Foster, “and things are improving as a result. There are better facilities, better coaching, better physios. The players’ technical skills have developed, so the women’s game is now more attractive to watch. The EURO in England especially took the women’s game to a whole new level.”
“The players are fitter and more athletic – and this has had an impact on refereeing. I actually think that we have to be even fitter than the players. I’m as fit now as I’ve ever been. You’ve got to be physically and mentally ready to handle matches that might last anything up to 100 minutes, because there might be important incidents and decisions to take right at the end of the game.”
‘Taking in the moment’
‘Saturday’s final in the Netherlands is fast approaching for Cheryl Foster and her team – assistant referees Michelle O’Neill (Republic of Ireland) and Franca Overtoom (Netherlands), fourth official Rebecca Welch (England), reserve assistant referee Natalie Anne Aspinall (England), video assistant referee (VAR) Massimiliano Irrati (Italy), assistant VAR Sian Massey-Ellis (England) and VAR support Maria Sole Ferrieri Caputi (Italy).
The key will be to ensure that everyone in the team is able to relax and enjoy the right atmosphere in the run-up to the game. “I’m delighted at the incredible quality of the team accompanying me for the final,” Foster says. “We know and trust each other, and I know that I’ll get 100% support from everyone.”
“When we’re lining up with the teams before the game, I’ll be taking a deep breath and taking in the moment. Then, once the Women’s Champions League anthem has finished, it will be full focus and concentration. I’m determined to do well and take the right decisions in the most important match of my career…”