THE MEN IN BLACK
by Don McMahon, ex-NASL and international referee
Following the recent posts about officials in football, I thought it might be interesting to consider refereeing in North America, compared with elsewhere. I do this, having been a certified referee since 1970, and now retired from the Game after officiating at the national and international level and in the NASL.
First off, it is the same game but with minor alterations for our peculiar climate, past sporting history and particular character and culture. I cannot speak expertly for everywhere in North America but having officiated in the northern US and in Mexico as well as across Canada, I can give some insights into what is going on.
The biggest difference between Europe and North America is that we call it soccer over here! I know,I know….the Yanks seem to need an acronym for everything so soccer was coined by British immigrants in the late 19th century to simplify the elaborate nomenclature for Association Football (aSOCCIAtion football)…which most Americans found bewildering at best and too ¨British¨ at worst. As an official I don’t care what we call it as long as we got on with the game…after all I’ve been called worse!
That said, our next big difference is that in most competitions and leagues we can substitute at will and if we have say 4-7 players on the bench, all can be substituted during the game (we don’t call it a match…we use those to start forest fires over here).
Once they are taken off, like the real Football, they cannot re-enter. This is frowned upon by FIFA but they appreciate that the game is NOT well established over here and that unlimited substitutes permits for the growth of the Game.
Referees and assistants are recruited wherever and whenever they are foolish enough to ask about officiating. Generally our top officials are quite good and when they make the FIFA list, they have earned it.
Politics are intense, incestuous and particularly recidivistic here since few people want to organize or administer the Leagues, the officials or anything boring like that. This leads to a small group of dedicated, soon-to-be-(or already there) divorced people controlling vast territories where soccer is played quite often without properly trained officials and with poor fields, shared facilities with other sports and of course a very limited playing season. When this happens, an egotistical, tryant with a hidden agenda can accumulate enough power to do real damage [sounds like the PGMOL] particularly if he or she is the only candidate for the job.
Ahhhhh you say (if you have been paying attention), how can you play in 10 feet of snow at-25C? Well I guess you are talking about our spring season. In actual fact the indoor game is extremely popular between November and April in the northern parts of North America. I officiated in Pangnirtung for the Arctic winter games and teams of Inuit (incorrectly named Eskimos) and whites played some good soccer inside a school gym, while a 160 mph winter storm raged outside and temperatures dropped to – 60 C!!! These indoor competitions and leagues are used by officials to strengthen their refereeing skills as the pace and intensity of the game rivals Futsal and is often very physical, but not dangerous.
Referees pay a severe price for imported rivalries from ¨the old country¨ as the many immigrants refer to their former homelands. I have officiated games between ethnic teams whose principal purpose was to settle a 400 year old grudge or between French-speaking neophytes and experienced ¨blokes¨ whose initial raison d’etre was to show each other how tough they can be!
My country has the largest percentage of immigrants in North America and that is reflected in the imported passions and jingoism often on display anywhere around or on the pitch (we call it a field here). This is true of the administrators for the leagues, referee committees and Club organizers. My parents were Scottish (mi ma) and Irish (mi da) respectively and supported opposite poles on the Football spectrum but they left well enough alone when it came to my involvement in the sport.
The size of North America dwarfs Europe and the population density in my part of the world is among the least anywhere on this fair planet. That means that local town and state/provincial competitions are limited, not only by distances but by the seasons, the competition with other, bigger, more lucrative sports like baseball, hockey, American football and even golf!
Until recently most facilities were NOT dedicated so that on any one day there could be 2-3 sports played on the same field or arena. When I officiated in Germany and visited Holland, I almost died of a heart attack on seeing the sports Verein and Dutch equivalent. Fields that were actually completely turfed, excellent facilities, very serious organizations at the local and state level and a mentality that said….this is FOOTBALL and don’t screw with us.
Finally I want to recount how politics operated (an may still operate here) from my personal experience. As an NASL official I was required to be nominated each year by my local Coordinator, a very Machiavellian ex-FIFA referee with a desperate need to be obeyed.
I was writing, at that time, for a small national referees monthly newsletter and had posted an article dealing with the jealousies and conflicts between officials from different regions in my home province and across my country. When this tyrant heard about the article, he had me unilaterally suspended from ALL officiating and demanded that I be expelled from any participation in the beautiful game.
Fortunately, one of the members of the local governing body was a lawyer who took up my case and not only had me reinstated but had the coordinator reprimanded for infringing my personal and sporting rights. His retribution was swift and surgical. He appointed himself to assess me in a national youth tournament and at half-time in my first game, came screaming into the officials dressing room accusing me of being incompetent and endangering the kids. I didn’t say anything at the time but subsequently met with the governing body to complain. They very frankly admitted that he was the only candidate for that rather unpopular job and that I had better suck it up.
He personally assessed me 3 more times and based on his unique perspective, succeeded in having me removed from the NASL list. None of my colleagues stood up to this dictator since they wanted to kiss his butt and get promoted. Quite frankly, the only way most of them would have been eligible for promotion was by kissing butt…NOT a desirable trait in any official.
It can really suck to have to take **** from the fans, the parents, and the players but when your own fraternity turns their back on you, it is truly a kick in the gonads. I decided that making the FIFA list was no longer a likely option so I started to do more youth and women’s games and began to enjoy Football once again.
My experience thankfully is not the usual one most officials experience over here but because of the tightly controlled network in such a large country as mine and the limited opportunities to officiate top class games, it is always an uphill battle to reach the top….compounded by natural and human factors that, anywhere in the world, damage the beautiful game.
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