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August 2021

“Soccer” and refereeing in North America. And you thought PGMOL was dodgy…


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.

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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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11 comments to “Soccer” and refereeing in North America. And you thought PGMOL was dodgy…

  • Alan

    The term soccer was coined at Eton college in the late 1900’s to differentiate it from the game of Rugger ( rugby football ) from the new to ETON game of Association football.

  • WalterBroeckx

    Thanks for that article Don,

    Butt kissing is part of the job for any referee that wants to make it up there to the top. Well in my country it is.
    I could write a few articles about that also. Not from my own personal experiences about kissing butts because I never really got in to the butt kissing part.

    But let me say it this way how things work in the referee world: if I would write about it I could harm what is left of my own career (despite my age I still would love to do the better games a bit you know). So I don’t talk about it and so they cannot take me on what I write. Don made that mistake obviously.
    But it could harm the career of my sons who are still young and a bit ambitious as you should be when you are young.
    They know which career move they should make to get up in the ranks but they are rather principal in such matters and refuse to enter the butt kissing world. It might harm their progression a bit but if they make it they will be able to say they have done it without kissing butts.

    You have to be an extraordinary ref to make it without kissing the butts of the people in charge. Sad to see that it is the same over there.

  • Gunner4evr

    I just watched the Fulham game on video. Ramsey was pushed by Hangleland in the box .An obvious penalty but the ref was looking the other way.. Two points dropped at home.
    Over the course of a season this could translate into 10 to 15 points dropped . My point is what the hell was the linesman doing.
    It seems these match officials are getting away with incompetence.Surely the FA or the ref chiefs shd severely punished these guys. It’s about time some of these guys are shown the door to level the playing pitch/field.

  • nicky

    An excellent article, Don, about the differences of the sport in the old Empire (not the Music Hall/Cinema).
    Your experiences of the creepy ref assessor just goes to show that that man’s human failings are not just restricted to the Motherland.

  • Laundryender

    A very interesting read, the game in England at all levels is very organised, with too many wanting to get hold of those prized FA blazers and the priveledge it brings. This leads to a siege mentality and conservatism once in office. Not wanting to loose hard earnt control.

    such a shame, all the kid wants to do is play football

  • Scott

    The best referee is the anonymous one.
    If you can watch a game and NOT talk bout the ref,he’s done his job.
    Too many refs have big egos,and egos should play no part when officiating.

  • Stuart

    Off subject a bit but with the fixtures out, I thought I’d make my bet for St Totteringhams day : Saturday 20th April!

  • Stuart – you beat us to it. We have an article on the schedule now.

    But back to this piece – the level of corruption revealed (albeit at a personal level rather than corruption for money) is truly awful. And this in a nation that is now regularly expected to qualify for the World Cup finals.

    I found the whole piece fascinating – first article I’ve ever seen on refereeing in the US.

  • Matt Clarke

    Thank you sir, very interesting.

    You have my sympathy for the ego who blighted your enjoyment.

    I enjoy American Football (the NFL) and view with some envy at how well those games are officiated. I feel that FIFA has a lot to learn from the NFL. It is especially noticeable when small fights (shoving and pushing) occur – the refs accept it as part of the game and quietly quell it without punishment. That contrasts so markedly with the bookings and sending-offs in AF for ‘handbag’ encounters.

    Anyway – thank you.

  • Adam

    @Don McMahon, I would like to read more about your time in soccer. Thanks for the article.

  • Domhuaille MacMathghamhna

    Alan…….thanks for that clarification……I wasn’t yet around then (only a few years later) and had read that British immigrants, trying to explain Football (as we know it) from American football, had coined the term soccer. Perhaps they had gone to Eton?
    Adam…..I’ll add a few more articles dealing with similarities and differences I noticed between European football and NA soccer, especially the women’s game which I was profoundly involved in from the start.
    Walter and Tony…..the more I read about the PGMOL, the more it resembles my Football referees Federation (the PGMOL over here). I did get a great deal of help from sympathetic senior officials and my National Association BUT they could do little to prevent or punish the dictator’s corruption and venality.