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May 10, 2006

No U.S. refs at Cup a sign of bigger problem

The fact that no U.S. referee has been chosen for the World Cup in Germany raises questions about the country's standard of play, a commentary on how the MLS is perceived.

This is not a complete indictment of the United States soccer system, but there should be an internal alarm. The selection of World Cup referees is not only about ability, but also about politics, and apparently, there are weaknesses in the U.S. system on both counts.

Most disturbing is the breakup of progress. The U.S. has been represented by a referee at every World Cup since 1978, a better record than the national team. The first U.S. referee in a World Cup was Henry Landauer at Mexico in 1970. But it was not until Spain in 1982 that a U.S. "arbitro" made a mark on the international scene as David Socha was ranked as the top referee in the first round of competition.

Socha advanced in FIFA's estimation -- he was selected for the 1980 and 1984 Olympic Games and 1982 and 1986 World Cups. His progress also marked the way for future U.S. referees: Vinnie Mauro (Italy '90), Arturo Angeles (USA '94), Esse Baharmast (France '98), Brian Hall (South Korea/Japan 2002). This year in Germany, the United States is represented by Kevin Stott, who is among five referees on a "reserve" list, and referee assistants Gregory Barkey and Chris Strickland.

So, what has happened? Where is the next U.S. World Cup referee? Is he working for $5 a game somewhere in New England, where Socha started out in the '60s?

"The level of play in this country isn't thought of too highly by FIFA," Socha said. "I am just looking at it the way they look at it. It's all political. But it is also about how you look at the game."

Soccer has a lack of sophistication at the MLS level, which sets the standard for the game at every other level. MLS players are fit and strong, determined and skillful. But not enough of them know how to pace a match. They run fast, but they are unable to accelerate the speed of the match and control the ball at the same time. They lack a counterattacking mentality. There are dozens of soccer subtleties that are not yet grasped by the majority of players.

But it is not just the players who are lacking. Coaches, fans, the media, and, yes, referees, still have a ways to go. The potential is there, but making the next qualitative jump will be difficult.

The MLS level of play is still far below that of the North American Soccer League. And that is reflected in domestic refereeing standards.

An entire generation of referees emerged from Socha's time, having worked their way up through the ethnic leagues and refined their styles in the NASL. Those referees were exposed to the best players in the world, and that pressure-cooker situation caused them to raise their game, as well.

Socha was born in the Indian Orchard section of Ludlow, Mass., and played for Portuguese clubs and in the German-American league. He also played hockey, and then served in the Navy, assigned to the USS Croaker submarine. Socha then began refereeing soccer for $5 a game, like prospective referees do today.

Socha rose to the top of the pyramid, giving him exclusive, behind-the-scenes insight into the world game. Socha was the fourth official in the Mexico-Germany quarterfinal game in Monterrey on June 22, 1986, the result a surprising scoreless tie after 120 minutes, the Germans winning on penalty kicks.

But the events of that day were not surprising to Socha.

"I got quite a tongue-lashing from [Franz] Beckenbauer. He wanted to know why I wasn't out there in the middle of the field instead of on the side," Socha, 67, said from his Ludlow home. "You should have seen the fouls in that game, it was a blood bath. That was when they still had aluminum studs, and you could rake a guy's leg with those things."

Socha had worked dozens of matches in Central America, including the first meeting of El Salvador and Honduras in San Salvador 11 years after a match had triggered the Soccer War between the countries. He was familiar with just about every trick. Some players used files to sharpen their metal cleats and put Vaseline on them to deceive officials. Socha made certain the fourth official carried a towel to wipe off cleats before allowing a substitute. As soon as players saw the towel, they would switch back to regulation cleats.

If Diego Maradona were playing, Socha would simply meet with him before kickoff and issue a general warning, then make certain Maradona knew the referee was not bluffing.

"I was in the stands that day," Socha said of Maradona's handball goal in Argentina's 2-0 win over England in the 1986 World Cup, the day after the Mexico-Germany match. "You never saw that referee again. But the question also has to be asked: 'Where was the linesman?'"

Two of the most crucial games in the 1986 World Cup were conducted by comparatively limited referees -- one from Colombia, the other from Tunisia -- and both resulted in major controversies.

"Every referee picked by FIFA is not the best in the world," Socha said. "They all have weaknesses. They have weaknesses in the way they call the game. They lack fitness, or knowledge of the game, a lot has to do with where they are on the field.

"It is a lot like having a mouse running along the inside of a wall. You can hear where the mouse is going. And teams know this. I am going back now, but [former Manchester United manager] Matt Busby used to say that a certain referee was worth a goal a game because they knew where he was going to be on free kicks and what he couldn't see.

"There are certain referees in certain games for a reason. There are certain games where they don't want a hard-nosed referee because if something happens, he is going to call it."

Socha had a way of convincing one and all he was not bluffing, an overpowering and uninhibited personality that brought him respect and success as a referee, but likely cost him advancement at home. After the 1986 World Cup, Socha essentially was blacklisted by the U.S. Soccer Federation, never refereeing another game or being involved in training programs. Socha was reinstated formally when Hank Steinbrecher became general secretary.

Socha consulted with former FIFA president Joao Havelange when the U.S. was bidding for the 1986 World Cup, but knew the country had no chance of attracting the event. Havelange was especially disturbed that soccer had failed to make an impact during the 1984 Olympics, despite having attracted more spectators than the combined total of every other event and seemed resolved to planning for a triumphant return. But that would have to wait until 1994. Again, Socha twice met with Havelange in the '94 run-up, both times in the presence of journalists, but was given no role by World Cup organizers or the U.S. federation.

"Steinbrecher sent me a letter, but nobody did anything after that," Socha said. "Maybe I knew too much. I worked 150 international matches, two FIFA All-Star matches. I worked five qualifying matches for Spain, I was doing all the matches in Central America -- and those games were wars -- so I must have done something right.

"A few years ago, [Michel] Platini came through and was staying at a hotel in Connecticut and sent a card to my house to say hello. Beckenbauer, [Johan] Neeskens, [Wim] Risjbergen, [Johan] Cruyff. Knowing I have their respect means more than anything."

Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.