May 17th, 2005.
One of the problems that come with having a lot of experience as a referee is that you change the way you look at games. For years I was perfectly content to watch games for the skill of the players, the interaction of two tactical schemes, the development of personal battles as the game progressed, the excitement of seeing a defence split open by a 40-yard pass, and the subtle probing of weaknesses by creative players. I enjoyed good goals too, but once I began to appreciate the real beauty of the sport, goals assumed a lesser importance. Love, after all, is a triumph of progress, not merely the enjoyment of a quick finish…
Ed too, noticed this change. In fact when he goes to England and watches a game with his brother-in-law, Mick has remarked more than once that the game takes on a different appearance with Ed commenting on what he is seeing. And Mick is a man who has been watching the game for decades. But don’t think that I am complaining that watching the referee spoils the game; far from it. It adds a new dimension to my enjoyment, a fact of which I was reminded again while seeing Brian Hall referee Salt Lake versus Colorado on April 16th....
Before I describe the game, let me add a little context, some background on Brian Hall. I first met him when he was 19 and newly-appointed to the linesmen’s list for the North American Soccer League. Over the years we worked together on occasions when I came to San Jose or Los Angeles, and I watched him develop under the tutelage of a man whom I regard as the best referee that North America has produced. Always immaculately turned out, superbly fit, cool under pressure, never afraid to make tough decisions, and a man with a fine sense of the integrity of the game and the referees’ role in protecting it, John Trevor Davies, a FIFA Referee from Canada, immigrated into northern California and began to act as coach/mentor for the young Brian Hall. You could hardly ask for a better one.
When I became National Director of Referee Instruction, I saw Brian Hall in a different light. At the national testing I had sessions in which tricky match situations were presented to the referees to interpret or explain, and all the incidents were taken from matches refereed by people in the room. Brian Hall was the first one to have the courage and leadership to stand up and declare “Mea Culpa!” when an incident from one of his games came up, and he felt he had made an error in judgment. He had the personal strength, the personal security if you like, to be able to absorb criticism, and we knew then that at some point, he would be a shoo-in for the International Panel. That came in 1992, and by now Brian has refereed more than 50 “A” class internationals. (To put that in perspective, Ed and I have about 30 between us.) Knowing that, it is hard to imagine why some members of the federation didn’t want him to go to the World Cup, and that coaches and officials in MLS didn’t want him to referee. They systematically reduced the number of MLS games he was given in the four years prior to the 2002 World Cup from 18 in 1999 to 14 to 8 (with no playoffs) to 2 (and 1 playoff) in 2002. Why?
Brian, following the example of John Davies, believed in the integrity of the game. But too many coaches and officials in MLS wanted more malleable refereeing; they wanted to protect the stars, for fear if they were suspended, the spectators wouldn’t come; they wanted referees to go easy on some of the laws so as not to create conflict. The legacy of those policies is still with us, even though changes ARE coming about slowly. Brian, however, stuck to his principles, and never did lower them to please MLS. With no intent to diminish Esse Baharmast’s achievement of being the first U.S. official to do two games in one World Cup, I have no doubt that it is because of his principles that our Mr. Hall is the most successful U.S. international referee. When you are that good on the world stage, MLS can hardly reject you, and so now he is doing the number of games that he and the league deserve.
But, to the game, and the lessons that Brian taught by example. Right from the start, Brian established a couple of things that are important in any professional match. First, he was going to be very strict on fouls from behind, and second, that there was going to be only one referee on the pitch that day. He allowed no fouls from behind to go unpunished: no bump, no push, no trip, clip or niggle. He set a standard that the players had to adapt to, and one that would protect every player on the field. None of the nonsense you sometimes hear of “call-it-tight-for-the-first-ten-minutes-and-then-back-off”. He had already called a few in the first 20 minutes, before out of curiosity I started recording the others, at 22, 23, 33 and 44 minutes in the first half, then 46, 60, 61, 64, 71, 74, 75 and 90 minutes. It was tight for the whole match, and no player stepped over the line that Brian drew. MLS referees, take note!
And as for who was refereeing, THAT was established in the 12th minute of the match. The star for Salt Lake is Clint Mathis, who after an unsuccessful attempt to play the higher level of football in Europe, recently came back with his tail between his legs. Over the years, because of the attitude of MLS to top players, Mathis has been allowed to provide running commentary for far too many referees, and in the 12th minute he tried to take a rise out of Brian Hall. Awarded a free kick in midfield, Mathis tossed the ball forward, attempting to steal several yards. Brian wouldn’t let him, ordering him back because he knew that the position of the kick was in range of the goal, and that stealing a few yards might create an advantage for Salt Lake. Well, Mathis proved that he doesn’t like being told what to do, whether by European coaches or American referees, so he picked up the ball and sarcastically tossed it backwards far further than Brian had instructed him to. It was a silly, petulant act of defiance to try to embarrass the referee, for which without hesitation, Brian booked him. Mathis had thrown the gauntlet down, Brian had picked it up immediately, and authority was thus established for the rest of the game. MLS referees, take note!
John Trevor Davies died a few years ago, but on the field today is Brian Hall, the embodiment of the principles John stood for. A few years ago, the U.S Soccer Federation announced the goal of having an American referee the World Cup final before the year 2020. Brian is eligible for the next final, and if the referee administration was serious about its goal, they should start now to push the candidacy of Brian Hall. His world reputation, his experience, his abilities surpass by far any of his colleagues on our international panel. And how proud John Trevor would be to see it!