Back in the saddle

Inveterate (and maybe even veterate) readers may recall that I was having back trouble in late winter/early spring. After a failed attempt at relief through a chiropractor, I wound up going back to my doctor and getting a referral to a different orthopedist. One who would not immediately jump to surgery as the only option. The new doctors tried a cortisone shot followed by physical therapy, and within a few weeks I was almost completely pain-free and able to resume normal exercise.

The back pain had become so troublesome by March that I had to cancel all of my soccer referee matches for the spring season. I tried my first game, but the pain was so bad that I had trouble even getting into position as an assistant referee. (Note: for non-soccer fans, the AR only has to move one half the length of the field. But it’s critical to stay even with the second-to-last defender or the ball to help with offsides calls. Meaning you often have to go from standing still to a sprint.) Luckily, the game was suspended after about five minutes due to lightning. When I got home, I notified all of the assignors that I was out for the foreseeable future.

When the fall season began a couple of weeks ago, I felt pretty good but knew the lack of exercise had affected my stamina. I signed up to referee, but only scheduled one game per day. I planned to wait and see how I did with a U-15 rec-plus contest to make sure I could still keep up.  

Referee_Mark_Geiger_advantage

In the weeks leading up to the match, I did some running on a nearby empty soccer field to simulate a game. I alternated between jogging, sprints, and walking for about 40 minutes. Games are 70-80 minutes, but I knew adrenaline would help quite a bit. Plus, running in the hot sun on an empty field is boring. (Insert your own “soccer is also boring” joke here.)

The game was on a warm Thursday afternoon at 5 PM, just a short drive from my house. It was listed as a dual whistle game (two referees, no AR) which means each official is responsible for an entire sideline plus one half of the field for all calls. (Technically the soccer field is known as a “pitch”. But I can’t say that, because I think it makes me sound like Robin Leach.)

I got to the field about a half-hour early. The home team coach was one of those overly-friendly types that you just know is going to blast you from the sideline every time he disagrees with a call. We shook hands and he asked me a couple of questions about how the match would be called. Normally I give very ambiguous answers in this context. Otherwise, you’re just setting yourself up for controversy. If you say “Yeah, I’m not going to call it close on throw-ins this early in the season” and you call a violation on a kid who fires the ball in overhand, you can bet the coach will be screaming bloody murder. But the questions were pretty safe and I was able to answer just by giving him the substitutions rule.

Then he complained briefly about referee positioning in his last match (“they both officiated from the center circle”), paid me, and went back to his bench. (Unlike basketball, it’s customary for the coach to pay the referee in cash prior to kickoff. Which feels awkward, but, you know….when in Rome.) As we got closer to kickoff, I inspected equipment on both teams, checked the goals, and completed the coin toss. Still no second ref present. Now, I’ve officiated matches alone before. It’s more running, for sure, but the real problem is that you can’t really judge the sidelines or offsides effectively. And no matter how much coaches claim they’ll “take it easy” on complaining, in the heat of the game that commitment is forgotten.

I asked the home coach to recruit two parents to watch the lines for me, but a woman came up and said that her 17-year-old daughter Kylie* was waiting for a later game, was a certified referee and would be willing to help out. I gratefully accepted, and after I handed Kylie my spare whistle we started the match.

Riccardo_Lattanzi_04

The visiting coach had mentioned that it was his first season, and apologized in advance for his lack of experience. (I must confess I was glad to hear this. First match back, and at least one coach probably won’t be in my ear.) There were a couple of screw-ups on substitutions, but nothing too bad. Anytime I was close to his bench, I’d gently tell him the proper process, and he’d thank me profusely.

The home coach was in game mode. He constantly yelled at his players, but didn’t say much to me. In the first half I was moving sideways on the field along his bench area, but the ball was booted long and I had to swivel and run suddenly. As I spun around I felt my elbow strike a soft middle-aged paunch and heard “Ooof”. I turned my head and saw the coach doubled over holding his gut. I couldn’t help but chuckle, but managed an “Ouch, sorry coach” as I kept running. I heard him wheeze out “No, no, that’s OK, my fault.”

I have hoped for this kind of thing in other circumstances. Mostly in basketball. But this time it was entirely accidental, and he was right. It was his fault. I’m supposed to be within two feet of the sideline; he’s not. Anyway, at the next stoppage I asked if he was OK, and he laughed and said yeah, repeating that it was on him.

Later a ball was kicked to a visiting player deep in the home side and the coach started yelling “Offside!”. The player’s shot hit the crossbar, bounced on the ground and the goalkeeper caught the ball deep in the goal mouth. As I signaled goal scored, the coach said “Matt, they were offside!”. I just shook my head no, and signaled for kickoff.

I don’t mind talking to coaches, but there was no basis for discussion. There’s no instant replay, I didn’t think the kid was offside and the coach did. What would we talk about other than yes he was/no he wasn’t?

The second half was pretty uneventful, and the home team won 6-3. Both coaches thanked Kylie and me in the handshake line. I gave Kylie half of the money, admonished her to report the income on her tax return and sat on the ground to change shoes.

I was hot, sweaty, and a little tired, but my hip wasn’t hurting at all. I knew my knees would require ice and Tylenol, but that’s standard. I really felt like I could do another game if I had to. But I didn’t have to. Because I’m retired. And I “don’t do business that don’t make me smile”.**    

*Not her real name. She’s a minor, yo.

**“Treetop Flyer”, Stephen Stills. He was referring to drug smugglers, and I’m a middle school soccer referee. But, still.       

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