Sal Cancelli sits on the bleachers at an under-11 soccer game in Mimico.
He normally wears black at games — he’s been a referee for 40 years and counting — but today he’s dressed in jean shorts, a blue striped golf shirt and a navy baseball cap that covers his white hair. His intense gaze focuses on the game as he talks.
Cancelli is the referee co-ordinator for the Toronto Soccer Association. He says it’s hard to find refs — the district only retains about 10 to 15 per cent of new recruits. The referee of this game, Ramon Pineda, has been officiating for four seasons, but his linesmen are teenagers working their first summer. Chances are, it will also be their last. Young referees love the game — many have played since they could walk — but the abuse is more than they bargained for.
“It’s not an easy job,” Cancelli tells me. “You’ve got 22 little kids running around you, and you have to call a hand ball and you have one side of the parents yelling at you.”
Sometimes they do more than just yell. This summer, the parent of an under-13 player in Scarborough allegedly threatened an assistant referee with a gun.
Cancelli hasn’t experienced anything that bad, but he’s had his moments. He’s been chased by a player after a game, had a loonie thrown at him from the stands at the Centennial Park Stadium — “an extra dollar in my pocket” — and has been called all sorts of ugly names.
Today’s game started out calm. The blue team got to halftime with a two-goal lead, but as its white-clad adversary catches up with two goals of its own in the second half, the blue team starts to panic. In a race for the ball, a blue player pushes his opponent from behind. Pineda blows the whistle and throws up a yellow card.
From across the field, Cancelli sees the kid yelling at Pineda — “He’s even arguing with the ref!” he says, indignant.
For anyone who needs a good dose of positive reinforcement, this isn’t a fitting line of work. Under constant scrutiny, referees are used to getting insults and criticism thrown their way.
“The new generations of referees don’t take it,” says Cancelli.
When I ask him and Pineda why they do it, they say exercise and love for the sport. And the best feeling?
“When the losing team says I did a good job,” says Pineda. Cancelli agrees.
But they don’t wait around for that. In today’s game, the white team scored a third goal, finishing off the comeback. And no one in blue complimented Pineda.