A few years back, the park district in our community started an indoor soccer league and offered players in the area the opportunity to compete or join teams already in place. Since our community and high schools boast of diversity, many players spoke a second language. Many players knew each other or had played together in one sport or another since grammar school. This league fell under the level of strictly recreational, but for some reason most of the games were not played at that level.
Some of the games challenged even the highest-level referees in our pool of officials. Although this league started with indoor winter games, it wasn’t long before this league took the games outdoors to the neighboring high school fields. Fans and families were invited to see the outdoor games and for the most part were well behaved. But the players and coaching staffs on the field were something else.
It seems today almost any league, any sport, has its horror stories of games where the safety of players and fans would prevent a game from finishing properly. Eventually the schools were concerned for the safety of all in their stadiums and asked for police protection at every game. The league administrators and referee assigners asked for more experienced officials and insisted on dismissing players and coaches once trouble started. Sending off players and coaches and having the police escort players out of our stadiums occurred nearly weekly.
We were given chances throughout the years to keep this league on the books. Referees, players and coaches all complained. A wakeup call was given when players no longer respected the game, while an accumulation of cards and sitting out a game or two were deemed useless. The final wake-up call was when outside police officers were needed in order for a game to be played. When word got out this league was going to fold, I thought, “We did this to ourselves, the soccer community.” Blame can go all around but it really didn’t make a difference, soccer was not being played in this community at this level. And we did it to ourselves — players, coaches and referees.
Participant safety had to be addressed
Participant safety became an issue, and it was decided to pull the plug on this program, disappointing many community residents.
Fortunately, after a few years, the program was offered again, with one evening of adult indoor soccer just like in the past. But there were new guidelines. Fees for playing were lowered. A monetary award for the top teams making it to the playoffs was offered. Younger players were encouraged to register by working with the local high schools. Players, coaches and teams with a long history of starting trouble in this league were not invited to return. The administrators also advertised an over-30 league. And finally, referees were asked to manage the game better while using the Laws of the Game when necessary.
The referee assigner handpicked a number of officials who delivered in the past and would not flinch on managing the game the way the administration wanted the program to go. He also picked referees who were able to speak various languages spoken in this indoor league. Words, phrases and conversations were no longer going to be ignored if the players’ language crossed the line.
The first season was a success. Four teams were left to compete in the playoffs. The referees were chosen a few weeks in advance. Third-place and championship games were decided by one goal. One yellow card was needed for the evening, and all shook hands when trophies were distributed. The park district was satisfied with the outcome.
If this league is to be successful, the entire soccer community needs to step up. But did we learn anything from this hiatus? As a coach of this sport, I ask myself if I show my players how to conduct themselves on and off the field. As a referee, we need to drill ourselves after games and see if our calls were accurate and consistent. If there is room for improvement, we need to work it in at our next game. Stick to enforcing the Laws of the Game and be prepared to defend any call made during a game. Coaches need to make sure their players will give 100 percent to the game and to their team. And finally, players must show respect for themselves and each other.
With a bit of luck, this league will be around for a long time. All of us have been given a second chance.
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