As I headed down the long, nondescript, stale-smelling concrete tunnel toward the soccer stadium field from the officials’ locker room, looking forward to being met by the California sun, I suddenly heard a woman’s voice shout behind me. “Margaret, I just heard!” I turned around and met the eyes of Jill Ellis, head soccer coach of the United States Women’s National Team. I returned a questioning look, to which she responded, “I just found out that today is your last match.” She strode toward me with arms wide open and gave me a giant hug. “How does it feel?” To be honest, I did not yet know how to answer that question. It was a career to be proud of and to celebrate, yet there is always a challenge in saying goodbye. She understood my hesitation and filled in the blank, “Bittersweet — but you’ll enjoy the game today.” She continued, “Congratulations, we are proud of you!”

There have certainly been times in my career when, in the heat of the battle, I have completely lost touch with soccer being “the beautiful game.” I have struggled through ups and downs. Like all officials, I have had times in my career when I have wondered why I dedicated so much time to an avocation in which there is so much criticism and verbal abuse. As I worked toward my goals of discovering just how far this career would take me, I missed out on numerous other important life events — family celebrations, outings with friends and other moments that made me wonder whether my time was being allocated to the wrong place.

However, on this day of my final international match, I was fully aware that I had come full circle in my career. The defining characteristic about my career is that it has been about so much more than just the officiating. Standing in the tunnel getting ready to take the field one last time, I was looking forward in anticipation of the match, while looking back over a highlight reel of memories. With a feeling of fulfillment, I realized that my career has taken me all over the country and world to experience different people and cultures, and most of all, to delight in the friendships developed along the way. While there were many challenges in the journey, I also realized those challenges presented some of the most heartfelt moments in which I made deeper connections with people and fully felt strength from their support.

This career has also changed my outlook and approach of my day-to-day life. Once a very shy and timid person, my constant travels forced me to learn to step out of my comfort zone as I met new referees that would become my teammates at each stop along the way. I’ve had to learn how to portray confidence no matter what the feeling in the pit of my stomach was telling me. Now, many years after my career began, I revel in interacting with people and having the opportunity to share stories.

No, this career is not just about all of the experiences I’ve had on the field. It is about who I’ve become along the journey and the pride I have in landing where I have. After a great deal of hard work, sweat and tears, I know the choices I’ve made have paid off and my career comes to a close with a celebration for all that it has provided.

The power of the beautiful game couldn’t have been clearer

As I left the tunnel and proceeded through the magical hours that only a last game can provide, the power of the beautiful game couldn’t have been clearer. I cherished my opportunity to orchestrate an international match one last time. Everything went very smoothly with an enthusiastic crowd, coaches on both sides that were happy, and players who understood this was a memorable day for me and offered well-wishes, handshakes and hugs.

This isn’t a side of the game we frequently get to see, but the experience was nothing short of beautiful. Coaches, players, spectators and officials were all there together in one stadium, all appreciating the game of soccer, but with each person also adding memories to his or her own journey through this life. It was a day to celebrate and I left the stadium with admiration for what my career had been and with excitement for what my future will bring.

And then reality struck. The morning after the match, I woke up to a Facebook message from a spectator asking to be my new virtual friend and, I imagined in the same breath, wishing me well in my retirement. The well-wish was clearly sarcastic as it prodded me for making my last action in my international refereeing career one that made her 11-year-old son cry for hours on end. Unbeknown to me, her son wanted me to autograph and give him my red and yellow cards on my way out of the stadium the prior evening. The message pointed out that I had clearly only denied him this gift out of cruelty.

This is a beautiful game and it has been a beautiful career, but as I traveled through airports on my way home that day, I concluded with a smirk that there will always be unexpected challenges in officiating.

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