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Controversy Finds the Lone American in the World Cup

It was almost 20 years ago, during the 1966 World Cup in England, that a Soviet referee named Viktor Bakhramov made the call that earned himself a permanent niche in the history of the game.

The setting was Wembley Stadium in London, the date was July 30 and the match was the title game between England and West Germany.

With the scored tied, 2-2, in overtime and England on the attack, Geoff Hurst fired a shot that hammered against the West German crossbar, sliced downward and then rebounded clear.

Had the ball crossed the goal line? The English players said yes and claimed a goal. The West Germans said no. The referee, Gottfried Dienst of Switzerland, immediately turned to his linesman, Bakhramov, and asked his opinion.

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To his credit, Bakhramov did not hesitate, pointing his flag at the center spot to indicate that a goal had been scored. England went on to add a fourth goal and won the match and the World Cup.

Two decades later, Bakhramov’s call still is the subject of argument. At the time, countless television replays in stop action and slow motion failed to prove whether the ball had, indeed, crossed the line. Photographs were equally inconclusive. It was strictly a judgment call.

Now, flash forward to 1986. This time the setting is Jalisco Stadium in Guadalajara, the date is June 1, and the match is between Brazil and Spain.

With the scored tied, 0-0, early in the second half and Spain on the attack, Miguel Gonzalez fires a shot that hammers against the Brazilian crossbar, slices downward and rebounds clear.

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Has the ball crossed the goal line? The Spanish players say yes and claim a goal. The Brazilians are unsure. The referee, Australia’s Christopher Bambridge, looks toward his linesmen, David Socha, sees that he is indicating nothing at all, and allows play to go on.

No goal is the verdict, but television replays seem to clearly indicate that the ball had crossed the line. The next day, newspapers around the world are filled with photographs suggesting the same thing.

Suddenly, it is 1966 all over again, only this time the man at the center of the argument is not a Soviet citizen but an American.

For David Socha, a controversy of such Bakhramovian proportions is the last thing he had in mind when he left Ludlow, Mass., little more than 2 1/2 weeks ago to become the only American to take part in the 1986 World Cup.

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But controversy has found him, and today, a large portion of the globe will be focused on the actions of this 47-year-old father of four. He will be the man in the middle--the referee, not one of the linesmen--when defending world champion Italy meets South Korea at noon in Cuauhtemoc Stadium here.

Some Italian newspapers have suggested that Socha’s possible missed call in Guadalajara should disqualify him from officiating today’s match, and possibly even for the remainder of the tournament.

The writers voicing these opinions forget, however, that in the 1982 World Cup in Spain, Socha was one of the most capable of all officials and actually refereed the Italy-Poland semifinal in Barcelona won by the Italians.

If he were not considered competent, FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, would not have selected him as one of only five officials from 1982 to return this time around.

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Socha cannot even come to his own defense, World Cup referees not being allowed to discuss the calls they make. Fortunately, it is widely believed--although perhaps not by Italian sportswriters anxious to stir things up--that the type of call he missed is almost impossible to make.

Bakhramov was criticized for saying Hurst’s shot was in, Socha is being criticized for saying Gonzales’ was not. The only solution--and it is one that has been suggested in the past--is to station additional officials directly on the goal line to make such calls.

That will prevent the linesman, viewing from an angle, from being forced to make what is essentially a guess, but it will still be a judgment call.

All of this is sure to be on Socha’s mind before today’s match, but once he steps on the field, it will be forgotten. Refereeing in the World Cup is the furthest possible cry from doing so in the senior circuit of the semipro Connecticut National Soccer League, which is where Socha started his officiating career 16 years ago.

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Socha, born in Springfield, Mass., of Polish-American parents, has been active in soccer a lot longer than that, however.

“I love the game,” he said during a telephone interview shortly before leaving Massachusetts for Mexico. “As a matter of fact, it’s all I’ve ever been involved in.”

Growing up in the Northeast, where the ethnic populations have retained their identities, ensured that Socha’s boyhood would include soccer.

“At one time in this country, that’s all they played here,” he said. “The players were brought in from the old country and they played for the factories. There were some quite good players at that time (before and shortly after World War II). It just went from generation to generation.”

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Learning a little from the Poles, the Italians, the Spaniards and the Portuguese who lived in Ludlow and nearby towns, Socha developed into a quite useful player who even played professionally in Canada and England.

Once his playing days were over, he left soccer for six or seven years, then was lured back by friends who said the game in the area needed referees. Gradually, he made his way through the ranks until he earned his FIFA badge in 1978.

That badge, qualifying him to referee games at the highest level anywhere in the world, was his ticket to the future. Soon, North American Soccer League and American Soccer League games were old hat. Socha wanted, and got, full internationals, and he gradually became recognized as the United States’ No. 1 referee.

In 1978, he refereed the first world all-star game at Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands. Four years later, he was in Spain, the first American to take part in a World Cup since 1950, the last time the U.S. team has qualified for the finals.

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If Spain was a high point, being selected for Mexico was an even greater satisfaction.

“I have very good memories of Spain,” he said. “Everything there was very good for me. It was like a fairy tale, a dream. When I was younger, I would dream of playing in the World Cup. It’s the highest you can attain. I didn’t do it as a player, but as a referee and I feel very honored.

“And to go to the second one, what else is there? There’s only five of us left over from the last one. In other words, FIFA must have confidence in the five of us. A lot of confidence.”

Unlike other American officials who have been lured into the indoor game, Socha has resisted and still referees only the real game, even it means simply collegiate or semipro matches now that the pro leagues have died.

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“I am not a purist, but I am a traditionalist,” he said. “I am sorry what I see in this country as far as the rules go. If we had one set of laws and we were going the same way as the rest of the world, I think there would be less problems for the players, the officials, the management, everyone. I feel very sorry about that.”

His traditionalist views earned Socha an officiating role in the 1984 Olympic Games, and his performance there clinched his current assignment in Mexico.

All that, however, is history. Today, the folks back at Frank’s Tavern, the restaurant-bar in Ludlow owned by Socha’s parents, will be crowded around the television set watching the Italy-South Korea game.

And, in all likelihood, they will be hoping against hope that not a single player fires a shot that caroms downward off the crossbar.

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Those kind of shots, as Bakhramov and Socha know too well, are heard around the world.


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