It's natural for fans, players and managers to fixate on referees’ decisions that they feel cost their side: the penalty not called; the missed offsides; the soft red card when a yellow was what they had hoped for.
But there’s no doubt soccer is tough to officiate, more so since artificial turf fields have sped up the game. And let’s be honest, refereeing is a position that most of us would find difficult, if not impossible, to fill.
The number of decisions referees and their assistants have to make in a game is far greater than one might think. Respected veteran official John Anderson, who is about to begin his 42nd year overall and 29th with the IHSA, estimates referees makes about 200 decisions per game and that an additional 30-40 from the ARs.
"It is a difficult job, but one that all of us enjoy," continued the head clinician for the IHSA. “As you can see from today, it’s one that we all take a lot of pride in doing. We are always looking to be the best that we can be when we step out onto the field.”
Anderson was a speaker at the day-long officials clinic June 11 at Stevenson High School. The United Suburban Soccer Officials Association (USSOA) presented the event.
The IHSA requires its officials to be certified and attend seminars to stay current on rule changes and interpretations. The June 11 event featured a truly special guest -- Hall of Famer and former World Cup referee Esse Baharmast, who ran the session following the lunch break.
While some may believe officials just show up to the touchline and grab their whistles and flags, there’s so much more that goes into it. Each is involved in what amounts to a career-long continuing education class.
“We will have clinics like this all over the state in order to get everyone ready to go,” Anderson said. “Everyone in this room truly loves the game. Regardless of what level they will call, they want to give their best to the players."
"This was really a well-run and organized day for the 90-plus officials that attended," said USSOA president Mike Moore. He is a 32-year official (28 with the IHSA), who has made 14 state final appearance in his career. “To have the attendance we had on such a nice day for a program that stretched over eight hours shows the level of dedication amongst the soccer officials we have in the IHSA.
"These clinics must be done every three years. To have John (Anderson) run the morning Level 2 Clinic, followed by someone such as Esse Baharmast presenting for our afternoon clinic was the absolute best for everyone here in attendance."
In the afternoon, officials watched video with Baharmast and focused on the importance of ethics in officiating, teamwork by the officiating crew, correct positioning, the need for self-reflection and more according to Moore.
"The clinic was run by some incredible, and selfless people. It was well-organized, and we offered far more that we have in the past," said Hannah Shehaiber, who just completed her 25th year of officiating (20 in the IHSA). She has made six state finals appearances – her most recent was in the middle of the 2022 Class AA final when Triad beat Benet 1-0.
"(Esse) is a very humble and genuine person, who was a wealth of knowledge. His presentation was the cherry on top of the day," continued Shehaiber, who made the call to Baharmast that bought him to the seminar.
"We worked on a date, set it in stone. His talk about managing the game, allowing advantages (particularly in the penalty area), roles, positions of all referees and how to interact with players and coaches was just incredible."
Baharmast conducted a Q & A, took pictures and signed autographs afterward, much to the delight of all.
One of the most interesting aspects of the clinic was the video session, which featured clips from high school, club and English Premier League matches. After each example was played in full speed, Anderson asked what the call should have been. Then the plays were reshown in slow motion to pinpoint the correct call.
In viewing the plays, it’s strange that sometimes the ball looks like a beach ball, and other times it looks like a golf ball.
"That's why we stress positioning and movement in order to allow yourself the best possible view of things to make the correct decision," said Anderson, who estimated he runs 4-5 miles per match when he’s in the middle.
The seminar and continuing education of referees, which is essentially refereeing the refs, is vital for the good of the game. Everyone present appreciated the analysis of match footage and looked forward to it paying dividends in upcoming matches.
There was no finger pointing or officials called out in the session, which was educational and enriching.
"There are no replays available to us like they have with VAR, so it's just six eyes only. Our radar has to be up and running from the opening whistle," Anderson said.
The way soccer officials approach the demands of each match is a key element of the job, and one that rarely is appreciated by most.
Perfection in officiating doesn't exist. In soccer, there's always some kind of subjective situation at hand. It’s not a sport like tennis, where the ball is either in or out. That's why the commitment to a long day of class by dedicated officials is necessary and rewarding.
"Calls must come in a blink of an eye,” said Anderson. “There's split-second response time. And at any level, the safety of the players is most important."
"It was a great day. So many people came together for the same cause -- the joy of soccer," said Shehaiber. “Much of it was possible as well because of our great sponsor, Chikoo Patel from CKO Real Estate, LLC in Chicago, a Stevenson grad who did not hesitate to underwrite the clinic, lunch and giveaways for our officials."
Additional IHSA clinics have taken place in the Quad Cities, central Illinois and in downstate Belleville.
Anderson, Moore and Shehaiber each made a point to mention that new referees are needed.
"Like every sport in the IHSA, there's a shortage of officials, and we are no different,” said Moore. “It's important to get the word out of our need, because we lose officials all across the state for a variety of reasons.”
Information to become a referee can be found at ihsa.org or ussoa.org.
Andy Bitta, the legendary and longtime manager of both the boys and girls programs at Libertyville High School, passed away in late May at his home after a long and courageous battle with Parkinson's Disease.
Bitta, 69, enjoyed a brilliant career while in charge of both programs. Overall, he earned 13 trips to the state tournament and twice lifted championship trophies. He earned four second place finishes as well.
"I was absolutely heartbroken when I heard the news of his passing,” said Matt Sriver, who played three seasons for Bitta in the late 90s in both soccer and basketball. He credited Bitta for his decision to go into education and coaching.
"(He) was an incredible man, who was humbled at times from the talent that came through his program from the GLSA (Greater Libertyville Soccer Association). But he would never take for granted that good fortune as we worked so hard to bring those players together through hard work and dedication to each other."
Sriver served as boys manager at Hoffman Estates High School and now toils on Steve Keller’s staff at Fremd.
The Libertyville program began in 1978 under Bitta. It collected 769 victories from both programs during his watch and took its first state title when the ladies won it all in 1991. He led the boys to the second title trophy in school history the fall of 2015 led by Ryan Wittenbrink, who went on to star at Indiana University.
Bitta, a 1970 grad of Prospect, was a tremendous basketball guard who averaged nearly 16 points for the Knights’ 1972 Mid-Suburban League South Division champions.
Bitta served as the boys basketball co-head coach at Libertyville alongside Max Sanders. Their 1991 team finished fourth in the state.
"Andy was a great guy, and an even better representative of the good things about high school sport in both the IHSA and Illinois High School Soccer Coaches Association. He was a well-deserving Hall of Fame member," said Norm Hillner, who was an institution as the manager at Lake Park and later served as the coaches’ association president for six years.
"Andy was a great human being and coach. He will be missed by so many of us who knew him," added Gerardo Pagnani, a current assistant at Fremd, and former manager at both Hoffman Estates and Fremd, where he claimed a pair of boys state titles (1984, 1997) and would later earn his place in the IHSSCA Hall of Fame (2006).
Bitta was inducted into the IHSSCA and Lake County halls of fame in 2001.
Bitta coached his sons (Andy and Austin) on the Wildcats 2010 state runnerup team that lost 3-2 to Boylan in overtime.
This past spring season, the girls team paid tribute to the Libertyville legend by displaying “Bitta” on wristbands during their 4-3 Class 3A sectional semifinal victory over Hersey. The team went on to finish third.
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