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U.S. Soccer Centennial Referee Interview: Angelo Bratsis

Angelo Bratsis made the transition from a player to a referee in 1965. In the near 50 years since then, few have had more of an influence on the growth and evolution of U.S. Soccer’s Referee Program.

“Like many others before me, the road to officiating was the result of being a bad player,” Bratsis said. “I was a player not getting too much playing time, I got married and my priorities changed. I couldn’t afford to be playing on Sundays and going to practice twice a week. Somebody suggested that perhaps you might want to become a referee. That’s exactly what I did and I took a chance on it.”

Bratsis became a registered official in Boston and the Southern New England area at a time when there were only 18 referees registered in the whole state of Massachusetts. It may have started out as a hobby, but these were merely the early years of an officiating career that includes 12 years on the FIFA International Panel, an induction to the Massachusetts Sports Hall of Fame and an Eddie Pearson award.

Soon after he began to referee the local leagues in the Boston area, Bratsis was invited to the next level of competition in one of the most competitive amateur leagues in the country.

“The Portuguese league in Southern New England was highly competitive, one of the best amateur leagues in the country at the time, and I was given the opportunity to work there on a regular basis,” Bratsis said. “Subsequently I got noticed; somebody brought it to the attention of Pat Smith, the director of officials for the American Soccer League in the early ‘70s. He became my mentor and utilized me a great deal in the ASL.”

Bratsis became an officiating fixture in the ASL specifically in the Boston, Providence and Connecticut markets of the league. So when the National Director of Officials, Eddie Pearson, scoured the nation for talented young referees to contribute to the North American Soccer League, Bratsis was an obvious candidate and was soon plying his trade at the highest level of American soccer.

“I worked myself up to the level from 1974. Worked my way up through the assistant referee list, through the senior assistant referee list, to the referees list and eventually I was nominated for the FIFA international panel,” Bratsis said. “I got into the FIFA panel and I stayed there for 12 years, representing the NASL and representing the U.S. all over the world. It was a really rewarding experience for me.”

The high amount of domestic success led to several international appearances and Bratsis added multiple glamorous fixtures from across the globe to his officiating resume. Bratsis served at the first ever FIFA Youth World Cup in China in 1985, the 1983 Presidents Cup in South Korea, the World Military Finals in the Netherlands and the 1991 Copa America Semifinal in Chile between Brazil and Colombia.

“Each and every game had its own signature, its own points and I enjoyed every single one,” Bratsis said. “The highest level of competition that I encountered was the semifinal of the Copa America in Chile between Colombia and Brazil. To me that was the most exciting of all games because of the rivalry between the two teams so that was the most exciting game in my experience.” 

After representing American referees all over the world for so many years, Bratsis retired from officiating and from the FIFA panel at the age of 50. While he may have hung up his whistle, he did not hang up his ambition and his drive to help the game grow and evolve the best it can.

“After my retirement at age 50 from FIFA, I could’ve done a number of things but I felt obligated to stay involved with the game,” Bratsis said. “I felt that the Federation was good to me, when I fell down they picked me up and dusted me off. They had confidence in me, so I felt it was important that I stay on and contribute my experience, my knowledge; the good, the bad and the ugly and help U.S. Soccer in any capacity I possibly can.

“My mentor, Pat Smith, the National Director of Assessment, was retiring and that position was offered to me. It was a very challenging position. I had to deal with many problems at the time but I had an agenda, I had a vision, I knew what I wanted to do, I had a short amount of time to do it and I took the challenge.”

Wasting no time at all in attempting to improve the ever-growing referee program, Bratsis introduced some of the most revolutionary changes to the referee program in its entire history. Up until Bratsis had gotten involved, a national referee could also be a national assessor and a state referee administrator could also be an assignor. Bratsis took on the challenge of eliminating the conflicts of interest in order to meet international standards and criteria.

“It was very controversial, I knew I was going to get a lot of heat and I knew it would have a lot of opposition. I went to the National Referee Committee with a proposal, for the assessment program to have any credibility whatsoever we needed to clean it up,” Bratsis said. “The people we had involved meant well, but I wanted all national assessors to be completely independent of local politics, state association politics and accountable only to the National Referee Committee and to the National Director of Assessment. I wanted an objective opinion of each individual referee.

“That was the biggest hurdle to be completely objective, independent, build up some credibility and eliminate the conflicts of interest that existed.”

Bratsis’ vision was unanimously approved by the committee and within a year, significant improvement throughout the whole program was obvious. Bratsis maintained that position for another three years before making the change to a referee instructor, focused solely on the growth and improvement of American referees during the game’s constant evolution.

“Since my day the game has changed completely both in skill level and physical characteristics of the players. I cannot tell referees to referee the way I did. The game was completely different,” Bratsis said. “The whole approach to the professional game has to change. MLS and U.S. Soccer have a lot invested in this, they are trying to develop a product to bring people in so the whole process of training referees to meet the needs of the professional game has changed tremendously.”

It’s been almost half of a century in the referee program for Angelo Bratsis, almost 50 years filled with plenty of hard work, plenty of achievements and an inarguable stamp on the game. Even to this day Bratsis continues in his efforts and believes the sky is the limit for American referees.

“I changed with the times and I understand the need for the change. Over the years I’ve seen referees that I’ve coached, that I’ve mentored reach the highest possible level,” Bratsis said. “That’s significant. You feel good about it. It makes you say it was worth it. It was really worth it.”