December is a special time of year for many. It includes holidays and the drawing of the year to a close, which is often time for reflection and rejuvenation.
For me personally it is a reminder of getting older as my birthday is in December. This is true of a friend of mine as well, who turns 45 this year.
Now early in my life there was nothing magic about turning 45, other than it was a long, long way away. But in my recent past, turning 45 meant the required end of any journey I would have taken on the FIFA panel.
There was no such journey for me personally ... however there was for Tom Supple FIFA AR. This month is his 45th birthday and his mandatory retirement from the pinnacle of refereeing, the FIFA panel.
I write this not to evoke a sadness in anyone, nor regret in myself for never "taking the plunge", it is rather to celebrate a storied career of one of the best AR's in modern times of THE game, and pay tribute to a friend.
Tom is in the first generation of referees to traverse the entire system in US Soccer, from youth matches to the international game. Prior to this generation, referees were generally molded in amateur leagues around various states and then, if there was a professional league at the time, put to the test there. If these referees were able to survive that gambit, then the very lucky were asked to join the FIFA panel as a referee, and potentially on to other assignments as well such as those within CONCACAF or even a World Cup.
Refereeing legends such as David Socha who whistled at (2) World Cups (1982 and 1986) were of such ilk. Others such as Vinnie Mauro, Angelo Bratsis, Alfred Kleinaitis, and Ed Bellion who were on the FIFA panel in the 1990's were in similar standing.
As with other referees today, Tom was required to start literally in his backyard, on the South Shore of Massachusetts. Youth matches were the staple of his refereeing diet and included all levels of the game at local leagues, and the occasional club match in various parts of the state.
It wasn't long before Tom was recognized for his superior refereeing ability and was invited to local tournaments, and others such as the Massachusetts State Cup, as well as a host of other, out of state, prestigious assignments.
By this time, Tom and I had met and were working very regularly on the South Shore at the South Shore Sports Center in Hingham, MA under the gentle tutelage and ageless wisdom of Wally Russell.
It wasn't long before he was thrown head first into the various ethnic leagues the state had to offer as he would share stories of the crazy events of the day that would often include a great match, and an escort from a detail officer off the field.
By now Tom's youth career was in full bloom as he attended the Region I championships in 1993, 94, 95, 96, and was selected to complete his US Youth career in Indiana at the US Youth Soccer Nationals. Tom's adult career at this point included mostly top level amateur and professional matches from the A-League and D-3.
Almost on cue, MLS began in 1995 and Tom was one of the referees selected to start from year 1. As was typical, referees such as Tom that were state referees were assigned as 4th officials and JAR in matches.
|Tom Supple: NE v. Miami circa June 1999|
After attaining his National Badge in 1999 he continued to distinguish himself in MLS. So much so, he was appointed to the FIFA AR panel in 2004. Now 9 years in MLS, Tom was on the world's stage.
From there, as with his other accomplishments, he excelled. His assignments at this point consisted of professional, international friendly, international, and World Cup qualifying matches as he traveled throughout CONCACAF ... and the world.
So here we are on the eve of his retirement, 25+ years later, FIFA AR, 15 year MLS veteran, and just one heck of a referee all the way around. I'll be honest though, this is not even half of the story, not by a long shot.
The real story is the quality person Tom is and how much he has sacrificed of his very essence for THE game. He took us all on this fantastic ride for so long. Coast to coast, U-6 to international stage. A truly fantastic voyage.
Some may ask, heck he may ask, things like:
Was it worth it?
While I certainly can't answer those things, I can say that through every fiber of by being just one thing with absolute certainty ...
He earned it.
He is a FIFA referee, and shall be held as such for life. For some, that badge itself is a means to an end. For me, after spending a lifetime thinking and dreaming about it, I find it a fleeting honor in the grand scheme. It's not the badge, it's that guy behind that badge that means the most.
And that guy is Tom Supple.