Raymond Bernabei predicted in 1952 that it would take fifty years for soccer to become popular in the United States. With the U.S. Men’s National Team historic quarterfinal finish at the World Cup in 2002, Bernabei was right on. A member of the Hamarville Hurricanes from 1949 until 1963, Bernabei served as a captain during the team’s consecutive championships for five years in a row during that time frame. Bernabei has a few more predictions and thoughts about soccer in the United States, and he shared his viewpoint with U.S. Soccer Players …
Can you talk about where you’re living now and what you’ve been doing since retiring from soccer?
We now live in Sable Point, which is in Longwood, Florida. We’ve been here for 23 years, since I retired as the assistant county superintendent for Pennsylvania schools. I was Executive Director, and continue to be, of the National Intercollegiate Soccer Officials Association (NISOA). The organization has 500 members, all college soccer referees. We work with the NCAA, the NAIA, the NGCAA, the NCCAA and the NIRSA, these are all independent administered national organizations for college soccer in the United States, for both men and women. We provide them with properly trained and certified referees. I’m the executive director, so I manage all of the training programs. Our staff is 216 people, who work as volunteers, no one gets paid. We hold training camps every year for training and certifying college referees, all over the country, men and women. We try to make the refereeing more uniform, with respect to the college rules, which are a little different that international rules. I’m heavily involved in NISOA, and we also are very supportive of National Soccer Hall of Fame. We have annual induction ceremonies every August at the Hall of Fame. NISOA is the only national organization that is run independent of any direction or control of the NCAA. This is the only referee organization for any sport that is run independently. The benefits are that whenever you operate functionally as your own organization, you establish your own policies and use your own leadership style. We have liaison people who work with national organizations, but we are a referee organization independent of other organizations. That’s the benefit. This is derived from so many people who are volunteers, who give their time and expertise to assist in training quality people. I personally don’t feel that there are any drawbacks, if anything, there is added incentive to perform at a high level because we’re held accountable to our performance level. We don’t have anyone to fall back on. We’ve got to show we are a professional organization and provide quality performance, and that’s what we’ve done for 40 years, since my involvement.
Can you talk about your playing days and what you remember most?
The thing I remember was playing against such soccer greats and giants such as Walter Bahr, I could go on and on and name names of people who were outstanding soccer names in our era. I was captain of Harmarville in Western PA for a 13-year period, and we had a run of 330 victories. That came with only one game a week, played on Sundays. I was particularly interested in getting quality players for our team every year. We had two members of the 1950 World Cup team, Bobby Craddock, and Nick DiOrio, who played for us. We had Steve Grivenow, who played on the U.S. Olympic Team. I particularly remember the men that I played with and them men I played against, who are now the pinnacles of soccer today. They’re still outstanding. When I see the ball players of today, I would say those of yesterday were better. I’m not putting down these ball players of today. But these fellows were quality individuals. For example, Walter Bahr, could do a 50 yard throw-in, like a bullet. Back then a throw-in was called a shy ball. I had the privilege of playing against the world’s best, which was a humbling experience.
Can you talk about some of the changes you’ve seen in the game of soccer?
From the playing side, I think the skill level is quite different today than it was when we played, and rightly so. You have to look at it in respect to the playing field. We played on sand, or dirt fields. Today, we have plush green fields. Things are very different today. The method today is a short combination pass. Ours was more of a long ball pass. As far as speed, it is no different today than when I played . Ability, no different, head work, goalkeeping, no different. We had some outstanding goalkeepers who played international ball.
Moreover, not just the style of play but the ball itself. The ball was very heavy, made of leather, with lace on it. Today, the ball is very light. But our goalkeeper was able to kick the ball 70 yards. Could you imagine how he could kick that ball today? The differences in shoes. We used the English hotspurs. Today, they use a light molded shoe. In yesteryear, we used baseball shin guards, like what catchers will wear. There are differences in terms of style, field, mechanics, and equipment. I’ve been asked over and over if the players of my day were equal or better than the players of today. I say, given the same equipment, the players in my day would be better. I’m talking about the players I played with and played against, not myself.
In 1952, I was asked to give a speech while I was teaching and coaching at a high school. I showed a slide of the World Cup that England won years ago. I showed it for about ten minutes, and one fellow asked me, ‘When will soccer be popular in the United States?’ I said, ‘Soccer will be popular in 50 years.’ So, add 50 years to 1952, and you get to 2002 and the men’s World Cup finish. I predicted it, and it happened. What about popularity today? Soccer will never be popular as long as the sportswriters and the TV commentators keep their heads in the sand as far as the other sports are concerned. The writers today are worse than in my day. They write very little about soccer. Why, I don’t know. It’s the most popular sport played today by youth, surpassing even baseball. Why is it that children, when they reach age 16, age 18, drop out of soccer? Yet that question also pertains to football, basketball, and baseball. There’s a declining level of sports participation at this age in every sport. Soccer is more popular now with youth, I’d give it another 25 years, and good media leadership, and maybe it will become as popular as one of the other sports.
I might add that soccer can be promoted in a better manner, because I was promoting soccer when I was playing. I was the liaison between our league and the media. I promoted soccer by telephone and by communicating in writing. We got a lot of publicity, by TV, radio and newspaper. We can’t blame the newspaper on one hand, when we don’t do our job on the other hand. We should have a PR director for every league, youth included, in the U.S. We should be handing out articles in terms of soccer, inviting reporters to our conventions, our dinners. That’s what I did. Only we control our program.