A TRUE LEGEND
In some ways, officiating a soccer game is like playing a musical instrument.
If you don't hit the right notes, the audience will immediately know you're out of tune. In soccer, it could be a prelude to chaos.
The degree of difficulty is magnified many times by the speed of the game. If you are not alert for every second for a 60-minute match, you could miss a key play or foul.
Gino D'Ippolito was one of those rare referees who thrived in both versions of the sport.
His ability to think quickly on his feet, gauge the feel of the game, his effervescent personality and the unique gift to say the right words to players enabled D'Ippolito to become one of the finest and most beloved referees back in the day.
Every league wanted D'Ippolito as the man in the middle in key confrontations, especially the Major Indoor Soccer League, where he stood out among several legendary game officials.
In honor of his legendary career, the Major Arena Soccer League on Friday announced that the Gino D'Ippolito Referee of the Year award will be given at the end of each season to the referee who best embodies his traits.
MASL commissioner Keith Tozer said when the triumvirate of league chairman Shep Messing and president of communications/media JP Dellacamera assumed their roles last year, they wanted to honor today's game officials with "someone from the past who has a great history - Gino D'Ippolito."
"Everybody who talks about him, loves him," Tozer continued. "There's not many people in the world that someone doesn't like, but everyone loves Gino. Indoor soccer and refereeing and is really a difficult profession, but indoor soccer most importantly. Gino not only brought his expertise in managing the game and calling the game, he brought a personality. He was almost like the Bob Hope of refereeing."
When he tended goal indoors and out, Messing backstopped many a game with D'Ippolito in charge.
"From the New York Cosmos on behalf of Pele, Carlos Alberto, Franz Beckenbauer, we all loved Gino and my New York Arrows team on behalf of Steve Zungul, Branko Segota, Luis Alberto, Renato Cila, Doc Lawson, David D'Errico; it goes on and on," Messing said. "Why? Because Gino D'Ippolito was the best. He was class. He had charisma. He had personality. Most of all, he had the absolute respect of every player on the field, every player that he touched.
"If you have a friend or you know a man like Gino D'Ippolito in your life, you're a lucky man."
D’Ippolito, who has been struggling with his health recently, was told about the award by his son, Dominic.
"He started crying," Dominic said. "He goes, 'I can't believe it. What an honor. Indoor was my world. It meant a lot to me’. ... He said, ‘it [indoor soccer] prolonged my refereeing career 10 years.' "
Having his name on the award wasn't the first honor for the 86-year-old D'Ippolito, who has been inducted into two Halls of Fame - the Westchester County Sports Hall of Fame (2016) and the NISOA Hall (2019). In 2018, he received the Rockland Westchester Intercollegiate Soccer Officials Association Lifetime Achievement Award.
D’Ippolito also was featured on a trading card – by Pacific Trading Cards during the 1990-91 Major Soccer League season.
“You would be amazed how many letters my father receives from people who played, coached, refereed with him,” Dominic said. “They all want his trading card autograph. It's crazy.”
Gino made a flawless transition from outdoor to indoor soccer.
"He was immediately successful because he was able to manage the players," said Dr. Joe Machnik, who as head of MISL referees hired D'Ippolito. "That's what indoors was all about because you're making decisions every four seconds.
"He just adapted really, really well. When stuff got a little bit scary or hairy, he used personality. He had such a really big personality."
Dominic, who followed in his father's footsteps as a referee, couldn’t help but notice the respect his father received from the sidelines.
"Understand something," he said in an interview this week. "The shoes that I was trying to fill could not be filled. What he did, nobody could. We were in Tibbetts Brook Park in Yonkers. I remember a player shouting at my father. Those were not easy games. The coach said to the player, 'This field has never seen a referee so good. Leave this guy alone. This guy's the real deal.'
There was plenty of words of wisdom dispensed.
"It was amazing how he would say you don't even need your cards if you know how to talk to players,” Dominic said. “The cards are a last resort."
Gino had this remarkable sixth sense for a referee.
"My dad had the ability to defuse impossible, difficult situations," Dominic said. "He had the ability to calm everybody down. He had a few little mantras.
"When you make the call signal with authority. Smell the game. Read the players. Talk to the players. That was a big thing. Talk, talk, talk. He said, 'Remember, you red card somebody and they're gone for this game and the next game, so you got to be 500 percent sure you've got a red card this guy."
To appreciate D'Ippolito's remarkable career - he officiated thousands of indoor and outdoor matches from youth to international - a little background is needed.
Born in Colledimezzo, Italy on March 4, 1935, D'Ippolito emigrated to the United States in 1951 and settled in Yonkers, N.Y.
He began officiating in 1963. While coaching a youth team in a New Jersey tournament, Vinny D'Albis, a friend and a well-known referee, called a penalty kick against D’Ippolito’s team in a tied game with two minutes remaining. After D'Ippolito disputed the call to no avail, D'Albis told Gino that if he thought he could do a better job, he should become a referee.
Which he did.
That November, he was assigned to be a linesman for a game at Tibbetts Brook Park. The referee and another linesman were no-shows, and D'Ippolito wound up in the middle. His father and brother attended that match.
"I remember being afraid and my father told me they called me all sorts of names," D'Ippolito said in 2016. "The game was tough! I refereed the same two teams the following year and this time no one was complaining."
Translated: D'Ippolito was a fast learner - on and off the pitch.
D’Ippolito became a student of the game. He had piles of soccer magazines and rule books stacked near his desk at home. He ran six miles a day to keep in form.
"I fell in love with being a referee," he said.
When the North American Soccer League was formed in 1968, the league held a preseason tournament, giving players and referees an opportunity to prepare for the regular season.
"All the referees before me did 20 minutes on the line, 20 minutes as a referee, and so on, until they stopped," D'Ippolito said. "They told me to ref. After 20 minutes they said, 'OK, your time is up, and you're done. Thank you for coming.’ I thought, 'Well, I gave it my best shot."
Sometime later, he was called in to do a North American Soccer League game between the Washington Darts and Atlanta Chiefs at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. D'Ippolito asked the referee in chief which assistant referee he was replacing.
"No, you are the referee," he was told.
D'Ippolito climbed the ladder quickly, becoming a staple in the league and a FIFA referee in 1975.
He worked many historic matches. Gino was an assistant referee in Pele's first game - an exhibition between the Cosmos and Dallas Tornado on Randall's Island that year - and as the game official for the Black Pearl's final competitive match at Giants Stadium when the Cosmos took on Santos in 1977. That was D’Ippolito’s favorite all-time match. Gino also worked the World All-Star game at Giants Stadium in 1982.
D'Ippolito officiated more than 600 NASL games from 1968-84.
He also was one of six full-time referees the MISL employed starting in 1981. The other five were Anatol Popovich, Bill Maxwell, Jeff Mantel, Herb Silva and Don Wynschenk. He estimated he worked more than 1,500 indoor games in three leagues (MISL, MSL, Continental Indoor Soccer League) before slowing down only a few years ago.
Referees never have a true home game. They are on the road all the time. The MISL had a 48-game schedule.
"In those years, especially when I was living at home as a kid, he was never home," Dominic said. "The North American Soccer League usually were weekend games and odd ball midweek games. Indoor, he was gone every day. I remember driving him to the airport on a Friday and then picking him up ... seven days later. He was he was always working nonstop."
Internationally, D'Ippolito had plenty on his plate, traveling to 29 countries. That included the 1977 Copa Interamericana final between Club America and Boca Juniors, 15 World Cup qualifiers for the 1978, 1982 and 1986 tournaments. He was kept from his dream of officiating the Olympics when the USA boycotted the 1980 Moscow Summer Games.
Before he went full-time with the MISL, D'Ippolito had a day job. He was a carpenter, specializing in complicated cement projects.
"My father built half of New York," Dominic said. "He would work on I-95, the Cross Bronx Expressway. I remember him saying that people were blowing their horns."
A motorist once asked D’Ippolito: "Is it possible that you are the Cosmos game last night? Is that you?"
To which Gino replied: "Absolutely. That's me."
After his professional soccer days, D'Ippolito officiated youth, high school and college games in Westchester.
"It's funny. As my dad got older, and I got involved in high school games and college games with him, I always remember he didn't even care whether it was D-I college or a youth game. He said, 'As long as I'm doing a game. I don't care what game I'm doing.' That was his thing. It didn't matter because it made him happy."
It seemed that everyone loved Gino.
"Wherever I go to even today, if I see former players and they come up to me we talk about the indoor game," Machnik said. "One of the first things they ask me is how is Gino, because Gino played such an important role in those early days of indoor soccer. He did all the big games, all the playoff games, all the championship games, all-star games. He was the man and that was the man that everybody remembers.”
During a Major League Soccer combine in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. years ago, Machnik ran into another indoor legend, Fernando Clavijo, who was evaluating players, along with MISL icon Zungul.
"Zungul didn't recognize me right away," Machnik said. "But when I told him, 'Hey, I reffed these many games.' The next thing he said, 'How's Gino? That's what they all say, 'How's Gino?' They just went crazy about him."
The same could be said of the greatest players in the world.
Dominic remembered when he and Gino officiated games in a corporate team league in the 1990s. MasterCard, whose headquarters was in Purchase, N.Y., not far from the D'Ippolito's home, had a team. MasterCard was a sponsor of the 1994 World Cup.
They were invited to a special company function that featured Pele. When the Brazilian legend entered the room, he saw Gino.
"He looked right at my dad and goes, 'Gino! Gino!' In perfect Italian. I couldn't believe it," Dominic said. "He was hugging was my dad. I could see all those players from MasterCard. They like melted like, 'Oh my God! This guy really knows Gino! Gino knows Pele!
"Pele was a special player to my dad."
When you're loved by the greatest soccer player on the planet, it says a lot.
Then again, Gino D'Ippolito was a special referee.
Michael Lewis, the editor of FrontRowSoccer.com, can be followed on Twitter at @SoccerWriter. He can be reached via email at Michael@FrontRowSoccer.com. His book Alive and Kicking: The incredible, but true story of the Rochester Lancers, will be published soon.