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The Butler Did It: D’Aquila finds sweet success as soccer ref

Jack D’Aquila always dreamed of being in professional soccer.

Even after the realization of playing professional soccer died on the streets of Borgetto, a tiny town on the northwest slopes of Monte Granara 26 kilometers from Palermo, Italy, D’Aquila’s dream became slightly altered.

D’Aquila decided to become a referee and made it to the top of his game, becoming one of just seven FIFA referees in America.

And after working World Cup qualifiers and international matches from Morocco to Trinidad, D’Aquila is now helping train the new generation of referees.

“I think we have a good crop of young referees, and I try to help them gain the experience,” D’Aquila said. “I’d like to see some of these referees take my place.”

But as of yet, none have.

After reaching the pinnacle of his profession, D’Aquila now spends his time as a national referee assessor, watching the game from press boxes and bleachers rather than the middle of the field, grading the performance of local referees in the United Soccer Leagues.

Even eight years after reaching the maximum age of 45 — which was reduced from 50 by FIFA just six months after D’Aquila became a FIFA referee, essentially slicing his international career from 10 to five years — the longtime Bayside resident misses the action.

“Sometimes I assess a referee and inside I say, ‘I was one day on the field.’ I’m a little jealous because years ago I was there,” D’Aquila said. “I try and help the referees by telling them my experiences.”

D’Aquila’s refereeing career started 26 years ago when he worked games at the Metropolitan Oval and Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

Working as a linesman for some of the better referees in New York at the time, D’Aquila picked up valuable tips from every assignment as he quickly but quietly climbed the ladder until becoming a national referee in 1983.

D’Aquila was able to do the top league games in the United States but he wanted more — he wanted to reach the top. And finally, in 1990, he received his FIFA badge.

To put things in perspective, being a FIFA referee is the equivalent of a soccer player starting for the national team, and D’Aquila took his job very seriously.

“When you go to do a game, you have to give 100 percent. You can’t listen to the spectators, you know you have a job to do,” he said. “A mistake happens to everybody, but you just have to deal with that and if you recognize you make a mistake, leave it there and the next game try and eliminate that mistake.”

D’Aquila traveled around the globe working some of the biggest games. He spent 27 days in Morocco for the World Military Championships in 1993, and he worked men’s and women’s World Cup qualifiers. His biggest thrill was refereeing a match between Italy and Holland at Foxboro Stadium in Massachusetts.

He would study the teams a month before each game and was thoroughly prepared for each match.

But D’Aquila soon learned that FIFA had reduced the maximum age by five years and, after not working the 1994 World Cup, realized he would never get that chance even though he was probably in better shape than some referees half his age.

“In my opinion I was still fit enough to continue. They should have tested the fitness every year,” D’Aquila said. “Referees gain experience the more games you do. The more experience you have, the better chance you have.”

Although his FIFA days were behind him, D’Aquila continued to officiate collegiate and high school games and treated those games the same as he did the most important international matches.

D’Aquila was fair and unlike world-renown Italian referee Pierluigi Collina (you know, the tall bald dude in all those Adidas commercials during the World Cup and who has his own Web site, www.pierluigicollina.it) who is sometimes more of a show than the game itself, D’Aquila was quietly consistent.

As one Division I coach said, “You never know Jack’s the referee, that’s how good he is.”

These days D’Aquila spends more time at D’Aquila Pastry Shop on Francis Lewis Boulevard in Bayside, a store he’s owned for 26 years, than on the field.

He’s with his wife, Silvia, of 27 years more than he is with soccer coaches and players.

But D’Aquila still has that itch, still has that desire to “work the middle,” and he tries to do a game a week during the high school season.

“The game relaxes me. I don’t do it for money,” he said. “I wish I could still do it on a professional level, but I’m still happy to be on the field for high school games.”

Reach Associate Sports Editor Dylan Butler by email at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 143.

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