In the 1970s, soccer games were essentially controlled by one man – the center referee. There was no fourth official in those days and the only purpose of the linesmen was to signal the ball out of bounds and offside. It was considered tradition for referees to pay their dues as powerless linesmen for a few years before getting their chance in the middle, a tradition that referees in America like Ed Bellion helped change to better the game.
“Back then the center referee made most of the decisions and the linesmen were there for to signal the ball in or out of bounds and offside, that’s about it.” Bellion said. “In the U.S. we tried to bring them into the game more by telling them to indicate if there was a foul in front of them.”
“Traditional referees didn’t like that; the tradition was you would spend two or three seasons as a linesman and then get your chance in the middle.”
Bellion, who moved to America from the soccer hotbed that is Liverpool, England, became a professor of biochemistry at the University of Texas-Arlington in 1970 and eventually got plenty of chances in the middle. Bellion was not only able to find his way to the center referee position, but he was able to stay in that position for some of the biggest soccer events in the world, including the Olympics, the NASL Soccer Bowl, the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Mexico in 1983.
“When I went to the U-20 World Cup as a referee I had two assistants, one from Holland and one from Argentina.” Bellion said. “I was giving the instructions to them about what I wanted them to do as a linesmen and told them to raise the flag up if they saw a foul and the guy from Argentina said ‘No’ he didn’t want to do that and he looked very worried. They felt awkward, linesmen were supposed to let the referee control the game and not interfere.”
The U-20 World Cup wasn’t Bellion’s only big contribution to the referee community in 1983. He also found his way onto the pitch for what was the biggest club game in North American Soccer – the ‘83 NASL Soccer Bowl in Vancouver between the Tulsa Roughnecks and the Toronto Blizzard, the last Soccer Bowl ever.
“That was one of the most outstanding games, the NASL Soccer Bowl in ‘83.” Bellion said. “It was considered to be the pinnacle of the game in the U.S. and Canada and only one guy gets selected to do the championship game, so that was a terrific experience to be able do that.”
A year later in 1984, Bellion was able to continue his influence as a referee on the international scale when he was selected as an official for the ’84 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. An event that showed the world what kind of soccer audience existed in the United States and laid the groundwork to being selected to host the 1994 FIFA World Cup.
“It was a tremendous honor to be selected and involved at that level. The ‘84 Olympics were a tremendous success as a football program and a major factor to get the World Cup in ’94,” Bellion said. “The FIFA officials were flabbergasted at the sellouts at the games. There were more people who watched the soccer games than all the other games combined I believe and to be on the field with refs from around the world, that was really great.”
Since his days as an active referee, Bellion has continued to have a positive influence on the referee community. He was the co-author with longtime friend Bob Evans of the critically acclaimed book For the Good of the Game: Modern Techniques and Practical Wisdom for Today's Soccer Referee. He has continued to work as an assessor, an instructor and has held clinics for young referees – all while publishing over 30 scientific articles on the biochemistry of growth in microorganisms in national and international journals, and giving lectures on his work all over the world.
“For that time period I had parallel careers.” Bellion said. “We were quite successful in our research in making contributions to bacterial metabolisms and as a result I was invited to speak at various scientific conferences all over the world. We published many articles in scientific journals and trained many students in various areas. It’s been a double edged sword in a way, both in my career as a scientist and in my career as a referee, in using the training and educational angle to pass it on to the next generation.”