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Referee blows call over turban; official orders soccer game replayed

May 13, 1997

A referee blew the call when he stopped a 13-year-old Indian boy from competing in a weekend soccer match in New Jersey because he was wearing a turban, and officials Tuesday ordered the game replayed.

``I don’t know what happened with this particular referee,″ said Vincent Mauro, director of officials for the Chicago-based U.S. Soccer Federation. ``He erred on the safety side, but it was a mistake. It should be corrected and corrected soon.″

Raj Thapar of West Orange had played all season with a patka covering his hair as prescribed by the Sikh religion. The patka is smaller than the traditional turban and is preferred by athletes.

But when Raj attempted to play in Sunday’s regular-season finale in Highland Park, referee Al Scarmato said the patka was unacceptable. Coaches and league officials objected.

``To my knowledge, there is nothing to be worn on the head whatsoever,″ Scarmato told The Star-Ledger of Newark in Tuesday’s editions. ``The only exception that I know of is the goalkeeper.″

But Mauro, who oversees 85,000 soccer officials throughout the country, said federation rules allow ``those bound by religious law to wear those head coverings, usually a turban or a yarmulke.″

Scarmato did not return a telephone message left at his Jamesburg home Tuesday.

Earl Fielder, president of the Mid-New Jersey Youth Association, ordered the game replayed out of fairness to Raj and his team, which lost 2-0 and missed the playoffs with a 3-3-2 record. No date has been set.

Bob Katz, president of the board of trustees for the Mountaintop League of West Orange, had sought for the game to be replayed or scratched from the record and was pleased with the decision. The league fields 11 traveling teams, including Raj’s.

``I think an injustice was done to the child and the team as well,″ Katz said Tuesday. ``I’m more concerned about the child, who was probably embarrassed by the decision made by the referee.

``I think the referee was a little insensitive to the situation.″ he said. ``I think he needs to be educated a little bit and be more sensitive to religious customs.″

Raj said he was happy with the decision. His mother was attending for the first time on Mother’s Day with family friends, and the referee’s decision was especially hurtful, he said.

``I was humiliated, insulted,″ Raj said. ``I couldn’t play just because I’m a certain religion, and that’s wrong. No other ref had any problems or objections. No coach, no player.″

Tony Cullin, the state’s youth referee administrator, agreed some officials get ``overzealous″ about liability concerns when it comes to what players can wear.

``These things seem to come out in certain areas around the state,″ Cullin told the Star-Ledger. ``A referee once said eyeglasses aren’t safe, and he was afraid of being sued. My answer was if he’s afraid of getting sued, he shouldn’t be a referee anyway.″

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