He was the referee Canadian fans loved to hate; he's chosen to leave on his own terms
By Steven Sandor | June 24, 2022
There are a few of you who have clicked on this article because you love to hate Dave Gantar.
If you’re a fan of Major League Soccer, or have watched international games, or the Canadian Championship, you’ve probably uttered his name under your breath. You might have Tweeted his name in anger. That comes with the territory of being one of the most recognized referees in North American soccer.
Gantar chose to retire in 2022, and reffed his final game in June. His final assignment? A U9 match behind John Barnett School, in northeast Edmonton. He wanted to go out the way he came in — and wanted to officiate his final game on the same field that, as a teenager, he made his debut with the whistle hung around his neck.
In between the two John Barnett games, Gantar’s refereed World Cup qualifiers, at the Pan Am Games, at the Gold Cup (the championship of the Caribbean, North and Central American regions) and the Canadian Championship. He refereed the first game in Canadian Premier League history. He would spend about a half-year away from Edmonton, every year.
This is for all the Gantar-haters out there, for all of the fans who felt their teams were wronged by a card that was wrongly shown; for those of you who screamed when he pointed to the penalty spot; for those of you who fumed when he said “play on.” I asked him if he ever reflected on his work.
“We are the hardest people on ourselves,” says Gantar “There are nights that I didn’t sleep at all because I’d made a poor decision. And, the thing is, when you make a poor decision, you know it almost instantly…. Some of those mistakes happen just because I blinked at the wrong time. It’s 35 Celsius in Dallas, it’s hot, and sooner or later, you’re going to blink.”
But, he also points to the fact that assessments have shown that referees at the top end of the game get the wide majority of calls correct.
“The thing is, the vast majority of the calls, we get correct. I think the statistics show that we get about 98 per cent of our calls right. If the players were able to have a 98 per cent success rate, it’d be a much different game.”
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And Gantar is a big fan of technology being used to help the refs, including the Video Assistant Referee.
“It’s the angel on our backs. I was against technology in the game to start with. But, now that it’s here, it’s here to stay.”
And, for those of us who lament the leagues that use VAR to scrutinize offside calls, and aren’t happy when a goal is waved off because a player was offside by the width of a toe, Gantar has this to say.
“Offside is a black-and-white call. Either you are offside or you aren’t.” He says that if we don’t like goals being called back because a player is an inch offside, we need to push the leagues not to use VAR on offside calls, only for fouls and to see if balls crossed the goal line or not.
Gantar says he would go to players and apologize when he realized he made a bad call. But, he never paid attention to media reports or social media — “if you go online looking for people to love you, you won’t get it.”
A referee can tune out the news reports and social media, but that official can’t tune out or ignore what goes on in the stadiums. Gantar has refereed in some of the most hostile sporting environments in the world. If you’ve seen videos of referees getting pelted with coins, or refs having to be escorted off fields by police, Gantar has been there, done that, bought the T-shirt.
“People have thrown coins at me. They’ve thrown chunks of cement at me. And I’ve made it,” Gantar says.
The most intimidating stadium of them all? The Estadio Cuscatlán, El Salvador’s national stadium. In the corner of this stadium exists an area known as “Little Vietnam.” If you sit in this section, you agree to become part of a nefarious social contract. You will come armed with projectiles. A favourite is to fill up a bottle with fluid. A two-litre pop bottle works. Then, you toss it towards the field. No one does anything about it. There is no security to toss you out.
Opposing players and, most notably, the officials, become targets. It’s like that carnival game where you throw balls to knock down clown targets. Knock down enough clowns, win a stuffie. In El Salvador, the targets have pulses.
Gantar remembers that, when arriving at the stadium with his crew (the assistant referee-1 patrols the near sideline, the assistant referee-2 patrols the far sideline), a man approached them and asked to speak to the AR-2 in private.
“That’s very unusual. Usually, if someone wants to speak to us, they will speak with the referee or the AR-1,” says Gantar.
The AR-2 was basically given a warning. The assistant referees (linesmen) patrol the sidelines, flags in hands. But he was told never, ever, to stand still. Because the AR-2 was on the “Little Vietnam” side of the stadium, standing still would present too easy a target for the marksmen in the stands.
In Mexico, Gantar arrived at the stadium, and security officials laid out a pre-game plan. If the crowd invaded the pitch, or the referee and his crew were in danger, they were given a muster point on the field. They were to dash there so security could get them to safety.
In Guatemala City, he remembers the high, barbed-wire fences that separated the fans from players and officials, and the open carrying of machine guns.
Where it Began
These places are a long way from the beat-up, bumpy pitches of Edmonton, where Gantar got his start.
Gantar was raised in a soccer family. His dad ran a community soccer program, and encouraged young Dave to take a reffing course when he was 12, “for Slurpee money.” Gantar’s dad died shortly afterward. So, Dave and his brother, Paul, took over coaching the community team.
By Gantar’s own admission, he was a hothead. “I was not a quiet guy. I was giving it to the refs after every game.”
Then, a ref who had just endured a tongue-lashing told Gantar that he’d seen him ref a youth game. He told Gantar that he wasn’t half-bad as a ref, and that maybe he should take more courses and get properly assessed.
Gantar took the advice. And, by the age of 23, he was reffing pro games. His first pro assignment was a 2002 A-League game between the Calgary Storm and Seattle Sounders. The A-League, administered by the United Soccer Leagues, was a second-tier pro circuit in North America. Teams came and gone — the Edmonton Aviators existed for half a season before going bankrupt in 2004, and the league ran the team as Edmonton FC to close out the disastrous campaign. Gantar got $100 per game, but the league did not pay travel expenses. Refs had to cover the expenses of hotels, flights, buses and meals. Basically, refs did it because they wanted the experience.
He made his MLS debut in 2007 (doing a little better than $100 per game). And then more assignments came. Big international tournaments. Gantar would spend half the year away from Edmonton.
His favourite moment? In 2014, he got the assignment to officiate a friendly between Brazil and Colombia in Miami. There were 72,349 fans in attendance, and it was the first appearance Brazilian superstar, Neymar, would make since he badly injured his back in the World Cup.
“It was rocking,” says Gantar. “Neymar was back and the atmosphere, the intensity, was tremendous. There was just so much to it.”
So, why did Gantar decide to stop doing the thing he loves so much?
He says a few reasons played into his decision to quit. A big one was to repay a debt to his family. Being away for long periods of time is hard. He owns Stanley Construction with his brother, Paul, and he’d often spend time on airplanes catching up on work. But, during COVID, as a referee in Major League Soccer, he was required to relocate to the United States — so there wouldn’t be issues with him crossing the border. He lived away from his family, full-time, in Park City, Utah. It was a lot.
There are personal reasons, too — he wants to help care for an elderly member of his family.
Professionally, he never wanted to be in a spot where he was asked to quit.
“I wanted to leave while I was still wanted,” Gantar says. “Ninety-nine per cent of referees are chased out of the game.”
As well, MLS has a standing roster of three Canadian referees. Gantar felt it was time to clear out his spot so a young Canadian official could come and take his place.
The Refereeing Crisis
According to Canada Soccer’s 2021 Annual Report, which was released in May of this year, there are 12,675 registered referees in the country. Five years ago, there were over 20,000 registered referees in Canada. Basically, the referee ranks have dropped by 40 per cent in half a decade.
While Gantar says he will take a six-month “cooling off” period when it comes to what he plans to do in soccer, he is always available to mentor refs and help improve the state of officiating in Canada. While many of us believe that nutty coaches and parents — who act like a U11 match has the same sort of stakes as a World Cup final — are driving refs away, Gantar believes the problem lies elsewhere.
“I don’t see abuse of refs as a problem. I know that’s a controversial take. We need to be able to train referees to be able to handle it. We need to understand that the people in the game are passionate. Coaches are passionate. Players are passionate.”
He believes that young referees need more support. “Eighty-five per cent of people who take refereeing courses never do a game. It’s a leap to go from the courses to ‘oh my God, I am going to do a game.’” He says first-time refs will get game assignments, and don’t even know what to do with the game sheets. They need mentors on-site, to help them through their first games. But, too often, the youngest refs are left to their own devices.
Still, he sees the state of soccer in Canada as being so much better now than when he started. Toronto FC, the Vancouver Whitecaps and CF Montreal are in MLS. While FC Edmonton has run on hard times — the club is currently administered by the Canadian Premier League’s front office while Tom and Dave Fath attempt to sell the team — the Canadian Premier League, now in its fourth year, has shown some hopeful signs, including attendances in Halifax that average close to 6,000 a game.
“If, when I started refereeing, you had told me there would be three Canadian [MLS] teams that can draw more than 20,000 fans a game, I would have told you that you were crazy. Now, we need the Canadian Premier League to grow and succeed. We need more success stories like they have in Halifax.”