Frank Valdemarca was 19 when he fell in love with refereeing soccer while living in then-Southern Rhodesia, a self-governing British colony that is now the country of Zimbabwe.
Now 76, and residing in Elk Grove, Valdemarca will speak Friday about his experiences over a 30-year FIFA refereeing career in which he refereed World Cup qualifiers, encountered team-employed witch doctors and even met African presidents.
The event, which is being held in conjunction with the opening of the Davis World Cup youth soccer tournament, is set for 7 p.m. at the Stephens Branch Library, 315 E. 14th St.
“Most of my talk will be based on my experiences in Africa. (I dealt) with something a little different because I was involved in the hierarchy of football in Africa,” said Valdemarca, who also served on various FIFA committees and was a FIFA lecturer. “So I’m talking on my own experiences and after, I’ll be able to answer questions.”
Though he was born in Italy, Valdemarca immigrated to Africa when he was “quite a young chap.”
From there he fell in love with the beautiful game and then ultimately refereeing — though in a somewhat different way than most.
“I was about 19 years old, I think. I went to a soccer match,” Valdemarca said. “The referee had a very rough time and he was bullied after the match. That’s what got me into refereeing. (The referee was) trying to administer football and he was almost beaten up for it!”
Events like this may be foreign to U.S. soccer fans, so the former referee offers an explanation:
“First of all, you must remember that in Africa, soccer is almost a religion,” he said. “Therefore, your stadiums at the international level are well-attended. We’re talking about 70, 80, 90-thousand. The experience as an official is that you’re not just representing yourself, but you’re representing the country you’re coming from.”
After first qualifying as an official referee in 1959, Valdemarca quickly rose up the ladder and was appointed as the treasurer of the Zimbabwe Football Association in 1980, the same year that the country received its independence.
Shortly after, he was promoted to serve on the FIFA Panel of International Referees, where he refereed a total of 17 “A” Class international matches, during which he encountered all types of problems that one would on a continent as diverse and vast as Africa.
“(There were) pre-match meetings where teams refused to come in because there was some white powder on the threshold of the door,” Valdemarca said. “All sort of things. How do you handle those things? Refereeing at that level is more than just knowing the laws of the game. You have to use a lot of psychology and sometimes you have to have an iron fist to get things done.
“In my estimation, I think I did more than 1,500 competitive matches,” Valdemarca added. “At one stage, we were refereeing twice or three times a week. If you do that for 30 years, well, that’s quite a lot of matches.”
After he hung up his whistle, he served as a referee instructor, match commissioner and referee inspector for FIFA and the Confederation of African Football.
It was there that Valdemarca had perhaps the most memorable moment of his career when he went to check the passports of the South African national team and found Nelson Mandela speaking to them.
“(Mandela) came across to me and asked where I came from and what I was doing and so on,” Valdemarca said. “The words he said to me at the time were, ‘you must be surprised why I’m here addressing the South African team.’ I said to him, ‘well for me it’s a wonderful experience to see the president of the country just talking to the national team.’ He says, ‘I’ll tell you why.’ He says, ‘because sport, and in particular soccer, will unite South Africa.’
“And true enough, within one or two years South Africa won the Cricket World Cup, they won the Rugby World Cup, they won the African Cup of Nations.”
That wasn’t the only president Valdemarca would meet during his storied career.
“Another president was the one of Mozambique, (Joaquim) Chissano. He was quite a character,” Valdemarca said with a laugh. “I was the match commissioner of a match between Mozambique and Cameroon. The stadium, as you can imagine, was absolutely packed to the hilt. I was sitting next to him and we were just talking naturally on soccer. He said to me, ‘I just love coming to soccer matches. Where else can I go where so many people will cheer me?’ ”
After a lifetime of travel and refereeing, Valdemarca describes a final challenge that he has left on Friday: “My only problem now is that I have to cram 30 years of experience into one and a half hours of talking.”
— Reach Evan Ream at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @EvanReam