Nick Sabetti: Canadian referee Silviu Petrescu's journey from communist Romania to MLS Cup

Goal spoke with Canadian and MLS referee Silviu Petrescu on his life in soccer. He recently reached FIFA's mandatory retirement age.
Amidst the boisterous atmosphere inside Rogers Centre in Toronto, Silviu Petrescu’s excitement might not have been palpable, but November’s international friendly match between Brazil and Chile was not an ordinary one for the veteran Canadian referee.

In October, Petrescu reached the mandatory retirement age of 45 for FIFA referees, meaning that the sprightly South American contest – which ended 2-1 in favor of Brazil – would be Petrescu’s last on the international stage.

It was the culmination of a long journey that began in Petrescu’s native Romania 27 years ago.
Tough choices

When Petrescu was 18 he had a decision to make.

Juggling between professional soccer and refereeing, he arrived at a point where he simply could no longer continue to do both.

“I started playing in one of the lower divisions, but as I was also moving up as a referee, I couldn’t referee and play in the same division, so I had to decide what I wanted to do,” Petrescu told Goal.

Helping him weigh the pros and cons of both choices, one night, Petrescu’s father, Radu, who himself was a professional referee in Romania’s top flight, suggested that Silviu become a referee as well, given the longer lifespan of the profession (a referee could officiate well into his 40s, whereas players rarely ever continued past 35).

Petrescu followed up on his father’s advice.

“After we spoke - that was my moment; I just knew I had to quit playing and start refereeing,” Petrescu said. “And it turned out to be a good move.”

Under the guidance of his father, Petrescu flourished as a referee. By 26, he became the youngest referee in Romania’s first division. The Romanian FA had quickly taken notice of Petrescu’s talent. A bright future seemed assured.

But that was 1995, six years after the Romanian Revolution which saw the overthrow of Nicolae Ceauşescu and his Communist Party. Though a democracy had been subsequently formed, Romania’s economy, with soaring inflation and rampant unemployment, drastically deteriorated in the fallout of the communist collapse.

Given the economic despondency of the country at the time, Petrescu decided that it would be best for him and his family to pack up and leave.

“I was okay with my refereeing career,” Petrescu explained. “But I was thinking about me and my wife and the future, and if I have a kid, and grow a family, is this where I want to be living?

“At the time [the economy] was only getting worse and worse and I knew that that was the time to leave the country.”

A year later, he left for Canada. His sister, who had already immigrated there, was waiting for him in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario.

Moving to a new country would, however, mean having to start over again from nothing, but before leaving Romania, Petrescu made a promise to his father: that he would still one day become a FIFA referee.

Living the dream

In Canada, Petrescu’s referee credentials were no longer valid. Driving taxicabs and refereeing local amateur soccer games became his new routine.

Fortunately for him, Tony Camacho, one of Canada's FIFA referees at the time, was passing through Kitchener-Waterloo one day and stumbled upon one of Petrescu’s assignments.

“What are you doing here?” Camacho asked Petrescu after the game, puzzled at how a referee of his caliber was officiating at such a low level.

Petrescu explained his situation.

“I said, look Tony, I came here from Romania and I don’t know anybody.” Petrescu recalled. “And I told him that I wanted to move up. He said okay and then I started to do the classes and different tournaments and moved my way up.”

With the help of his newfound friend, Petrescu earned his referee badges once more and, in 2002, became a FIFA Pro referee, fulfilling the pledge he had made to his father.

“He was so proud when I told him that I made it,” Petrescu said. “He couldn’t believe it”.

Petrescu knows that had he stayed in Romania he could have become a FIFA referee much earlier, but he has no regrets over his decision to leave.

"I came to Canada for a better life for my family," Petrescu said.

Petrescu is now one of ten full-time referees in Major League Soccer. He joined the league with three other Canadians in Toronto FC’s 2007 expansion year.

In 2012, Petrescu was named MLS Referee of the Year and was awarded the MLS Cup final between the LA Galaxy and the Houston Dynamo, David Beckham’s last game in the league. 

On the international stage, the 2010 and 2014 World Cup qualifying matches provided Petrescu’s with some of his fondest memories. Brazil’s 2-0 loss to Mexico in June 2012 in front of 84,516 at the Cowboys Stadium in Dallas was another special occasion.

Then of course, there was his last international game in Toronto two weeks ago.

“It was a great game, a great atmosphere, a great experience,” Petrescu said. “I really enjoyed every moment.”

Though Petrescu will no longer be able to referee international matches, he can still work games in MLS and hopes to be able to do so for a few more years, provided that his body is still up for it.
This winter, Petrescu will be attending courses to become a FIFA referee instructor for when his on-field days are over. He wants to be able to give back what he received. 
“When I finish I want to pull all of my experience in helping younger referees,” Petrescu said. “Because somebody helped me, and I know what it means.”