SALT LAKE CITY — Ricardo Portillo isn't the first youth soccer referee to die after being punched by an enraged player.
But he is the most recent in what two veteran soccer referees — one national, one local — see as a rare outburst of extreme player violence against an official.
Richard Nieuwenhuizen, 41, volunteering as a youth soccer referee in the Netherlands in December, was shaking players’ hands when two 15-year-olds and one 16-year-old surrounded him, pushed him to the ground and began attacking him. He managed to get away from the boys, who chased him down and continued to kick his head, neck and stomach.
Nieuwenhuizen reportedly initially appeared OK, and went home after the attack. When he returned to the field a few hours later to watch another match, he collapsed and lost consciousness. He was rushed to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
The three teenage players were charged with manslaughter, assault and public violence for allegedly beating Nieuwenhuizen to death.
In Utah, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill is weighing criminal charges against the 17-year-old goalkeeper accused of hitting Portillo in the head, including whether to charge him as an adult.
The punch occurred after Portillo, 46, issued him a yellow card, penalizing him in an April 27 game. Portillo's injuries initially appeared minor, but swelling eventually led to a coma. He was in critical condition for a week before dying Saturday.
Gill said he expects to file charges within the next two days, but he would not speculate on what they might be. Prosecutors have a very narrow range of legal options available to them when a juvenile is involved, he said.
Tanya Lewis, a Salt Lake attorney and legal analyst, said prosecutors in Utah have discretion some whether to charge a 16- or 17-year-old as an adult without a hearing in juvenile court. Lewis said determining factors include the seriousness of the crime.
"Is this a good kid who just made a terrible mistake one day?" Lewis said. "There's a variety of factors, and they're going to look at all of those things. They're also going to consider justice for the victim's family and for the victim, too."
Possible charges include manslaughter and homicide by assault, she said, adding felony murder isn't likely.
"That is when an assault occurs and the victim passes away," Lewis said, describing the homicide by assault. "That's typical in a case such as this. It appears where there were unintended consequences; this is not what the teenager desired to have happen."
Prosecutors would have to show the teenager acted recklessly if he were charged with manslaughter, she said.
Ed Bellion, a U.S. Soccer Federation referee instructor, said he's never seen deadly violence in his nearly 60 years on the field as a player, coach and referee.
"It's not something that's prevalent. It depends on how you define prevalent. Once, obviously, is too much," he said.
Bellion, who has officiated on some of the world's biggest soccer stages, including the Olympics and World Cup, said registered referees are strongly advised to avoid leagues without a recognized governing body.
Portillo was a volunteer referee in La Liga Continental de Futbol, a league for children ages 4 to 17 that isn't affiliated with any national or state soccer organization. He was injured in tussles with players twice before, suffering broken ribs and a broken leg, in his eight years as an official.
"That's one of the issues with these unsanctioned leagues. There isn't that control and discipline behind the scenes that result in coaches or players being suspended or teams being kicked out if they persist in this too long," said Bellion, adding he's speaking for himself and not on behalf of U.S. Soccer.
La Liga Continental hired off-duty police officers to work security at games this past weekend.
Dick Friedman, chairman of the Utah State Soccer Referee Committee, said on-field behavior reflects the tone the league sets for coaches, players and spectators.
"So much of what happens on the field can influenced by the governing bodies, what happens on the sidelines, and the emphasis coaches put on various aspects of the game," he said.
"That's controllable. The uncontrollables are the numbers of folks that watch the games and the attitude they bring to the game. That very quickly spills onto the field."
Friedman said spectators and coaches need to understand referees are people just like they are.
"Referees put their pants on one leg at a time just like they do. They have kids. They have grandkids," he said. "They're just like you and I."
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