PALM HARBOR – Iman Khalil was just another girl taking the soccer field Sunday, running alongside teammates and keeping a close eye on the ball. Occasionally, the 15-year-old tucked the back of her white head scarf into her red and white jersey.
She took the field Sunday in the Hernando Heat’s 1-0 loss to the South Hillsborough Soccer League Celtics. A different referee allowed Khalil to play wearing her head scarf, and league officials showed up with policies that showed she should have been able to play Saturday.
“Unfortunately, sometimes they [referees] stick too far to the letter of the rule and allow no leeway,” said Mike Gann, a vice president with the United Soccer Association.
Her mother, Lisa Allen-Khalil, said she was happy the controversy was over, so her daughter could rejoin the Heat, an under-16 girls squad.
“We’re here for the team,” Allen-Khalil said, watching the game from the shade of Putnam Park’s concession stand. “It’s not just about her.”
During Saturday’s game against the Zephyrhills Bulldogs, though, the spotlight fell squarely on Khalil after referee Steve Richardson forced her to sit out.
“I was very upset,” said Allen-Khalil, 42. “We had never had any problems before. This was something new.”
Sunday, parents cheered for the girls on both teams as reporters and television cameras strolled the sidelines.
On the drive home to Spring Hill, Khalil said she was grateful for her team’s backing over the weekend.
“They were great,” she said. “I appreciated their support and love.”
League representatives expressed regret that she had been benched Saturday.
“There was nothing we could do,” said Frank Villaizan, president of the USA board. “Once the referee steps on the field, he is the governing body of that field. He runs the game, and we respect that.”
Richardson stood by his decision Saturday even after a USA representative checked with the league during halftime and was told Khalil could play the second half, according to the Heat’s assistant coach.
The league’s rules allow Khalil to play while wearing a scarf, Villaizan said.
He presented reporters with a 2002 memorandum that covers the topic of players “bound by religious law to wear such head coverings.”
Players are permitted to wear such coverings. However, a player “must request the variance well enough ahead of game time.”
Allen-Khalil said they had not requested a variance because the scarf had never been a problem.
Richardson could not be reached Sunday for comment.
The referees are supervised by the Florida State Referees, Villaizan said.
Ahmed Bedier, executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations, said his group would file a complaint asking the referees association to investigate the incident.
Villaizan said the USA board also would discuss the matter at its meeting next month.
“We could possibly just not have the referee work for us anymore,” he said.
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