FOR A SOCCER referee, a great game is when nobody notices you.

Officiating the Washington area's hundreds of weekend soccer matches, and scores of weekday afternoon and evening affairs, is not a job for someone who's seeking positive reinforcement. Even on his best days a referee is likely to have half of the players and partisans blaming him for their defeat. When performing poorly, he can be overcome by a cascade of insults and epithets.

"If I can get through a game and not be remembered, then I've been successful. Being unobtrusive is a sign that you're doing a good job," says attorney Don Dennison, a veteran of 14 years of officiating and a board member of the Metropolitan Washington Soccer Referees Association. "Those are the type of games you look forward to. That's why a {soccer} referee wears a black uniform instead of the stripes of other officials, so he can fade into the background.

"They say at the end of the game it's par for the course that half of the people think you're blind and cheated them and the other half think you did a decent job. We're frequently the scapegoat. It's a question of how thick your skin is. You try to tune it out. As long as they don't get into assault -- which unfortunately is happening more and more frequently -- I don't let it bother me."

Washington's 650 active soccer refs -- 350 in the MWSRA and 300 in the D.C./Nova Soccer Referees Unit -- are all sorts: government officials, surgeons, cab drivers, housewives, students. One MWSRA member had to rush home to Africa to join his brother in a coup d'e'tat. Others sneak out of the CIA or high-powered law firms, changing into their uniforms in gas station bathrooms and back seats of cars, preparing to make yet another appearance at one of the never-ending stream of soccer matches that in the fall and spring keep area fields at capacity.

All have one thing in common: a passion for the world's most popular game. Most have other soccer involvements; they are players, coaches, parents of players or any combination of the above.

"People referee for three reasons," says Nelson Kobren, athletic director at Montgomery Blair High School and commissioner of the MWSRA since 1956, when there were nine members. "One is the exercise. When they can't play anymore, they like to referee. Number two is the challenge; people like a challenge. Third, people do it for the money. People who are sportsminded and too old to play get a lot of satisfaction out of it . . . Most people don't blare it around. Some are afraid of repercussions. Others don't want their bosses to find out where they are."

Tony Mikalis, a 12-year veteran, was a player who then coached his sons, Nick and Odysseus. Eventually Mikalis brought both sons also into refereeing. Nelle Barnes, a substitute teacher and one of 25 women in the MWSRA, took the test 10 years ago on a challenge from her referee husband Lynus. Now son David also is officiating.

The referee's armed only with a whistle, his knowledge of the rules and, perhaps most important, an authoritative nature. In most games, referees work in pairs, though many youth matches now require solo performances. College and professional matches call for a trio: a referee and two linesmen.

"The decorum of the referees, the image of authority, is manifested in the way a game is called," Dennison says. A referee must "be sure of himself, look sharp, let his authority be known early. A good strong whistle, decisiveness and appearance are essential tools."

As a last resort, the referee can reach for The Card. The yellow card is used to issue a caution for various offenses, most often for arguing with the referee. The red card can be earned by obtaining two yellows or directly by committing serious wrongs such as using profanity or intentionally injuring a player. The red card sends the player off; his team must finish the game shorthanded and the player usually is suspended by the league.

"This enables us to exercise control," Dennison says. "In this area, we referee a lot of ethnic games. There may not be any common language, but all teams understand red and yellow."

Yet, with all of these devices, the refs still are subject to self-doubt, brought on by the constant harangue from the spectators. "The amount of abuse you take, sometimes it hardly seems worth it," says 10-year veteran Carl Reilly, a facilities manager for AT&T whose son Michael also has joined the officiating ranks. "If you do a good day, you don't worry about it. If your game is marginal, you go home and search your conscience and your soul and figure if you want to continue doing this. The majority of the time, however, both teams recognize what you've done and it proves there is some sportsmanship."

Still, society's penchant for loving to hate the ref is creating a critical shortage of one of Washington's most-needed workers. With as many as 100,000 people playing on fall and spring weekends, many matches, particularly contests involving young children, can no longer be covered. No new leagues can be formed because officials can't be provided.

"The turnover rate is fantastic," Kobren says. "We lose at least one-third of our referees every season. It's a constant battle. We ask referees why they don't continue and they say verbal abuse. They say nobody's ever satisfied. Also, many refs are players and they like playing more. Third, there are injuries. We have a large amount of injuries. It's physically demanding. A referee can run up to nine miles in an adult game with 45-minute halves."

Still, for many, refereeing is a source of great satisfaction. "If I didn't enjoy it, I wouldn't do it. I truly believe we are providing a necessary service and people appreciate that," says MWSRA vice president Rudy Beckman, who is also head coach at St. John's College High School. "You see as many people appreciate the referee (as those who don't), particularly those more knowledgeable about soccer. Surprisingly enough, people will come up to you and say you're doing a good job. It's that type of thing that makes it worthwhile. If a guy walks up to me and tells me I missed a call, my reply is, 'It's probably not the only one I missed. If I only missed one, I must be doing a great job.' "

MWSRA refs are paid on a scale from $15 for a one-hour youth game to $36 for a high school match and $55 for a college contest. It is common for two or more youth games to be worked consecutively by one ref. D.C./Nova's pay scale ranges from $19 to $60. Most games require two refs, except for many non-school battles involving eighth graders and younger.

The MWSRA will hold training clinics every time six aspirants register. D.C/Nova is planning an October clinic. For more information, call Kobren of the MWSRA at 593-4111 or Anita Hood, head of D.C./Nova, at 780-4542.