It promises to be the hottest rivalry of the sports season: a fledgling soccer club taking on the county's most powerful sports referee -- the Fairfax County Athletic Council.
All the ingredients are there for the most impassioned game of the year. On one side is the power broker, the county Athletic Council that controls the fields, the clubs and the games. On the other side is the maverick, the upstart Burke Soccer Club that wouldn't take no for an answer and took its gripes to court. The playing field is the Fairfax County Circuit Court, which just might make the final call.
It's all a question of Turf Wars, as several observers described it, in the complicated politics of sports. In this case the sport is soccer, the most popular and fastest-growing team sport in Fairfax County.
Last week, in what county officials say was a first, Judge Joanna Fitzpatrick of the county circuit court blocked a move by the Athletic Council that would have denied the newly formed Burke Soccer Club access to county-owned sports fields. Fitzpatrick, in a temporary injunction, also assigned the club the temporary use of two fields and questioned the Athletic Council's authority to regulate youth sports as it has since it was created in 1975.
Fitzpatrick ordered a full hearing within 30 days to determine the legal powers of the 18-member Athletic Council.
Burke Soccer Club officials contend the Athletic Council is merely an advisory body, and that it has no power to make final decisions on the assignment of playing fields or the formation of new sports clubs. Athletic Council members, while conceding that their opinions technically are advisory, say that they usually are final since rarely, if ever, are they contested by the Board of Supervisors, which appoints Athletic Council members.
The latest controversy is one of several battles that has marked the emergence of soccer as a sports power in Fairfax. Since the first teams began forming in the early '70s, soccer has competed against football, baseball and other sports in its quest for respect and playing fields.
"Other sports look down their nose at soccer," said Pete England, president of the new Burke Soccer Club. "They say it's a sport for kids that aren't jocks, a sport for foreigners. They say there's no place for soccer when kids should be playing macho football and be American."
But Supervisor Audrey Moore, who represents the Burke area, said, "Never underestimate the power of soccer."
Soccer now outpaces every other sport in the county. This year 25,000 youngsters have signed up to play soccer. The closest contenders are baseball and softball, which had about 19,000 youngsters this year, said J. Larry Fones, director of the county Department of Recreation and Community Services, which oversees the use of county playing fields.
But popularity has brought its problems, and Fairfax soccer clubs often find themselves in fierce competition against other teams for players, fields and coaches. In the last seven years, the number of youngsters participating in the game has almost doubled; at the same time, the age for eligibility has dropped from 8 to 5. More than 1,600 organized teams must share 241 playing fields when the new season opens during the next few weeks, recreation department officials said.
The soccer explosion has resulted in a number of splinter groups breaking away from existing clubs, with the new teams adding to the already frantic race for fields and coaches, said James Micklewright, a member of the Athletic Council. And as in any major sport, Athletic Council members say, some splinter clubs were formed simply because someone was mad about the way the old club was being run.
In an effort to make sure that new clubs were formed only when there was a real need, the Athletic Council imposed a rule in 1980 prohibiting the formation of any clubs that compete against existing clubs for players and financing.
The vote denying the Burke Soccer Club access to playing fields, which organizers say would have doomed the club, was based on that policy and was surrounded by political mudslinging, according to those involved in the fight.
Micklewright and others on the council contend that the founders of the Burke Soccer Club were miffed when they lost elections for officers in the Springfield Soccer Club. They then decided, according to Micklewright and other council members, to form their own club with a non-elected board of directors.
England counters that he and the four other board members of the Burke Club, which was formed in May, saw a need for a new club because the Springfield Club was growing unwieldy. At the county hearing last week, England said the club already has signed up 852 players.
"Springfield Club had become unmanageable," said England, who has four children who play soccer. "It had 262 coaches and I didn't know (all of) them by name."
The Athletic Council argued it is trying to protect the county's scarce playing space and the interests of the youngsters in existing clubs. Only three new soccer fields were opened in the county this year, recreation department officials said.
"Soccer fields are at a premium," said Supervisor Moore.
"Everybody's got their turf," W. Thomas Parrott, attorney for the Burke Club, said during last week's court hearing. "That's what this case is all about -- protecting their turf."