Minutes after the controversial Diplomats-Cosmos game two weeks ago Washington goalkeeper Bill Irwin sat at his locker, complaining about the "diabolical calls of the officials."

"If you don't say something about these bad referees, then you haven't been watching the game," Irwin said to one reporter. "They are the one thing wrong with the league. They are bad."

Irwin is not the only person in the NASL badmouthing the officials. Players and coaches throughout the league have been saying for years that the quality of officiating is not up to snuff.

They complain there are not enough qualified referees brought in from foreign countries; they moan that North American officials have progressed too slowly.

"In my opinion, I think the refereeing has improved a great deal in the last 10 years," said Gordon Bradley, the Diplomats' coach and one of the first coaches in the NASL.

"More emphasis has to be placed on the officiating. They must improve because they are dealing with first-rate players.

"If our players can go to the European leagues, work and come back improved players, why can't we send the referees over there, also?" said Bradley. "They would have to improve. One problem is that our referees are part-time and must do other things. Many are fit for the matches but that is not where the problems lie.

"The decision-making on the field is the thing. I know there's a lot of pressure and they must decide in a hurry . . . I still disagree with the calls in the Cosmos' game."

According to Ted Howard, the NASL director of operations, who attended the Diplomats-Cosmos game, the overtime match, officiated by referee Toras Kibritjian and linesmen Gordon Arrowsmith and Alfred Kleinatis, was the worst ever in terms of fan-player-official confrontations.

Still, Howard said, "After carefully reviewing the game on videotape, we concurred with the officials on the calls. Obviously there are top referees, who will do a great job, and there are others who are learning and won't do as well.

"We realize officiating has been a problem, in terms of quality. But over the last few years, it has improved immensely," Howard said. "In any sport, people will scream at the official, whether he is a good or bad one. Everyone has a bad day. Someone will always disagree as to whether a player should have been given a penalty kick or not.

"I was in the press box when the (Ken) Mokgojoa foul was called in the Cosmos game, nullifying a goal, and from up there I couldn't tell what happened," he said. "I would say 90 percent of the fans couldn't see it, either, but if I was one of them I would have been angry, too. It looked like a goal to them."

Bradley, who rarely complains, cited at least one other game (Atlanta) this season where he felt the officiating was "poor."

"The one thing referees can't do is lose their cool," Bradley said. "But it happens. On the field, when the temperature is 106 degrees and the players are working hard to break a 1-1 tie, a bad call can incense a lot of people. As professionals, everyone has to accept the decision. But it's hard to do sometimes."

Keith Walker, former international and NASL referee now the commissioner of league officials, said he sympathizes with Bradley and the other league coaches. But he also insists the officiatiang is the best it's ever been.

"We know the problem. Over the last three years, we had a big turnover in officials," said Walker, who took over as commissioner two years ago when Eddie Pearson was killed in an auto accident. "We are still bringing in world-class officials each year and working with the young North Americans. Right now, I have 128 officials working this year and I have confidence in each one of them."

Each year, the league imports four referees from other countries to work temporarily in the NASL. The four working this year are John Carpenter of Ireland, Abraham Klein of Israel, George Courtney of England and David Syme of Scotland. The referees usually report when their national season ends in the summer.

"They work out of a suitcase for eight weeks and their experience is invaluable to the NASL," Walker said. "They also give clinics and teach our young people about the game. Several of them have worked here in previous summers and know what is expected of them."

Walker said that of the 128 NASL-registered officials, 36 were referees. He said he didn't know the breakdown of American and foreign officials.

"The majority are foreign, of course," said Howard, in the 10th year with the league. "Each year, we lose about a dozen officials for one reason or another. In the last three years, we've made a big effort to improve the quality of officiating and I feel we've done it."

The NASL officials are paid on a per-game basis -- reportedly $150 for referees, $75 for linesmen -- but say their salaries are considerably less than other professional officials are paid. NFL officials, for example, earn $500 a game.

Another major problem is that the new officials have to learn the nuances of the NASL game on the field.

"We don't have that training ground like the baseball and basketball leagues," said Walker. "We have a fourth official at each game but all he does is watch. He could be working with a minor league if we had one. We assign a person to each game to evaluate the officials and the coaches also send in game evaluations. So you see, we are doing everything we can to upgrade the officials. We know how important it is."

Walker said much of the controversy will be eliminated when the American public learns more about the game and the calls.

"The linesmen assist the referee, who finalizes all the major calls," Walker said. "The referee can agree or disagree with the linesmen.They use a lot of eye or silent signals the public doesn't see. It isn't easy out there. There is still a mountain to climb."