More on Offside

Keith, an adult amateur coach, asks:

A player on the Red team attempts to pass the ball to another player on the Red team who is in an offside position. A player from the Blue team intercepts the pass and begins dribbling down the field. The player from the Red team who was in an offside position comes back and challenges the player on the Blue team for the ball.  Is play stopped for an offside offense?

Answer

It would be a grievous error if any official decided this was an offside offense.  This scenario is fairly fundamental and simple as regards the concepts of offside position and offside offense.  For simplicity’s sake, lets call the initiating player Red #5, his or her teammate Red #19, and the defender Blue #45.  Now, break this thing down.

First, when Red #5 played the ball, that established which (if any) teammates were in an offside position and which (if any) were not.  Your scenario declares that Red #19 was in an offside position, presumably by virtue of being, at that specific moment, past the ball, the midfield line, and the 2nd to last defender.  No offense has yet been committed.

Second, between Red #5’s contact with the ball and Blue #45’s subsequent contact with the ball, did Red #15 do anything that constituted “becoming involved in active play” — interfering with play, interfering with an opponent, or gaining an advantage by his or her position?  Nothing in the scenario suggests this happened and thus, prior to Blue #45’s intervention, no offside violation was committed by the only Red player we are told was in an offside position and thus whose play of the ball was restricted  by Law 11.

Third, Blue #45 made contact with the ball.  This is the critical point.  Merely “making contact with the ball” does not necessarily change anything but, in this case, the scenario’s wording  (“intercepts the pass and begins dribbling down the field”) makes it crystal clear that Blue #45 has, in fact, deliberately played the ball.  At this moment, Red #15 (and any other Red attacker who might also have been in an offside position when their teammate made contact with the ball) ceased to be in an offside position.

In short, the world got turned upside down.  Defenders (Blue) are now attackers and attackers (Red) are now defenders and, for as long as this play continues past Blue #45’s intervention and the ball stays in possession of the Blue team, no Red player can be in an offside position and thus could not under any circumstances commit an offside offense.  Now that Blue #45 has deliberately played the ball, only Blue players can be in an offside position and the possibility of a Red player committing an offside offense is, flatly, nil.

Would that life were always so simple.  The critical point was Blue #45’s contact with the ball and the decision that has to be made here is whether that contact constituted a deliberate play.  Here it did and so the decision is easy.  Change any one of the elements of that contact and the decision could become more difficult.

But that is for another question and answer ….

Rude Behavior

Mike, a youth player coach, asks:

This happened in a game recently.  The Blue team had the vast majority of possession in the game with the ball rarely coming out of the Red team’s half.  The Blue goalkeeper sat down in the Blue goal whilst play was in and around the Red goal for a long spell.
Firstly is the Blue keeper committing any offence?  They did not interfere with any other player, or in any way impede play.  Secondly, the Red coach complained to the Blue coach about these actions being disrespectful!  Is this deemed unsporting behaviour by the Blue goalkeeper?

Answer

Probably not.  It was rude and disrespectful, certainly, but did it rise to the level of unsporting conduct?  Goalkeepers are strange ducks to begin with (I was one when I played so I speak from some experience here) and rather egotistical to boot.  The trouble here is one of implementation.  Would you caution the Blue keeper the moment he first sat down?  Almost certainly not.  After 2-3 minutes of staying in this position?  Ten minutes?  Where do you draw the line?  Suppose his rudeness was watered down somewhat by his merely leaning up against a goal post (would yawning ratchet up the problem?).  Would laying down on the ground be more rude than  merely sitting?

We do know, of course, that actions sometimes speak louder than words (and actions are specifically included in evaluating dissent or abusive/insulting/offensive language) so a good case could be made that the goalkeeper’s action was a form of speech.   We might note that, at least, the Blue goalkeeper was keeping his options open by sitting down “in the Blue goal” rather than, say, at midfield.  And if he was actually “in the Blue goal,” he could certainly be cautioned for leaving the field without permission in a manner which would clearly not be considered “in the course of play.”

The bottom line here is that the Referee could caution for unsporting conduct for behavior which showed a lack of respect for the game (see p. 86, 2016/2017 Laws of the Game).  More effective, however, would be to signal for a stoppage of play (preferably at a moment when Blue had control of the ball — which appeared to be often the case), walk down to the Blue keeper and have a public (visibly, not audibly public) word of warning to the goalkeeper to the effect that his behavior was disrespectful and that, if it continued, there would be consequences.  Note the careful use of words here — no specific threat, only the promise that, having been warned, the goalkeeper would be foolish to engage in this behavior again at any time during the remainder of this game.

The restart?  Clearly, a dropped ball where the ball was when play was stopped.  Should it happen again, caution and restart with an IFK for the opposing team where the goalkeeper committed (again) the behavior which is being cautioned.

Whatever the referee wound up doing, the goalkeeper’s behavior should be documented in the game report.

Handling the Ball

Leroy, a parent involved in youth soccer, asks:

Can the goalkeeper handle the ball in the penalty arc of the goal being defended?

Answer

Nope, not legally (at least not while the ball is in play).  The “penalty arc” is specifically defined as the portion of the area ten yards around the penalty mark which is not in the penalty area.  It is rather like the center circle except that only the part of the circle that is outside the penalty area is actually marked.  So, the important things to take away from this are that (a) the penalty arc is not part of the penalty area, (b) the only time anyone cares about the penalty arc and its area is at the taking of a penalty kick, and (c) a goalkeeper handling the ball in this area during play has committed a handball offense.

Not So New Rule

Mark, a coach of older youth players, asks:

I had a Referee tell me that standing in front of the ball to delay a team from taking a free kick is now a yellow card. I can’t find it in the Laws of the Game. What is the rule now?

Answer

There is no “now a yellow card” — it has always been a cardable offense.  It is in the Laws of the Game — see Law 12 (p. 85) and Law 13 (p. 93) in the 2016/20917 edition — and it has been clearly interpreted in various USSF documents (Advice to Referees, for example).  Moreover, it was the partial subject of a recent document issued by the International Board regarding the meaning of several Law changes that occurred in 2016 (“Revision of the Laws of the Game: Questions and Answers”.

Let’s unwrap this and see what is at issue here.  For decades (literally), one of the cautionable offenses which a player could commit was to “fail to respect the required distance” on a free kick (many of us simplify this as the “10-yard rule”) which mandates that all opponents must be at least 10 yards away from the ball (in all directions) on a free kick until it is in play.  Ignore for a moment some of the “ins and outs” of how this is enforced.  The point is that opponents who fail to retire to a point which is at least 10 yards away can be cautioned.  Let’s also agree that “standing in front of the ball” means that this player is closer than 10 yards and is thus committing a violation of the Law which the Law itself declares to be misconduct and worthy of a yellow card.

However, in more recent years, the approach to this issue has become more complex.  While a yellow card for “failing to respect the distance” should not cause anyone any confusion, there has developed the notion that standing in front of the ball is a bit different.  The 2013-2014 version of Advice to Referees put it this way (emphasis in bold added):

13.2 Opponent Attempting to Delay a Free Kick
Opponents engage in a different form of misconduct when they act to delay a free kick. While delay is a byproduct of interfering with the free kick by failing to respect the minimum distance, there is a difference between merely being within ten yards of the restart, which may or may not cause a delay, and using certain ploys which necessarily will result in a delay.

Typical examples of causing a delay in this way are kicking the ball away when a decision has gone against them, picking up the ball and not giving the ball to the attacking team or to the referee, moving to retrieve a ball some distance away and then walking slowly to bring the ball back, and standing so close by the ball as to effectively interfere with all reasonably likely directions for the restart. These ploys must be met with an immediate response because, as a result, a delay is no longer theoretical; it has been forced and the challenge to Law 13 must be dealt with swiftly.

So, the bottom line is this.  It is a cautionable offense to interfere with the taking of a free kick or corner kick by failing to retreat to at least 10 yards away (a similar violation occurs respecting a throw-in but here the minimum distance is two yards).  It is, however, a cautionable offense to delay the restart of play by standing so close to the ball that it blocks the team in possession from kicking the ball in a direction they would want.  Ironically, the team in possession of the restart (which includes every restart except the dropped ball) is also subject to a caution for delaying the restart of play in various ways (e.g., unnecessarily switching the location of the ball on a goal kick or persisting in failing to throw the ball so that it enters the field).

Referee – Coach?

Ian, a youth coach, asks:

Can a Referee coach a team during the game?  If not, which rule does this breach?

Answer

One of the really great things about the Laws of the Game is that it has only a few (17) actual “rules” and is written in such general terms that these rules include a lot of flexibility.  This allows Referees to interpret them (within accepted guidelines) in pursuit of the long-accepted but never-included core objectives of the entire body of rules — safety (of the players), fairness (among the players and between the teams), and enjoyment (of the players and, to a lesser extent, of the spectators).  As soccer (or football, as it is otherwise widely known) grew to become the most popular sport in the world, the actual word count of these Laws has grown: they have gradually become relatively more detailed, more specific, and (while remaining organized in modern times into 17 sections), the Law writers have added definitions, interpretations, information about mechanics and procedures, and advice on such specific important concepts as advantage and offside.

Moreover, we believe the Laws of the Game has always been unique among all the major sports as regards its reliance on tradition.  Sometimes (particularly in the case of participants in the United States) this is frustrating precisely because not everything they need to know is actually in those Laws.  The sport assumes that you will know, understand, and appreciate this.  The question you are asking is one of these things.

There is nothing in the formal Laws — nor in any of the parallel rules governing such variations of the sport as envisioned by NFHS (high school) or NCAA (college) — which would prevent a coach or assistant coach from serving as the Referee or Assistant Referee in a match involving their team, but it just wouldn’t happen.   Oh, it might at a level involving very young players (many games at the U4 – U5 – U6 age level are “officiated” by a parent or coach), or involving such unofficial matches as scrimmages, or if the assigned official fails to arrive (though even here it is more likely that the coaches would identify, if possible, a parent who happened also to be a certified official and who would step in by temporary common agreement to  meet the emergency).

But this is expected to be rare exception to what lies at the heart of the officiating function; namely, that someone needs to be in charge of applying the rules and making decisions affecting what is happening on the field who does not care which team wins.  Everyone else cares — the players certainly, the coaches whose income might depend on the team’s record or who might have a son or daughter on the team, and the spectators who almost always either have a family connection with one or more players or who have paid money to see a favored team play.  The officiating team does not.  Its concern is how the game is played, not who wins, and “how the game is played” is defined by adherence to the Laws of the Game as understood and applied by them in accordance with their training and lack of favoritism.

So, could someone officiate a match involving a team of which they are a coach?  Yes, theoretically, but it would be an implicit violation of the core concept of “Referee neutrality” as to decision-making and outcome.  In fact, this is deemed such a fundamental restriction that it is almost always applied even where there is a degree of separation, as would be the case where the coach/Referee was officiating a game involving a team which that coach/Referee’s team might play some time in the future.

It is often not known or understood that soccer was played for a long time with no Referees at all.  The sport evolved at a time and in a culture where “sportsmanship” was deemed such an important, core, and assumed ingredient in the game that disputes about play were decided by the participants themselves.  Indeed, there were neither coaches nor Referees.  Gradually, this changed with persons being appointed to make decisions about the legality of some event on the field only if the issue could not be decided by the participants and only if the issue were “referred” to these persons (hence the title of that person as “Referee”).  Ultimately, the role of this person developed and solidified into the modern concept of the “Referee” as a neutral, professional, and trained person.  Yet, this development, while implicit in virtually every word in the Laws of the Game, was and remains unwritten.  The closest the sport has come to saying anything on this subject is to be found in the 2016/2017 version of the Laws, early in Law 5 (The Referee): “Decisions will be made to the best of the referee’s ability according to the Laws of the Game and the ‘spirit of the game’ and will be based on the opinion of the referee who has the discretion to take appropriate action within the framework of the Laws of the Game.”

Cards — Must versus Need

Esther, a youth level referee, asks:

Last week I was center Ref for a U12BR game. A Red player was dribbling along near the center circle.  An Orange player came up and did a sliding tackle with both feet from the front. He didn’t contact the player or the ball, but I believed the tackle to be careless given that it was with two feet and was very close to the other player. I whistled and called a DFK for the Red team. I was discussing this with another Ref today and he believes that I should have given a red card to the Orange player because he tackled with both feet. What should the call have been? Should I have given a card?

Answer

We don’t believe in “hard and fast” rules which don’t have a clear, firm basis in the Laws of the Game.  You decided that the tackle was careless and the reasons you offered are relevant.  Given this, a card of any color would have been inappropriate, if for no other reason than that an illegal tackle does not rise to a cautionable level until and unless it is deemed at least reckless.

Apparently, the conversation with “another Red” you related involved someone who thought there was some “hard and fast” rule involving having to give a red card for sliding tackles + both feet.  The common indicators of a cardable tackle do not include “sliding” — what they do include are such things as:

  • the direction of the tackle (because coming from behind or outside the peripheral vision of the player being tackled prevents the victim from being able to prepare for the challenge)
  • coming in at high speed (greater chance of injury)
  • both feet (because a two-footed slide is considered uncontrolled)
  • with cleats exposed (the danger there is obvious)
  • with one or both feet higher than ball height (because it suggests that there was not an attempt to play the ball, plus the inherently greater susceptibility to injury the higher up the leg you go)

The only one of the above criteria you specifically alluded to was the use of both feet and that element is one of the least likely to lead to a card.

But this leads us into another issue and that is the question of whether, all other things being equal, you must give a card under specified circumstances (which brings us back to the “hard and fast” rule business).  There are only six offenses listed in the 2016/2017 version of Law 12 which can draw a caution and seven offenses leading to a red card.  Some are very specific, some are couched in general terms.  Once you decide that what you have seen is, in your opinion, one of these thirteen offenses, a card is expected (not giving one would require a persuasive rationale) but the real decision is whether what you saw fit the offense.  It may or may not,  Or, even more commonly, it might fit … and if it only “might,” then what do you use to decide?  The answer is “does this behavior need a card?”  For the good of the player, the good of the other players, the good of this game (the one going on right now), or the good of the sport?  We know you don’t think you asked this particular question but, really, you did when you said “Should I have given a card?”

Goalkeepers and Their Lapses

Jeff, an adult/pro referee, asks:

Blue is attacking on goal. The Red keeper makes a save. The Blue attacker is on the bye line [goal line]. The Red keeper releases the ball to ground and prepares to pass the ball out to a teammate. The Blue attacker comes off the bye line and runs in front of the keeper, steals the ball and strikes the ball into the goal. Goal or no goal?

Answer

Goal.

We are uncomfortable stopping with one-word answers so here follows an explanation.  Answering this question is dependent on the issue of when the goalkeeper released the ball into play (i.e., gave up possession) because we know from Law 12 (p. 83 in the 2016/2017 version of the Laws of the Game) that “a goalkeeper cannot be challenged by an opponent when in control of the ball with the hands.”  Just above this summary statement is a list of factors to take into account in deciding when or if a goalkeeper is in possession of the ball.  By tradition and general consensus, a goalkeeper cannot be challenged not only while in possession but also while in the process of giving up possession.  The first is easily observed and accounted for but the issue of “process of giving up possession” is  usually defined as including the act of releasing the ball from the hands while preparing to kick it.  Placing the ball on the ground is giving up possession the moment the ball makes contact with the ground.  Tossing the ball forward in the air and kicking it is not giving up possession until the actual kick occurs (or the ball makes contact with the ground).

Does this mean an opponent can fine tune when to launch a challenge so that it occurs at the very moment the ball touches the ground or is kicked?  No, because there is a further provision in Law 12 that it is an indirect free kick offense if an opponent “prevents the goalkeeper from releasing the ball … or kicks or attempts to kick the ball when the goalkeeper is in the process of releasing it” (p. 82).   In practice, therefore, an opponent close enough to attempt contact with the ball at the moment a goalkeeper sets it on the ground or the moment the tossed ball is kicked while still in the air is also close enough to be considered as interfering with the goalkeeper’s release of the ball into play.  How close is too close?  This is in the opinion of the referee and must take into account, among other things, the age and experience level of the players.

From the scenario, it would appear that the opponent got behind the keeper in the normal course of play, the goalkeeper gained and then released the ball into play by placing it on the ground in preparation for a pass, and the goalkeeper was surely surprised when the hidden opponent legally challenged for and won the ball.  The subsequent goal must have been particularly galling.

Substitutes Misbehaving

Mick, an adult/pro referee, asks:

A substitute comes onto the field of play without the Ref’s permission and prevents a goal by kicking the ball out of the penalty area.  What is the decision of the Ref with the new interpretations of the laws?

Answer

For the very first time, the Laws of the Game provide for a direct free kick or a penalty kick if a person other than a player commits an offense.  In this case, we have a substitute illegally entering the field of play and interfering by kicking the ball away from a location within the penalty area.  Since no goal was scored, the remedy is found in Law 3, section 7 (if a goal had been scored, we would used the remedies provided in Section 9).  Summarizing the specified remedy, 12.7 requires that, since there had been interference, play must be stopped and resumed with a direct free kick or a penalty kick.  Since the interference was inside the penalty area, the restart would be a penalty kick for the opposing team (we are presuming that the invading substitute was from the defending team since it would make little sense for an attacking team substitute to have kicked the ball away).

We have the restart now but what about misconduct?  Let’s assume for the moment (though the specifically relevant elements of an OGSO scenario are completely missing from the question’s scenario) that we are, in fact, dealing with an OGSO.  Unfortunately, even so, things are a bit murky and what follows is an unofficial interpretation and recommendation until such time (if any) that the IFAB clarifies the matter.  We know that the invading substitute is subject to a caution (illegally entering the field) but is he or she subject to a red card for OGSO?  We would have to report that the answer is unclear.  Law 12 states that “a player, substitute or substituted player” who commits any of the following offenses is sent off and then lists 7 violations, the second one of which is “denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity” so one would think that the answer would be, yes, the substitute could be shown a red card for kicking the ball out of the penalty area.

There are two problems with this red card.  First, the OGSO card must arise from the commission of an offense punishable by a free kick “(unless as outlined below)” and what is “below” is a section of Law 12 which provides that an OGSO misconduct is not punished with a red card unless the offense is “holding, pulling or pushing” (which isn’t what happened) or the substitute “does not attempt to play the ball” (which he most assuredly does attempt, and succeeds) or the offense is one that would be “punishable by a red card wherever it occurs on the field” (it isn’t).  Exactly what offense did the substitute commit?  Only one — illegally entering the field.  Kicking the ball is not itself an offense … and certainly not one that would earn a red card if committed anywhere on the field.  Second, the section providing a more detailed explanation of an OGSO red card refers only to a player, not a substitute.  And, as noted, this might not even be an OGSO situation in the first place if it is decided that merely kicking the ball is not an offense and/or not against an opponent (as opposed to, say, tripping or holding an opponent).

Now we move to a bit of speculation.  Suppose the Referee decided that the substitute, while being on the field illegally, has committed unsporting behavior misconduct which is cautionable.  Would this be unreasonable?  What is included in “unsporting behavior”?  According to Law 12, one example of unsporting behavior is “shows a lack of respect for the game” which would seem to provide a great deal of flexibility and might well include merely kicking the ball.  If so, then the Referee could show the invading substitute a yellow card for illegally entering the field, a yellow card for unsporting behavior, a red card for having received a second yellow card … followed by a penalty kick restart.

As the French might say, “Voila!”

Abandoning a Match

A youth referee asks:

Can the Ref abandon the match and not tell the coaches? Had a situation where the Ref said that, in his eyes, the match was over after a parent and coach came on the pitch to stop two kids fighting then ended up fighting themselves. The Ref never blew for full time but said to the other coach it’s finished anyway. Now in his report he is saying he abandoned the game but did not tell anyone this. Can he do this?  I am a a Ref myself and don’t know.

Answer

Not wishing to be flippant but the obvious answer is, yes, he can do this … because he did it.  And we’re not sure how the Referee could do anything more to signal that the match has been terminated beyond leaving the field himself.

On a more serious note, the referee is given the authority to terminate a match due to what used to be called “grave disorder” — which means any events on or around the field which would cause the Referee to be concerned about the ongoing safety of the players or the officiating team based on actions by the players, substitutes, team officials, and/or spectators.  By the way, the Law no longer distinguishes between “abandoning” a match or “terminating” a match — the terms are used interchangeably.  There is no particular need to blow the whistle to announce this but, in practice, the whistle has usually already being blown (perhaps numerous times!) in response to the events which eventually resulted in the decision to terminate the game (in this case, the start of the players fighting).

Just based on the information provided, it would seem that termination would not be considered an incorrect response to (a) players fighting, (b) a coach and a parent entering the field illegally (which would be the case if the Referee didn’t explicitly give them permission to enter) and (c) then themselves fighting.  That would definitely be a “hostile environment” not conducive to trying to get the teams back onto the field after removing the fighters and expecting the teams to play peacefully.  It might have been useful to officially notify both teams that the match was being terminated with a simple statement that the decision was required based on a concern for everyone’s safety.  Neither is required.

Anytime the Referee ends a match via termination (or abandonment), full details must be included in the match report.  Further, most leagues, tournaments, referee coordinators, or assignors appreciate a quick telephone call or email message alerting them to the likelihood of further “discussion” about what happened.

Coach in Trouble

A Premier League coach from an Asian country asks:

[Revised and summarized]  I’m the Assistant Coach in a Premier League for one of the Asian countries. We had an eventful match last week. Around minute 65, an opposing player made a very harsh tackle against my team’s striker and created a very heated situation involving both teams. I felt the Referee did not control the situation and I ran onto the field to help him control things. The situation became more heated when the Referee only gave a yellow card for the tackle. After the game, I approached the Referee and said ” Hi Referee —  it should be a red card — come on Referee. I hope next time you can make a better decision.” I didn’t use any vulgar words. However, the Referee wrote in his match report that I pulled his hand and used vulgar words towards him. How can I defend myself when there was no video evidence showing either of these things? I was fined by my football federation. How can I defend myself?

Answer

We’re sorry that this occurred and that you feel the punishment you received was not justified.  Unfortunately, there is no way we can assist you either generally or in particular.  We cannot comment on what goes on in other countries, much less on what is essentially an internal administrative matter.  What punishments are assessed after a game is over are outside the scope of the Laws of the Game, particularly where it involves a coach.

What we can say, however, it that you should not have come onto the field “to help [the Referee] to control things” unless you were actually given permission by the Referee to do so.  This would be considered a violation of Law 3 if a player had done it and, if done by a team official (which, as an assistant coach, you are), could be the basis for a dismissal from the field for “irresponsible behavior.”  It is also the case that having any conversation with members of the officiating team after a match is over — particularly if the conversation goes beyond how nice the weather was — is not a good idea.  First, nothing you might say would likely educate the Referee.  Second, you might in fact be wrong.  Third, even if right, immediately following a difficult, heated match, is not a conducive time for “educating” anyone (I’m sure you would agree were the situations reversed and the Referee wanted to talk to you about your coaching strategy!).  We Referees have a saying, “if you don’t want the coach to referee, don’t try to coach the players” and it applies here as well.

Finally, coming onto the field as you did, with the conversation not being documented by film or sound recording, merely sets up a “he said/did, no I didn’t say/do” debate which, on balance, will usually be decided in favor of the Referee.  We cannot comment directly regarding your federation but our experience has been that there are almost always channels for filing complaints after the match using official forms and giving everyone a chance to cool down at least a bit.  Most such opportunities provide for responses and offers of proof or extenuating circumstances.

While we can’t help in your case, we hope that all team officials will take note of our advice here and respond to similar situations accordingly.