Blocked Responses

To Our Readers:

As many of you know, we sometimes respond directly to a question rather than posting a formal recitation of the question together with our answer.  There are many reasons for this which aren’t relevant to the purpose of this notice.  We are finding the increasing use of e-mail security protocols which do not allow a response back to the original e-mailer without going through some sort of background check.  In other words, we receive a reply that you have instituted this security measure to protect yourselves against unwanted messages.

We understand this and sympathize.  However, if you have done this and not pre-approved this email address so that our direct reply to you will not be accepted unless and until we go through some sort of approval process, please be aware that we are not going to pursue the matter further.  As a result, you will not hear back from us directly because we have neither the time nor the inclination to go through this.  It’s not because we don’t like you or are ignoring you, it’s because you have blocked us out from replying and we are not willing to take the additional time, given the volume of our email traffic, to navigate through your security system.

In short, if you use such a system, you will not receive a reply from us no matter how fascinating we find your question (unless it rises to the level of broad general interest and thus needing to be published on this site).

On the Ground

Jonathan, a HS and College coach, asks:

A defending player and an attacking player are challenging for the ball. Defending player is fairly tackled and falls on the ball. Defending player remains on top of the ball, intentionally shielding the ball. Attacking player kicks at ball, hitting defending player in the midsection and ribs repeatedly (three or four forceful kicks) until the referee blows the whistle to stop play. What foul(s) have been committed? What is the appropriate restart?

Answer

This is a grayish area.

In a dangerous play situation (which has always included scenarios in which a player is laying on the ball, or has the ball tangled on, under, or between his/her legs while on the ground),  the application of the Law depends significantly on (a) the age/experience of the players and (b) the specific sequence of events.

The simplest one is when a player covers the ball, thus preventing a safe attack by an opponent to gain possession of the ball by an opponent, but the player quickly gets up and resumes playing the ball and is thus open to being challenged legally.  No offense has occurred.

A slightly more complex situation is when the player lays on the ball and makes little or no attempt to get up but there is an opponent close enough to gain possession but deigns not to do so in the interests of the player’s safety.  If this continues for more than several seconds without any apparent good cause (e.g., the player is entirely unmoving and possibly injured, in which case play should be stopped immediately to deal with the injury), the player who is unfairly withholding the ball from challenge is called for dangerous play and play resumes with an IFK.

At the next level, a player is on the ground and is given no reasonable time to recover or to otherwise permit safe play but an opponent begins challenging dangerously — which would certainly be the case in your scenario (“hitting the defending player in the midsection and ribs repeatedly”).  The referee’s action should be swift and firm.  It should be taken upon the very first attempt to kick.  If this were done, the dangerous play offense would simply be called against the upright (but not upstanding!) opponent and an IFK for the downed player’s team would be the restart.

By not moving quickly to defuse the situation, the opponent has in fact not been discouraged from committing a direct free kick offense (kicking) which would, additionally, be deemed at least reckless (yellow) and more likely involving excessive force (red).

The younger the players, the more the application of “dangerous play” favors dealing quickly and aggressively with either the player on the ground deemed not injured to discourage any attempt by an opponent to launch an attack or the opponent who does not allow a reasonable amount of time for the player on the ground to recover before engaging in an unsafe attempt to challenge for the ball.

In your specific scenario, the player on the ground was intentionally (and therefore illegally) withholding the ball from a safe challenge.  However, the opponent also took the situation out of the Referee’s hands by not allowing sufficient time for the Referee to decide if (a) the player was injured or (b) was in fact intentionally withholding the ball from play.  The result was a series of reckless or, more likely, excessively forceful attacks on the player on the ground (which would have been just as illegal if the player hadn’t been on the ground!).  The Referee must consider the possibility that he or she had not been sufficiently “on top” of the situation to prevent either the initial dangerous play offense or the subsequent direct free kick foul and likely send-off.  The restart, of course, is the direct free kick because, when fouls are committed simultaneously, the restart is determined by the more serious offense (see Law 5.3, Disciplinary Action, 1st bullet point).

Excessive Delays

Jose, an adult amateur fan, asks:

We were playing a game, winning 1-0.  Of course, every time the ball went out, we took our time getting it.  The Referee kept stopping his watch.  We argued that he shouldn’t stop it every single time but he said we were walking too slow on purpose to get the ball.  So, as soon as I did the next throw-in, one of players in my team just kicked it as far as he could.  The Referee gave him a yellow card.  We argued that the ball was in play and he could kick it anywhere he wanted.  Was he right?

Answer

Yes … and no.  Where and how a ball is played is generally solely a matter of team tactics and usually does not constitute an offense.  Having said that, however, a team in possession of the ball for a restart (other than kick-off, penalty kick, or drop ball – all of which are controlled entirely by the referee), a team is not allowed to delay the restart of play (which is why we are amused by your statement that “Of course … we took our time.”).  That’s why there is a specific caution for “delaying the restart of play” but “delay” is an imprecise word that depends on (you guessed it) the opinion of the referee.  On a free kick, for example, a team generally has the right to perform the restart as quickly as it wants – even with opponents closer than the minimum 10 yards required by Law 13 – but it could also request the referee to take some extra time to enforce the minimum distance.  That would be a delay but one that is acceptable under the Law.

In the same situation, however, an opponent could run right up to the ball and stand a foot or so away from it, thus preventing the free kick.  This is a clear example of delaying the restart of play and should result in an immediate caution.  In the case of a throw-in restart, the ball has obviously left the field and needs to be retrieved (since most recreational youth and adult amateur games do not use “ball-boys” who simply feed a new ball to the throwing team).  If an opponent started to retrieve the ball and wasted time doing so, that would be a clear violation and would earn a caution, but what if the throwing team “took its time” going to get the ball by walking slowly, picking daisies on the way, wiping the ball to clean it, stopping for conversations, etc.?  Now it is up to the referee to decide if the ball retrieval is “normal” (meaning enough, but no more than enough, time to perform the task) or whether it was being done to waste time, particularly if doing so was clearly for the purpose of gaining an unfair advantage.  If so, then that becomes cautionable as “delaying the restart of play” – though USSF referee training stresses the wisdom of informing the delaying player/team when it starts to happen that the delay is unacceptable with the threat of a card implicit if it continues and/or is repeated.  Subsequent additional warnings are not required.

There are two problems with this.  First is the simple fact that punishing for delaying the restart of play doesn’t change the fact that the delay occurred and, worse, that the imposition of the punishment itself eats up some more time.  Second is whether the local rules/customs of competition allow for the addition of time to offset unacceptable delays (both those caused by external events such as weather or injuries as well as by a team wishing to chew up time for its own unsporting purposes).  In tournaments, particularly, it is not uncommon to advise participating Referees that “adding time” is seriously discouraged except in such extreme cases as serious injuries even though the Laws of the Game allow it.  Referees  have to accept the rules in place if they accept the assignment – if something is sufficiently unacceptable, they should refuse to accept the game.

The point here, though, is that the referee can only punish unfair and excessive delay but he or she cannot prevent it, at least not without cautioning his or her way through every player on the offending team and then by starting over giving second cautions (resulting in a red card) for those who continue to commit the offense.  To the extent possible in accordance with the Laws of the Game, the referee can also thwart the purpose of time wasting restarts by adding compensatory time to the end of the half in which this is occurring (which, not surprisingly is also when most of the time wasting itself occurs).

By the way, most experienced referees have learned that it is not a good idea to stop their watch for such delays – it is far too easy to forget that you have done so until the next time you look at your watch and discover that it was never restarted!  So, the lesson here is to focus on excessive delays, on delays which appear to have a tactical and unfair purpose, warn first that you understand what is going on and that it is not acceptable, use your authority to add time for the period of excessive delay (if the local rules allow), and then prepare to follow through with the appropriate punishment.  Remember, however, that the target is excessive delays.  Soccer, despite its emphasis on constant, continuous action, has lots of “down time” – actual match data has determined that a 90 minute game may often have no more than roughly 60-65 minutes of real playing time (i.e., the ball is in motion on the field).  And kicking the ball hard off the field to lengthen the amount of time it might take to retrieve it is not by itself an offense – if the other team is concerned about it, it can post supporters around the field to retrieve balls or have a supply of extra balls (all inspected and pre-approved by the referee) at their team bench or just off the field behind their net which they can immediately offer to the referee to assist in getting play restarted.

Goalkeepers — Ready or Not

Marc H, a U13 – U19 coach, asks:

When a free kick is given and the kicker asks for the Referee to give him the required distance for defenders (10 yards in a regulation match), does the Referee take into consideration the goalkeeper setting up the wall and being ready before the Referee blows the whistle to put the ball in play? I’ve seen circumstances where the Referee blows the whistle and the keeper Is still setting up his wall. Is there any consideration to the keeper in this case?

Answer:

Short answer – none whatsoever.

Goalkeepers think they are special – and in some respects they are (it is a dangerous job after all) – but in this case the goalkeeper is taking a risk by his involvement.  Here’s the main point.  Asking that the minimum distance be enforced converts the restart from a quick to a ceremonial event.  By definition, the referee is the only person who must be involved and her only function here is to signal the restart when she is satisfied the minimum distance enforcement task is finished – i.e., the 10 yards is achieved.

The referee is not and cannot be concerned about any opponent not being where some other opponent thinks is not optimum.  In other words, it is the Referee who sets the wall, not any defender (much less the goalkeeper).  It is a simple matter of applying the Law and the Law is only concerned about a minimum of ten yards in every direction.  If there is any opinion by a defender that a teammate, while not closer than ten yards, isn’t in the “right place,” the problem is not the referee’s.  If a goalkeeper is sufficiently concerned that teammates are not where he wants them that he is prepared to be out of position to defend against a free kick, that’s his problem.

We feel safe in observing that the first time such a goalkeeper is scored against because he wasn’t where he was supposed to be, his coach will make the lesson clear.

The Law Is (Generally) Genderless

Kai, a U13 – U19 Referee, asks:

I’ve got a general question about girls and hand ball offenses when players cross their arms to cover their chests. Is there a rule of thumb? I’ve had more experienced referees give me directly conflicting guidance on whether they’d whistle it or not. (Speaking specifically here about a U14 game, but general question applies.) Thanks.

Answer

We try to avoid directly distinguishing between genders when it comes to the Laws of the Game.  There is no “rule of thumb” – the rule applies to all five fingers and the arm up to the shoulder joint (insert smiling emoji here).  Both by general interpretation and, since the 2016-2017 Laws of the Game, by more explicit guidance, a handling offense should not be called if the contact was:

  • not deliberate
  • not a “hand-to-ball” situation
  • not and could not be expected due to the speed of and/or short distance from the launching of the ball
  • entirely defensive (i.e., an involuntary response to perceived danger to any part of the body that could be painfully harmed by contact with the ball)

and the player does not, after contact judged to be not illegal by these guidelines, subsequently clearly attempt to direct the ball.

Note that the 4th bullet point expressly makes no mention of differences between genders.  It is the Referee’s responsibility (particularly given the emphasis on safety underlying the Laws of the Game) to determine if protecting any specific body part is reasonable.  We, ourselves and personally, have at least a half dozen important body parts that we would unhesitatingly seek to protect.  Your mileage may differ.

By the way, we are sure most Referees have heard the expression “feel the foul” — they should also try to “feel the pain.”

Injuries

Dave, a HS and College referee, asks:

In a high school soccer match, a defensive player is hit in the face with the ball 30 yards from their goal. The ball pops over her head towards the goal. An attacker gains possession. Before the injured player sits down, her teammates rush over to her which gives an attacker a 1 v 1 with the goalie. The attacker scores a goal. This happens in the span of 5-10 seconds. Should the referee have stopped play for an injury before the goal was scored? (The play had continued a safe distance from the injured player.)

Do you typically wait a few seconds before stopping play for an injury when the ball is not near the injured player? The AR said the goal should be disallowed because the players were inexperienced and ran over to the injured teammate instead of defending their goal.

Answer

With as much emphasis that has been expressed in recent years regarding the importance of dealing quickly with potential concussion injuries, we are surprised that any referee would allow play to continue even seconds following a player being struck in the face with the ball.  It doesn’t matter when in the game it occurs, it doesn’t matter where on the field it occurs, it doesn’t matter what is going on in the game when it occurs. it doesn’t matter if the injured player “sits down” – play must be stopped immediately and medical assistance for the player called onto the field without delay.  No matter what happens after the decision is made to stop play, play has officially stopped – remember, play stops when the referee makes the decision to stop, not when the signal to stop is given.

Of course the goal should have been disallowed and any player who scored the goal should weigh her happiness at gaining a goal against the possibility that it might easily have been her face that had been struck by the ball.  There is no difference whatsoever regarding this issue among the three major sets of rules governing the game because (a) every soccer organization is equally concerned about the issue of concussions and (b) it is a simple common sense emphasis on safety.

We don’t care who might get upset (if anyone actually does, shame on them!), if the referee announces that, Oh by the way, the goal does not count because I stopped play before the ball went into the net … and then glare fiercely at anyone who might want to dispute the decision.  It has nothing to do with the experience level of the players – common decency alone would draw the attention of both attackers and defenders alike to the injured player.   And there is no weight whatsoever to the idea that “play had continued a safe distance from the injured player,” in fact what constitutes a “safe distance” anyway?  Far enough away that you could ignore the condition of the injured player?  Let’s get real here.

Freedom, Honor, Safety, and Jewelry

Fred, a U13 – U19 referee, asks:

A recreational youth player wearing religious headgear that covers her ears is questioned by the referee during the pre-match player equipment inspection,  She states that she is not wearing any ear rings but is unwilling to show her ears or remove the head gear. The referee decides that the player cannot participate because he can not prove she is not wearing Jewelry.

Law 4 states a player must submit for inspection, right ? If so should a referee require a player to lift their shirt to check for belly piercings?  How far should a referee go to discover uniform infractions in the pre-game?

Answer

We don’t wish to seem pretentious or to engage in pontification (OK, too late), but this is an extraordinarily important question because it involves the intersection of personal safety, freedom, and honor.  Let’s start with some basics.

First, Law 4 does not state that “a player must submit for inspection.”  It merely states that the wearing of jewelry (with certain very limited exceptions) is not permitted.  Everything else is procedures and mechanics.  For example, we personally get very irritated with referees who demand that players on a team line up and engage in some ludicrous Irish dance move where they must display the soles of their footwear and then tap on their shins.  This is rather like being “penny wise and pound foolish” because it focuses on two specific things — illegal cleats (which are, for kids, almost vanishingly rare) and shinguards (the existence of which is easily determined by simply looking).  Slapping the shins may demonstrate that the player has rhythm but does little to determine if the player has age-appropriate shinguards — which is far more likely a violation than not having shinguards at all.

Second, why no jewelry?  Because it is a safety issue and that makes it important enough to be diligent in ensuring that Law 4 is followed.  But, again, there are limits.  The most common, easily understandable, and briefest definition of “inspect” is “to look at” — not uncover, probe, dig into, or discover.  We personally experienced, early in our refereeing career, a match at the start of which it was easily confirmable by casual visual inspection that there was no jewelry being worn by anyone on either team.  It rained and, as a result, thin white cotton jerseys became stuck to the skin and somewhat semi-transparent, which in turn made unavoidably obvious the fact that one of the players was wearing an item of navel (not naval) jewelry.  With this new awareness, the referee advised the player that he/she (we’re being ambiguous here) could not continue to play while wearing the jewelry.  Did anyone complain that this could have been avoided if the referee had just required all the players to bare their midriffs before the start of the game?  No.  And, in any event, that would potentially have the effect of implicitly recognizing that there are far more places than the navel for jewelry (thus leading down a path which we refuse to follow).

Your responsibility for safety issues raised by Law 4 has practical limitations that do not cover forcing, without evidence, a player to reveal otherwise lawfully covered places — i.e., it does not include doing searches that ordinarily would require a warrant.

Look at what can be seen.  Require clear and reasonable evidence that something not permitted may be deliberately hidden.  The specific facts here are a bit more complicated by the fact that the player was wearing an item of religious belief.  This is not even remotely similar to seeing a piece of tape over an ear lobe.  The tape is (a) prima facie evidence of a violation and (b) a violation in and of itself.  Seeing it requires you to ask if it is covering anything (which usually elicits a positive response based on the common misconception that merely covering whatever is underneath makes it OK) and, if the answer is negative, then the player is advised that there should be no problem in removing it.  If there is nothing underneath but a hole where a stud had been taken out, then allow the player to put the tape back on because then it is merely, in effect, a bandage covering a wound.

In the case of the religious headgear, there are numerous, sensible options other than declaring that the player cannot play because she cannot remove the headgear and thus prove that she doesn’t have anything illegal underneath it.  Whatever happened to “innocent until proven guilty”?  No player can ever, short of entirely disrobing, prove that he/she is not wearing anything illegal.  What’s wrong with taking her word for it?  It seems more likely to us that a player with sufficient character to be wearing something that otherwise draws attention is not likely to lie about jewelry.  Or you could ask the player’s coach to attest to the absence of jewelry and note this in your game report.  Frankly, doing either of these last two things would bring far more honor to the officiating profession.

Advantage Dynamics

Michael, an adult amateur player, asks:

If there is a foul by attacking team A against Team B inside Team B’s own penalty area and the ball falls to another player on Team B who is also in the same penalty area but Team B immediately lose possession and Team A scores, is the Referee correct to say that they played an advantage?  I would estimate that the goal was scored within 5 seconds of the foul occurring – the fouled player was still on the floor. The Referee’s argument is that Team B received an advantage but I would argue that the ball is so far from the other goal that it doesn’t make sense to play advantage here especially as possession was conceded so quickly and in such a dangerous area.

Answer

You are entirely correct.

The guideline on advantage is pretty clear (or at least as clear as the International Board wants to get).  Once the advantage is given (measured from when the referee makes the decision mentally, not from when he or she announces the decision), the team that was fouled – as represented by the player who was fouled and/or any teammates who are able to gain possession of the ball after the foul occurred, have “a few seconds” to gain and/or maintain what USSF has called “continuation of a credible attack on the opposing team’s goal.”  This is NOT defined as a goal, but as a credible attack on the goal.  This is usually, traditionally, and widely measured as 2-3 seconds.  If the attack is maintained for longer than this time, it is assumed that the advantage was properly exercised by the team which was fouled and, thereafter, it is as though the foul had not happened (though any misconduct – e.g., a caution for recklessness – must be taken care of no later than the next stoppage).  If the advantage was not gained and/or maintained for at least that length of time, the referee stops play and returns to the original offense, deals with misconduct (if any), and restarts correctly based on the offense.

However, and in your scenario it is a BIG however, the practical definition of “credible attack” includes as one of the key requirements “distance to the goal” meaning that the farther away the foul is from the goal being attacked by the team that was fouled, the less likely advantage should even be given.  A very rough, unofficial, and unscientific approximation of “distance” is that advantage should rarely (we try to avoid saying “never” but this is very close) be given in the defending third of the field, roughly 50-50 in the middle third, actively looking for the other advantage elements in the attacking third, and always given but never announced within the penalty area (where “credible” is replaced with “an almost certain goal with at most one play following the foul”).

The fact that possession by the team which committed the foul was so quickly regained suggests two things – (1) that “2-3 seconds” is only a rule of thumb normally based on the foul being no farther away from the goal of the team that committed the foul than the middle third of the field and thus there wasn’t even time to  give advantage OR (2) advantage is given to team B who clearly did not have the requisite “several seconds” to maintain a credible attack on Team A’s goal (which was almost a full field length away), so you whistle the original foul.  Either way, restart play with Team B in possession and justice is served.

Player Shenanigans

Abdikidar, an adult amateur Referee, asks 2 questions:

1. A GK passes a goalkick to his teammate within the penalty area more than 3 times so what would be the punishment and a referee call?
2. A player went to the fan area for his opponents and, while inside the field after the halftime break, removed his shorts exposing his underwear while jeering them.  What should the referee do to that player?

Answer

Question 1: I assume that the “3 times” is because each time the referee understood that the goal kick must be retaken because the ball was not properly put into play.  If this unsuccessful restart occurs 3 times, the referee should caution whoever did the third kick (regardless of whoever did it either of the first two times) for “delaying the restart of play.”  The intelligent referee, after the 2nd unsuccessful goal kick, would have warned the third kicker that the 2nd attempt was an unfair delay of the restart and, if it happened again, he “would deal with it” (don’t get any more specific than that).  The really intelligent referee would also evaluate the circumstances of the first unsuccessful attempt and, if the delay under those circumstances appeared to favor the kicking team (e.g., a favorable score for them with little time remaining), give this warning after the 1st unsuccessful kick and caution if it happened again.  Finally, this approach should be used even in situations where the second or third unsuccessful kick wasn’t on the same restart (i.e., this happened on a goal kick at the 88th minute and then happened again less than a minute later).

Question 2 : Caution immediately for unsporting behavior (showing a lack of respect for the game).