Cards — When and When Not

Wade, a High School and College referee, asks:

So, I am seeing different answers for this all over.  Can a referee give a red card before the match starts? It says “disciplinary action” in the Law so does that constitute a Red Card if, say, two players on the same team start punching each other?

Wade then quotes from Law 5 the following:

• has the authority to take disciplinary action from entering the field of play for the pre-match inspection until leaving the field of play after the match ends (including kicks from the penalty mark). If, before entering the field of play at the start of the match, a player commits a sending-off offence, the referee has the authority to prevent the player taking part in the match

Answer

It’s very simple – you just have to understand the mind of the International Board.  Our best advice is to “read” the language of the Law as plainly as possible.  Also note that you may have to “unlearn” what you were taught many years ago because the quote above and the explanation below are based on a fairly recent (2016-2017) change in the Laws of the Game.

What comes out at the end is this … the referee’s authority to discipline starts from when he/she enters the area of the field of play and continues until he/she leaves the area of the field of play.  That authority extends to dismissing a player before the game actually begins (i.e., opening whistle) but no actual red card is shown (note the Board’s careful language — “prevent the player taking part in the match”).  The team does not play down under these circumstances because the team can simply replace the player with a substitute from the roster (without triggering any limits under Law 3 on the number of substitutions allowed – if, that is, the game actually follows the substitutions requirements of Law 3, which very few actually do).  However, the team now has one fewer substitute available for use because, under IFAB rules, someone cannot be added to a team’s roster once the roster is given to the referee.  From the opening whistle and continuing through to the end of the match (including any tie-breaking procedures), both red and yellow cards can be given but not afterward (read the bullet point that comes immediately after the one you quoted).  On the other hand, the Laws of the Game specifically provide for the referee to include in his/her match report all misconduct, both before and after the match (at least up to the time the referee leaves the area of the field), as well as of course all misconduct occurring during the match.

The problem with these otherwise clear, clean, and easily administered requirements is that they assume a type of game which is different from, roughly, more than 95% of all games played in the US (and this already excludes games played under NFHS/NCAA rules).  Go out to almost any park field for a youth/competitive game or any adult amateur game and you will seldom find such formality.  So, you improvise.  Suppose you don’t have a roster?  Suppose the local rule is that the team has until halftime to get a roster to you? Suppose a player strikes another player just as you are being handed the roster?  Suppose you have been assigned to a game where the local competition authority expects you to show cards for all misconduct whenever it occurs?  And just exactly what constitutes the “area of the field”?  For a stadium, it’s easy.  For anything else, not so much.  Suppose you are the AR on a 9am game and, just as it ends, you see a player who has arrived at the area of the field for an 11am game for which you are the referee and that player strikes one of the players who is exiting the field from the game which just concluded?

Despite all of this, however, the formal expectation of the Laws of the Game is simple.  You now know exactly what to do if you are refereeing an MLS match; otherwise, try to get close to the intent of the Law but do the best you can.

Simultaneous Offenses on a Penalty Kick

Reuben, a U13 – U19 referee, asks:

Law 14 has a specific provision for what happens if the goalkeeper and the kicker commit an offense at the same time. I am having difficulty understanding how this could occur, namely what the kicker’s offense might be (other than illegal feinting, which is separately dealt with). Is there a particular situation this provision is intended to address? Please advise.

Answer

Alert reader Keith caught an error in the original version of this answer.  It has been corrected.  Thanks.

We think you are either reading it incorrectly or asking the wrong question (or both).  The section to which you are referring specifically has to do with the kicker’s offense of feinting after the whistle but at the moment of the kick and the goalkeeper’s offense of coming off the line before the ball is in play.

The section basically breaks down into (a) here is what you do if the kicker offends, (b) here is what you do if the goalkeeper offends, and (c) here is what you do if both offend.  If (c) is what happened, then (1), if there was a goal, you restart with an IFK and caution the kicker; but (2), if there was no goal (which means ANY outcome other than the ball going into the net), you retake the PK and caution both the kicker and the goalkeeper.

This scenario was newly introduced to the Law in 2017-2018 and repeated in 2018-2019 without any changes or clarifications so the only conclusion to reach from this is that what it says is exactly what the International Board intended.  For any who might suggest that they don’t understand it, the language is very clear (see above).  For any who might suggest that it makes no sense and why did they specify it this way rather than some other way, the only conclusion we can reach for this is that what it says is exactly what the International Board intended … and they outrank us all.

Interesting DOGSO Complexities

Anthony, a High School and College referee, asks:

I have a scenario and am interested in the correct interpretation:
A6 is in Team B’s penalty area in an offside position.  A Team A teammate passes her the ball. The defending  goalie fouls A6 in a reckless manner in pursuit of the ball.  Wondering if the offside takes precedence or if the foul takes precedence? Does the interpretation change if the ref blows the whistle for offside before the goalie fouls the attacker in the box because now it is a dead-ball foul?

Answer

You’ve already recognized the core issue in the scenario but didn’t explore it.  Let’s clear away some underbrush first.  There is no “precedence” here.  It’s not a matter of hierarchy but timing.   What happened first?  That is what determines precedence here.  It also doesn’t matter when the referee whistles — play is considered to have stopped when the referee makes a decision and the only question that matters is what was it that caused the referee to stop play.  The reason for the stoppage occurred during play … anything after that happened when play was stopped.

Now we can get to unraveling the core issues (yes, issues because there are several of them).

Remember, an offside position is not an offside offense by itself so the referee needs to sort out whether there was an actual offside offense before the goalie’s action or whether, in fact, the goalie’s action actually prevented an offside offense from occurring.  Also, your scenario doesn’t identify the specific foul the goalie committed recklessly — e.g., tackle, charge, kick, push, trip, etc.  This is will be important later on.

As we said, the initial decision as to which came first is critical because it directly impacts the restart.  If an offside offense (e.g., the attacker in an offside position interfered with play by making contact with the ball, or interfered with an opponent) occurred first, then the Law provides for an IFK restart at the offense location for the goalie’s team (prior to which the goalie is cautioned for USB for what he/she did to the attacker).

If there was no offside offense or if the referee determines that the goalie’s reckless DFK foul occurred first, then the restart would be a PK for the attacking team because the first decision automatically stopped play at that moment , determined the restart, and negated any apparent offside offense that might have occurred afterward.  In this case, there is a second decision to be faced.

The second decision is whether, given all the facts and circumstances, the goalie’s foul denied an OGSO.  If all the OGSO requirements were not present, then that’s the end of the story.  PK, and the GK still gets cautioned for the reckless action.

If all the OGSO requirements are met, then there is a third decision that has to be faced and that is whether the GK’s action, recklessness aside, constituted a valid attempt to play the ball (your phrasing “in pursuit of the ball” is not specific enough and could include either a realistic play of the ball or the goalie was merely in pursuit of a ball which, at the moment of the reckless foul, was too far away to be realistically playable by the goalie).  If the goalie’s action was a realistic play of the ball (performed without violence), then the PK stands but, despite the OGSO, the goalie is only cautioned.

However, if there was not a realistic attempt to play the ball (and here the earlier question about what the foul was becomes important because the Law considers such fouls as holding, pulling, pushing, or tripping from behind with the ball on the other side of the player being tripped as not attempts to play the ball), then there is the PK but the goalie is sent off and his/her team plays down.

Interfering with the Goalkeeper

Michael, an adult amateur player, asks:

When a goalkeeper has the ball in his hands and goes to kick it down field, can an opposing striker block the ball? Especially if they are outside the box?

Answer

Your scenario is a bit unclear.  If by “they” you mean both the goalkeeper and the striker and if by “outside the box” you mean outside the penalty area(as opposed to the goal area), then the solution is easy — the goalkeeper is committing a handling offense and this takes priority.  We suspect, however,  you meant that only the striker was “out of the box,” in which case it doesn’t matter which “box” you meant.

As long as the goalkeeper has hand control of the ball, including when he is in the process of releasing it (i.e., throwing or kicking the ball), no opponent can interfere with the release or challenge for the ball.  Sometimes, opponents make it easy for you by looking at the goalkeeper and obviously moving closer or moving around to block the direction that the goalkeeper apparently is considering in which to release the ball.  Once the ball is released, however, the ability to challenge for control of the ball returns.

This is very clear and easy to enforce in the static situation where the goalkeeper is clearly holding the ball but becomes murkier during the actual release of the ball.  The general principle is that an opponent cannot be allowed to be close enough to the goalkeeper to interfere with the release.  How far back is that?  It’s in your opinion.  That opinion should take into account whether the opponent has merely established a location which does not block the direction of the release … and stays there.  Sometimes, an opponent makes it easy for you by actually moving around to interfere while the goalkeeper is attempting to move in response to find a clear release direction.  And it becomes ridiculously easy if the opponent runs into an area which is the direction of release while the release is taking place.  The referee should handle these situations proactively (before any interference could occur) by warning an opponent to back away and to stay out of the way.  If you have done so and the opponent ignores your warning or if events happened so quickly that there was no time to give the warning in the first place and the interference occurs, this is a cautionable offense – whistle, show a yellow card to the opponent, and order an indirect free kick restart from where the interference occurred.

Keep in mind that experienced goalkeepers generally prefer to perform their own release rather than to have that changed to an indirect free kick so choose your options carefully and step in only when the potential interference is blatant and/or when the players are inexperienced and/or when you have warned the opponent but the opponent interferes anyway (the caution is for unsporting behavior but ignoring an actual warning from you adds an icing of dissent).

Remember that the issue is not limited to “how far back.”  Where the opponent is in relation to the direction of the release is just as important.  There is no specific distance offered in the Laws of the Game as is the case for example with retreating at least ten yards for a free kick.   Here, the decision is solely “in the opinion of the referee.”  As the International Board (IFAB) put it in this year’s edition of the Laws of the Game:

The Laws cannot deal with every possible situation, so where there is no direct provision in the Laws, The IFAB expects the referee to make a decision within the ‘spirit’ of the game – this often involves asking the question, “what would football want/expect?”

A DOGSO Scenario Question (REVISED Again)

Robert, an adult amateur player, asks:

A striker positions himself to make a shot on goal, one-on-one with the goalkeeper, in an obvious scoring opportunity. The goalkeeper shouts to startle him and causes the striker to fluff his kick.

Is the correct approach: 1) yellow card for keeper and indirect free kick, 2) red card and penalty, or 3) no action?

Answer

A reader has brought to our attention that the International Board has resolved the above question in its new FAQs (found only at the end of each Law separately listed on the IFAB website — these FAQs are not to be found in the downloadable document itself and appeared only at the end of May 2018).  What follows is our revised reply to the above question.  Our apologies for any confusion the original answer might have caused.  And then … another reader brought our inattention to our attention, hence the second update.  We hope this is the last. Only the final sentence needed correcting.

A very interesting question, Robert, one which has been affected by recent Law changes.  The relevant Law elements are as follows.  First, the goalkeeper’s action of shouting to distract is and always has been included in the general category of “unsporting misconduct.”  Second, though a misconduct, the goalkeeper’s action is still termed “an offense.”  Third, no direct free kick offense was committed.  Fourth, both the description of the scenario and the scenario itself declare that this was an “obvious goal-scoring opportunity” — also commonly referred to as a “DOGSO.”  It is the fourth fact that is the key to the problem here.

Prior to 2016-2017, Law 12 only required that the restart be a free kick or penalty kick, which would clearly have included an offense resulting in either a direct or an indirect free kick.  The International Board’s modifications to Law 12  over the last several years were mainly intended to lighten what was called the “triple penalty” stemming from the commission of a DOGSO offense (i.e., the penalty kick itself plus the send-off plus the attendant minimum one-game suspension that followed). To do so, it created a distinction between cautionable DOGSOs and send-off DOGSOs.

As Law 12 now stands, there are still two basic DOGSO scenarios, one of which involves illegal handling and the other involves any offense other than handling.  An illegal handling that prevents a goal will always result in a direct free kick (or a penalty kick) and a red card no matter where in the field the handling occurs (a caution is appropriate if the illegal handling does not prevent the goal). However, in the process of outlining when a caution is a correct response, Law 12 specifies that the caution is applicable where (among other things) the offense results in a penalty kick and this, in turn, is possible only when the offense is a direct free kick foul occurring inside the defending team’s penalty area.

However, in the Board’s Law 12 FAQ 12, the point is made that, since an indirect free kick restart does not, in effect, restore the goal-scoring opportunity that was denied by the OGSO, the defender must still be given a red card even though the restart would be an indirect free kick.  In FAQ 11, the Board resolved another issue in stating that a DOGSO offense must result in a red card even if the offense occurred outside the penalty area and would not otherwise have been cautionable but for the DOGSO.

Accordingly, the answer to your question is that none of the options is correct.  Add “4) red card and indirect free kick” to the options list in order to get one that is required by Law 12 and Law 12’s FAQ 12.

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.”

Stopping for an Injury

Brian, a U-12 and under Referee, asks:

During a youth game (U-8 or U-9), there is a stoppage for an injury. The coach comes on to check on the player.  Since the coach entered the field to help the player, does that player need to step off the field before play resumes?  I know at older levels, this is the case, but am curious about at the younger levels.

Answer

Actually, some of your question assumptions are incorrect.  Under the Law, an injured player must leave the field if play has been stopped due solely to an injury.  It has nothing directly to do with the coach coming onto the field because, under the Law, the coach cannot enter the field without the express permission of the referee and no referee is going to give that permission until and unless play had already been stopped.  Some referees read the Law “sideways” and forget that the Law is expected to be understood as a whole, not in pieces.  So, the fact that the referee has stopped play solely due to an injury means by definition that the injury is serious because only serious injuries can be the basis for stopping play.

Where things get a bit complicated is if the referee stops play for some other reason (e.g., a foul) and then determines that a serious injury occurring during the stoppage or as a result of the foul that caused the stoppage in the first place.  Then and only then does the referee call for the entry of a team official (coach, trainer, etc.) – which, also as a result, requires that the player leave the field.  There are certain exception to this “must leave the field” requirement – e.g., the injured player is a goalkeeper, the player was injured in a “common collision” with a teammate, the injury was so severe that the player cannot be safely moved, or the injury was caused by a foul for which a caution or red card was given.

And we would never say that “the coach comes on to check the player” because you have already performed such a “check” and thus the coach does not.  There are no circumstances under which a coach can decide whether or not a player is to leave the field if the referee has (a) stopped play solely for the injury or (b) waved the coach onto the field for an injury caused by an opponent’s foul.  The player must leave according to the Law.  The only time a coach has any “say” in whether the player leaves or not is if the injury has occurred under circumstances where the Law itself does not require the player to leave (e.g., the goalkeeper was injured).  In short, if the Law says the player has to go, the player goes.  If the Law says that the player doesn’t have to go, the player doesn’t have to go unless the coach/trainer/parent wants the player to go.

Everything said above applies to all age groups, not just for U-littles.  The only decision in which the age of the player is relevant is your decision as to what constitutes a serious injury in the first place.  Once that decision is made, all the rest of it happens strictly in accordance with the Laws of the Game — neither you nor the coach (or anyone else) has any subsequent say in it.  This is one of the reasons why we train officials from entry level upward that, if play is stopped solely because an injury has been determined by you to be serious or if it is already clear to you at the moment of stoppage for a foul that the resulting injury is serious, your very first task after whistling for the stoppage is to wave someone from the injured player’s team (coach, trainer, etc.) onto the field — not to “assess the injury” because you have already done that, but to arrange for the safe removal of the player from the field (unless one of the exceptions applies).

Hanky-Pank with KFTM

Shawn,  a HS and College Referee, asks:

Have you ever had a kicks-from-the-mark situation where, in the execution phase, an eligible player became ineligible due to injury, misconduct, or other cause? How did you handle it?

According to LOTG, “the opposing team will not further ‘reduce to equate’” and “the team with fewer players may use all its eligible players before the other team and will therefore begin allowing its players to kick a second time before this occurs for the other team.” Also, KFTM “will continue so long as the team has at least a single eligible player”. This seems ripe for abuse, as, in a worst case scenario, a team whose keeper is also an excellent penalty kicker could declare all other eligible players “injured” once the execution phase has begun, or after the initial group of five have kicked. The guidance from expert referees is the referee should “reduce to equate,” using Law 18.

Answer

We can tell you how it used to be handled in the “good old days,” how that changed to the not-so-long-ago days, and how it is supposed to be handled as of June of this year.

First of all, take note that what follows your opening to the second paragraph below of “According to the LOTG” is out of date.  Second of all, the scenario you describe is always possible if there are bad intentions on the part of a team – the consequences may be in accordance with the LOTG and the Referee may have little recourse because nothing illegal is being done but the Referee can include in the match report the behavior of a team which is otherwise legal but offends the spirit of the game.

As of this year’s version of the LOTG, “reduce to equate” continues throughout the entire KFTM procedure, not just during the phase of the procedure that precedes the first kick.  The loss of an eligible player through injury or misconduct triggers a comparable reduction in the number of opposing players who are eligible.  The Law also specifies, though, that a player who chooses not to participate despite being eligible (i.e., not being declared injured or sent off for misconduct) is counted as having unsuccessfully kicked from the mark.

If the Referee believes that a team is apparently manipulating the availability of its eligible players in an unsporting manner, the solution resolves into two options.  First, if listed eligible players are being declared “injured” and unable to participate with no supporting evidence, then the solution is to proceed in regular order (i.e., following the rules) but then to report this information to the competition authority with full details in the match report.  Second, if after listed eligible players in any round have taken a kick but there remain other listed eligible players who, despite not having been sent off and not having been declared injured, do not respond to a call to take a kick, then after calling the name of a remaining eligible player several times without success, the Referee simply marks their “attempt” as a “miss” (i.e., no goal) and moves on in regular order.

Remember, the Referee does not choose who kicks — this information is supplied by the team at each kicking opportunity.  The Referee has four tasks: (1) signal for the kick to be taken, (2) observe if any misconduct occurs by the kicker or goalkeeper, (3) record the results, and (4) ensure that no eligible player from that team in that round takes a kick a second time in the same round.  The only way a player is removed from eligibility is to be sent off or declared injured and unable to participate, at which point the opposing team reduces its eligible play list accordingly and notifies the Referee which eligible player has been removed.

Playing Distance (and Happy Holidays to Our Readers)

Scott, an adult amateur Referee, asks:

Is there a distance from the ball when a referee should call an impeding foul instead of allowing the defender to “shield” the ball from the attacker. For instance, the ball is rolling quickly and is on a path to go out of bounds if no one touches it and there is an attacker running full speed towards the ball from a distance and the defender steps in 5 yards from where the ball is and shields the attacker so the ball will go out.

Answer

Good question and, as with many similar good questions, there isn’t a simple answer.  Fortunately, the answer became less complex in 2017 when the International Board published the 2017-2018 Laws of the Game.

At the core of your query is the concept of “playing distance” which arises in several different scenarios in soccer generally as well as in the Laws.  For example, it arises in Law 12 when the offense of “impeding the progress of an opponent” is discussed:

Impeding the progress of an opponent means moving into the opponent’s path to obstruct, block, slow down or force a change of direction when the ball is not within playing distance of either player. [emphasis added]

A bit later on in the same section of Law 12, your scenario is targeted:

A player may shield the ball by taking a position between an opponent and the ball if the ball is within playing distance and the opponent is not held off with the arms or body. If the ball is within playing distance, the player may be fairly charged by an opponent. [emphasis added]

Other places where the concept of “playing distance” arises include “interfering with an opponent” as one way of committing an offside violation, as one of the criteria for DOGSO (denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity), and as one of the ways that a legal charge can become illegal.  Clearly, knowing what “playing distance” is and is not is an important element of refereeing.

Years ago, it was common for referees to treat “playing distance” as some absolute value – e.g. one or two yards or several steps – in all cases and circumstances.  More recently, the 2014 version of Advice to Referees on the Laws of the Game made the following observation:

The referee’s judgment of playing distance should be based on the player’s ability to play the ball, not upon any arbitrary standard such as a specific number of feet or steps a player is away from the ball. The decision as to whether a player is or is not within playing distance of the ball belongs solely to the referee.

In 2017, the International Board for the very first time provided an operational definition of the concept as follows:

Playing distance.  Distance to the ball which allows a player to touch the ball by extending the foot/leg or jumping or, for goalkeepers, jumping with arms extended. Distance depends on the physical size of the player

In essence, the now-official definition is completely consistent with USSF’s 2014 Advice to Referees that the concept has to be defined by the “player’s ability to play the ball” and adds the critical reminder that, even so, it has to depend on “the physical size of the player.”  Obviously, for most referees, this means that an average-sized U14 player will have a shorter playing distance than would an average-sized adult amateur player – all of which takes us back to what we said at the start of this answer and what Advice to Referees said in 2014, that decisions about playing distance belong solely to the Referee. What has changed (and improved) is that the International Board has now given us a “yardstick” for exercising this judgment – the distance between the ball and how far a player can stick his or her own, individually-sized leg out (or a goalkeeper can jump up or out while reaching for a ball in the air).

Game Ends – What Do You Call It?

(Originally published on 7/8/17, “Operation Restore”)

Elizabeth, an adult pro fan, asks:

Is there a proper word or phrase that’s used if a match has to be stopped early? Also is there a difference between a match ending because of weather or an emergency, something that the referee cannot control, and the match having to stop because of something or someone involved in that particular game?

Answer

This is an interesting question that calls for a bit of history (one of our favorite kinds of questions … we love history!).  Back when we started officiating, it was traditional to distinguish between “abandon” and “terminate,” both involving a game which ended before the prescribed length of time.  A game was “abandoned” due to deteriorating and/or unsafe weather or field conditions, or the absence of a sufficient number of players to meet the minimum requirement of Law 3 (or the local competition rules), or the lack of sufficient light to safely illuminate the field (game running later than expected and past the availability of light fixtures or natural daylight).  A game was “terminated” if the Referee determined that, due to unruly or violent player, team official, and/or spectator behavior, the match should not continue out of concern for the safety of players and/or match officials.

That distinction, while remaining officially “on the books,” gradually declined in proper usage until, in the 2016/2017 edition of the Laws of the Game, the International Board essentially defined or used both terms to mean the same thing — namely, end the match before the scheduled time.  Because “abandon” is somewhat less familiar a term for Americans (its roots as a soccer concept are essentially as British as “whilst” and “colour”), our guess is that even die-hard traditionalists will abandon the use of “abandon” and accept “terminate” as the all-purpose description of ending a game early (whilst still explaining in the match report the details of exactly how this occurred).