How Do You Solve A Serious Mistake?

Mamukoya, a senior amateur referee, asks:

In a match, No. 6 was shown a yellow card for a reckless foul and, in the second half, the same No. 6 again is shown a yellow card. Unfortunately the referee failed to show the red card and No. 6 continued in the match. The other officials also failed to bring this to the notice of the referee. In the progression of the match, No. 6 scored. When the referee was about to record the scorer, he realized his mistake, no red card for No. 6 for his second yellow card. How should the match be resumed? What are the actions of the referee?


The easy answer is “Don’t let that happen!” but that’s not very helpful.  The trouble is that, when something wrong does happen, the Law doesn’t specify a solution because (a) it shouldn’t have happened in the first place or (b) it happens so rarely that the lords of the Laws of the Game see no reason to mess up the Laws with wordage that deals with once-in-a-hundred-years events.  If you read the opening section of, say, the current edition of the Laws of the Game (2019-2020 – the 2020-2021 edition won’t be out until June but we are reasonably certain it will say the same thing), it specifically says that the Laws don’t and can’t cover everything and so referees are expected to do the best they can and shape those actions in accordance of what the referee feels is best for the spirit of the game.

That said, this event has occurred from time to time, even at the highest level of the sport (it happened, for example, involving referee Graham Poll in a 2006 World Cup game between Croatia and Australia!).  This is still not frequent enough to see a written answer incorporated in the Laws but we believe there has been a general consensus as to the actions of the referee in the few publicly-reported examples of such an occurrence.  They basically confirmed that the referee had made a mistake (duh!) and the other members of the officiating team (ARs, 4th official, etc.) were also at fault (also duh!), and the longer it took them to realize their mistake, the worse the error would be (another duh!).  The officiating team individually and collectively should advise the referee as soon as possible of the error and the referee should stop play in order to handle the correction – in short, don’t wait for a stoppage to take care of it, just whistle a stoppage immediately.

Then what?  Show the 2nd-caution player a red card, remove that player from the game, and restart with a dropped ball.  Whatever that player had done between when he should have been removed from the field and when he actually was removed from the field stands.  Any goal scored before the player is finally sent off stands so long as there has been a restart.  The competition authority could do something about it after the game is over, they get the match report, and have finished skinning everyone on the officiating team).

In your scenario, play was already stopped (for a goal) when the error was discovered but, as far as solving the problem goes, the cause of the stoppage doesn’t matter (foul, substitution, midgame break, weather, etc.): the restart for the stoppage remains what it would have been but only after the player is shown the red card and sent from the field (this includes a stoppage because the opposing team scored a goal).  If, however, that stoppage was caused by a goal scored by the team whose player had not been sent off and, during that stoppage the lack of a send-off is realized and confirmed, the goal does not count (regardless of who scored it).  In this case only, the restart changes to a direct free kick taken from the position of the player who should have been but wasn’t removed from the field (Note: this restart has not yet been tested because the Law (3.9) changed in 2017-2018 and we are not aware of any error of the sort we are discussing here occurring at a high enough level since then to have caught the attention of high level soccer authorities).

The best solution remains “Don’t let it happen in the first place!”…

Being Substituted

(The following inquiry from Heibel could not be answered directly — our private response was rejected as undeliverable)

Heibel, an adult amateur player, asks:

During the match, one of my players was subbed out and was leaving from the far side of the field, referee cards him a yellow, we ask for an explanation, ref doesn’t give one. Later in the game, I get called to sub out, I take a couple steps to leave the field from the far side but remember what happened to the other play so I immediately change direction and go towards the center of the field where the oncoming player is, I ran off at slightly less than a sprint. The ref cards me my second yellow saying i was wasting time. Now I have a red card, can’t play in the final. Should I argue it? Or was it a right call?


The Law requires (as of this year) that, with certain exceptions, players being subbed out to leave the field must exit at the closest point relative to the field’s perimeter lines (e.g., touch or goal line).

As for a card, well, it seems ill-advised.  A caution could be given if the referee decided the departing player was deliberately and clearly wasting time under circumstances where such wasting was meaningful (i.e., your team is 1 goal up with just 45 seconds remaining in the half and the stoppage involves a restart under the control of the opposing team where, with luck, the opposing team might score).  A caution is hardly mandatory and would not be given ordinarily merely because a departing player was moving off the field toward the usual, traditional, though never actually mandated location of the midfield line on the team side of the field just because that was farther away than some other exit point.

Frankly, we don’t understand the basis for the red card you mentioned receiving … unless you had already received a caution earlier in the game.  In any event, we don’t have a clear mental picture regarding what path you took in leaving the field.  You say that you momentarily began leaving by moving to the “far side” but it is not clear whether you were referring to a path that would take you off the field by the longest distance or you were using the term “far side” as a traditional reference to the side of the field opposite to the team side.  In any event, we also don’t know what you meant by changing direction to the “center of the field where the oncoming player is.”  The latter makes no sense unless you were meaning to say that you began moving to the side of the field from which the incoming player entered (which, for entering players, is still mandated in most cases).

The first point, however, is that, just as with the other player in this scenario, you were required to leave the field at the nearest point of the touch or goal line, regardless of which direction this took you.  Further, unless you WERE already sitting on a caution from some earlier incident, the prior caution for your teammate is not included in YOUR card count.  The card is given to a PERSON, not a TEAM.  Finally, we have as little support for the caution to you for “time wasting” as was already expressed for the earlier caution for the same reason – if either of you were in fact wasting time (a decision which must be based on actual wasting of meaningful time and not merely predicated on merely leaving the field on a longer path than the Law allows), then the caution is justified but only under the circumstances just outlined and only if the time being wasted was meaningful and not technical.

Referees should be conservative as regards unnecessary cards – a simple reminder to a departing player that he/she is now required to leave at the closest point (which, remember, was the reason given by the International Board for the change!) should be adequate.  Keep in mind that there is, after all, a maximum of 1,200 feet of touch+goal lines encompassing an international match field (1,380 feet if not international) and, technically, there is exactly only one precise point in all that distance that is “nearest” which any player must use in exiting in order to meet the “closest point” requirement.  Like so much in the Law, some measure of common sense must be applied and that common sense is based on actual, meaningful time-wasting which a player stubbornly, deliberately engages in despite being warned by the referee.

As for arguing, the answer is no, don’t bother.  If you are really bothered, file a complaint.…

Delaying the Restart

Natalie, a U12 and Under coach, asks:

Can a referee ignore the fact that a player is asking for the required 10 yards be enforced on a free kick?  There was 40 seconds left in the game.  Not only did he refuse to count off 10 yards, he then started counting to 4 and when the free kick was not taken after the 4 seconds he gave possession to the other team resulting in a goal ending the game in a tie. Not sure why this happened — please explain.  Thank you.


First of all, how do you know “there was 40 seconds left in the game”?  You may be looking at your watch but the only watch that counts is on the referee’s wrist.  We don’t mean to sound flippant here — your watch might be totally in sync with the referee’s watch — but the Law gives absolute control over the timing to the referee.  We grant, of course, that the referee’s timing cannot make the length of a half any shorter, only longer, but it is also possible the two of you didn’t start timing at the same time.  For simplicity’s sake, let’s assume that, taking into account any prior “wasted time” due to injuries, delay substitutions, lost balls off the field, etc., there are indeed only 40 seconds remaining in the half by the time this other stuff began to occur.

That said, what followed was totally wrong on just about all counts. First of all, the referee’s prime responsibility at any restart (except kick-offs and penalty kicks and dropped balls) is to allow the team in possession full latitude on when to take the restart.  There are limits, of course – first, the referee may have an external reason for holding up the restart (e.g., injury, a card to give, a substitution to oversee, etc.) and second, the referee responsibility to deal with deliberate time-wasting no matter who is doing it, including himself.

If a team is requesting that the minimum distance be enforced, that is their right and there is no basis for refusing to do so.  Of course, the referee can move to the minimum distance and declare to the asking team that the opponents were already at least ten yards from the ball (we have seen this happen and once “dinged” an otherwise very good National grade referee on an assessment for himself wasting time for ending up moving opponents back only a step or two!) or, more commonly, we end up moving one or more players back.

Remember, inexperience or stupidity aside, it is to the opposing team’s benefit to get play restarted as quickly as possible if they were on the short end of the score.  The team in control of the restart had the right to ask for enforcement … and the referee had the right (based on the facts) to declare that the opponents were in fact at least ten yards away already and to signal that the free kick could be taken.  The referee also has the responsibility to move opponents back if any were within ten yards. All this is accepted procedure.

By the way, there is no rule or accepted mechanic that requires the referee to actually “count off” ten yards.  Actually, it usually takes only a year or less  to know exactly where ten yards away is so all that is necessary is to move to that point and either declare that the opponents were at ten yards or to move them back to where the ten yard distance was.  Watch senior, experienced referees.  You will never see them “pace” off any distance – they simply walk from where they are to a place which becomes the “ten yard restraining line” because the ten yard restraint is where the referee says it is.

Upon being requested to enforce the minimum distance, the referee in this case could have simply (a) signaled that the restart cannot occur until a whistle is sounded, (b) walked to wherever the minimum distance was, (c) quickly determined that either some opponents needed to be moved back or by that time, everyone was at least ten yards away, and then (d) signaled for the restart.  From that point on, within reason, the kicking team takes the kick or, if necessary, the kicker is given a caution for delaying the restart of play. We would normally not take this latter option unless the delay was significant, the reason obvious, and we had already, after a few seconds after the whistle, warned the kicker that he/she was delaying the restart.

There is absolutely no basis in the Laws of the Game to give the restart to the opposing team even if, after all the shenanigans were over and we had cautioned the kicking team for the delay (if there had been a delay).  The only recourse for the referee would be (a) the caution and then (b) stating the obvious fact that time had been wasted so this was being added to the “wasted time count” but the only correct decision at this point is that the original team in possession remains in possession.  If there is no doubt the team in possession had been wasting time and was continuing to waste time, the solution is to clearly declare that all time from the moment of the whistle for the kick to be taken to the moment of the kick itself was being considered wasted time by the referee, thus extending the time before the whistle sounds to mark the end of the half.…

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.


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.”…

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?


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.…

Injuries, Fouls, and Misconduct

Enos, a HS and college coach, asks:

What does the rule book say about the following situation in a HS Soccer game?

During the play, a defender player came in with a 50/50 slide tackle against an attacker with the ball.  The tackle looked bit hard.  The Referee issued a yellow card on the play and the whistle was blown.  Unfortunately, the attacker sustained an injury.  During the visit of the sideline coaches and trainer, it was determined that the injured player might have a broken leg. The Referee came to the sideline and issued an additional red card stating that she is changing a card due to injury.  Is that allowed or should the report be made where yellow card is recorded and explanation is added to the match report?  What would be suspension in that case?


First and foremost, readers may recall from the information under the “About” tab above that our primary focus is on the Laws of the Game.  While we are fairly familiar with such other rules as those used  by NFHS and NCAA, we avoid interpreting them or offering guidelines about their implementation except where their meaning is crystal clear.  Accordingly, for the most part, we will treat this question as though the scenario occurred in a match controlled by the Laws of the Game.  Perhaps, later, if we are feeling frisky, we might branch off briefly into high school play.

Also, one minor observation — we hope that, in this scenario, the Referee had sufficient presence of mind to have whistled play stopped before actually issuing any card, no matter what it’s color.  We also wonder why the Referee felt it necessary to come to the sideline in order to change the card from yellow to red.

Anyway, two principles are in play here.  One is that the Referee has the authority to change a decision as to any matter (including, in fact, whether to have stopped play in the first place, though that leads then to the issue of how to restart play if this is the case) before play is restarted.  Accordingly, the Referee has a right (arguably even a responsibility) to change a decision in pursuit of more accurately implementing the Law upon private reflection or becoming aware of additional relevant information or receiving information from a member of the officiating team.  So, changing a card, by itself, is certainly permitted by all Law/rule sets.  Here, it was yellow to red but it could also have been red to yellow or to no card at all, or it could have involved removing the card from one player and charging a different player with misconduct.  There are only two misconduct-related changes that can occur even though play has restarted (we have dealt with them in other Q&As).

The other principle, however, is a bit more problematical.  We referred above to “relevant information” as the basis for changing a decision.  Suppose the Referee had announced that, upon reflection, she thought the defender should receive a red instead of a yellow card because his hair was red.  Does the Referee have the right to change the card?  Yes.  Is this information about hair color relevant?  No.  The seriousness of an injury is not a relevant fact.  Law 12 provides that, for each of seven specifically-named player actions, the Referee is to  decide the action is a direct free kick foul if the act was careless or reckless or if it was performed using excessive force.  Any one of these is sufficient to make the decision that it was a direct free kick foul.  As for the possibility that the action might also be misconduct, the Referee is advised in Law 12 that carelessness by itself does not involve misconduct, that recklessness by itself is cautionable, and that the user of excessive force should be sent off.  Nowhere here or in the subsequent explanations of each of these three critical terms is the word “injury” used.

Injuries can occur any time, caused by anyone or by no one, be the result of deliberate action or simple accident.  Even carelessness can result in an injury.  Furthermore, the seriousness of the injury is not, by itself, any indication of how to treat the action.  Clearly, the risk of serious injury increases with the use of excessive force, but a “serious injury result” does not make its cause a red card offense.  When the tackle occurred, the Referee’s job was to assess carelessness, recklessness, or the presence of excessive force.  None of these three things can be inferred by the subsequent decision that an injury was serious, just as the lack of a serious injury cannot infer that the action did not involve excessive force.  Neither can the presence of a serious injury be cited as proof that the safety of an opponent had therefore been endangered any more than the absence of a serious injury be offered as proof that no opponent had been endangered.  The seriousness of an injury is a function of the injury’s impact on the player, not a function — an element perhaps, but not a function — the Referee should take into account in deciding the color of a card.

In the given scenario, it would have been entirely appropriate (indeed, good officiating team communication) if, before play was restarted, an assistant referee had advised the Referee that the “50/50” tackle, in addition to being a “bit hard,” had come in uncontrolled from the attacker’s blind side, and with studs up.  Any of these factors, much less all of them, would have been clear-cut grounds for the Referee to decide that the caution should be changed to a red card.…

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?


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?”…


I was curious about the free kick foul in last night’s USA-GER game in which the referee awarded the U.S. a penalty kick. Is there an interpretation of the German defender’s foul as “continuing” as Alex Morgan entered the penalty area? The defender certainly initiated contact outside the area and kept Alex Morgan from following her touch.

So was it clearly a correct call? An incorrect call? Or somewhere in between?

Question two relates to the caution on the U.S. back that resulted in the German penalty. Should she have been sent off for denying a goal-scoring opportunity, or was the goalkeeper’s proximity to the play enough to bring that within the referee’s discretion.

Answer (July 1, 2015):
All the pundits—the “soccer personalities” in broadcasting and some members of the soccer community, have it wrong: The referee’s award of the penalty kick was perfectly correct. This is based on the continuation principle, which has been implicit in the Laws of the Game for some years and was expressed in a paper issued by the U. S. Soccer Federation in 2007:

Subject: When Fouls Continue!
Date: April 30, 2007

Prompted by several recent situations in professional league play, a discussion has developed regarding the proper action to take when a foul continues over a distance on the field. Many fouls occur with the participants in motion, both the player committing the foul and the opponent being fouled, and it is not unusual for the offense to end far away from where the initial contact occurred.

Usually, the only problem this creates for the referee is the need to decide the proper location for the restart. Occasionally, however, an additional issue is created when the distance covered results in an entirely different area of the field becoming involved. A foul which starts outside the penalty area, for example, might continue into and finally end inside the offending playerеs penalty area. Or a foul might start inside the field but, due to momentum, end off the field. In these cases, the decision about where the foul occurred also affects what the correct restart must be.

In general, the referee should determine the location of the foul based on what gives the greater benefit to the player who was fouled. FIFA has specifically endorsed this principle in one of its “Questions and Answers on the Laws of the Game” (12.31) which states that a penalty kick is the correct restart if a player begins holding an opponent outside the playerеs penalty area and continues this action inside his penalty area.

And yes, Julie Johnston should have been sent off for denying the obvious goalscoring opportunity for Germany.…


During a game, can goalie speak to someone beside the goal during game? Referee issued yellow for not paying attention to game?

Answer (June 30, 2015):
There were two people of diminished mental competence involved here: the goalkeeper and the referee. There is no such rule in the Laws of the Game, and referees are forbidden to interfere in any player action that is not covered in the Laws.

NOTE: There are too many “cowboy” referees in our game. That is my term for referees who make up their own rules as they go along, confusing players, fellow officials, and the spectators. My recommendation to them: Just call the game in accordance with the Laws. It is so much easier on everyone.…


My team had a pK shoot out last weekend. The referee placed the ball on the mark. We kicked first and my player moved the ball because it was in a hole but left it on the mark. The referee walked back to the ball picked it up and appeared to push it even harder in the original spot. Is the referee allowed to move or place the ball even though it’s on the mark. It clearly bothered my player. The referee did place the ball every single time after that as well So at least he was consistent.

Answer (May 13, 2015):
The ball must be placed on some part of the spot/mark. It can be moved to avoid holes or water. The only restriction is the ball may not be moved closer to the goal line than the spot itself.

As I am fond of saying, some referees make too much of themselves and fail to remember that it is not the referee’s game, it belongs to the players.…