Helpful(?) Dissent

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

Roy, a U12 – U19 referee, asks:

An attacking player, feeling he was fouled, expressed his frustration with me (the referee of this U19 game) by talking with his fellow players – “he’s not calling anything.”

Does this rise to the level of dissent? This was a player already on a yellow card and someone with whom I had been talking all game long about not complaining to me about calls or non-calls.


OK, please don’t take this the wrong way but, you care about this why?  What is it about what was going on that you would feel justified in pulling a yellow card for dissent and then, perforce, showing a red card because the yellow card you just showed was the player’s second one of the game?  We are not asking these questions as an indication that we are about to tell you that you are all wrong about this and you should just “man up” about it.

Dissent is misconduct for a reason.  Publishing (i.e., making public) negative, argumentative, abrasive, disrespectful, derogatory, etc. comments directed at an official (Referee and/or ARs) is an insult to the game and to its long history of “gentlemanly” conduct upon which its Laws are based.  In the match, dissent which continues becomes insidiously pervasive to the detriment of the sort of communal trust which makes the sport enjoyable for its participants (including the members of the officiating team).  We think there should be and probably is widespread agreement regarding this.  And yet … there it is.

Sometimes you can see (and hear) it coming.  It may build slowly and incrementally until it crosses the line and becomes like the roaring sound of an approaching tornado.  Sometimes it just jumps out at you, full-blown, unexpected, and caustic enough to strip skin on first touch.  Are these inevitable end-points?  Only if left untouched or undiverted.  Rarely does dissent cease of its own volition because the very essence of dissent is “try war, not diplomacy.”

Was the player’s comment “he’s not calling anything” dissent?  Who’s the “he”?  You?  Did you automatically assume the “he” is you because of your history during the game of talking to him about his expressed unhappiness regarding your decisions?  Do you think the player expressing this opinion now to his teammates is an escalation of the situation?  Senior referees should already have been exposed to the “3 P” philosophy about dissent — the need to deal with dissent grows according to the degree to which it is or is becoming Personal, Public, and Provocative.

  • Personal – directed at an official by eye contact, by name, by nearness
  • Public — increasingly easily heard or seen by an increasing number of persons
  • Provocative – the specific content of the speech or the common interpretation of the nonverbal communication — e.g., wagging the finger versus “the finger”

How effective is any concrete act of warning about possible dissent watered down by repetition without retribution during the game?  Is running by you and suggesting that “you’re not calling anything” as a quiet aside more “dissentful” (a word we just made up to express the concept of a qualitative amount of dissent) than shouting it out loud in a stadium full of people or than saying it to some of the speaker’s teammates loudly enough that you and perhaps a few others could hear it?

At some point, the dissent virus begins to spread, which is exactly what you don’t want because, if you are at that point, you will either have lost control entirely or, alternately, it will take a huge amount of your professional resources to halt it.  Far better to kick the snowball apart at the top of the mountain than to be crushed by it at the bottom.

Oh, and by the way, get in the habit of listening carefully to what players are saying, even if it is disagreeable, because you might need to hear it even if you don’t like the manner of expression.

Goalkeeper Possession

(Originally published on 7/16/17, “Operation Restore”)

Mike, a U-12 and under coach, asks:

A goalie going for the ball on the ground  holds on to an opponent’s leg with one hand while also gaining control of the ball with the other hand.  Is the goalie considered to maintain possession when the opponent attempts to disengage his foot from the goalie’s hand and, as a result, the ball pops free?  With the ball and his leg now free, the opponent kicked the ball into the net. This was a U12 game.


The events you described, even in a U-12 game, happen rather quickly.  In a perfect (and therefore unrealistic) world, the referee’s recommended course of action is easy to describe but difficult to implement.

Here is what should happen.  The referee sees the play developing through the point of the goalkeeper grabbing onto the attacker’s leg.  This is a holding offense and even goalkeepers are not allowed to do this.  The referee should wait no longer than the next play to see what then happens — this is a “silent” form of applying advantage without the usual verbal “Play on!” and swinging upward arm movements.   What happens next confirms the wisdom of this choice — the attacker manages to gain control of the ball and scores a goal despite the goalkeeper’s illegal behavior.

The referee should count the goal and either admonish the goalkeeper or show the yellow card to the goalkeeper for unsporting behavior.  Under the Laws of the Game, a red card for denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity (OGSO) is not justified because … well, simply, because the goal-scoring wasn’t denied!

Note that the course of action described above is based on the facts of this case and particularly the fact that, while his leg was being held by the goalkeeper, the opponent did not kick the ball out of the goalkeeper’s possession because this would have been an offense by the attacker immediately following the offense by the goalkeeper.  It makes no sense to apply advantage and then have the opponent take advantage of the opportunity by committing a foul himself.  However, in this case, play is stopped for the goalkeeper’s offense (because the advantage did not develop, which was the attacker’s fault!) so the restart is a penalty kick and the referee could admonish or caution the attacker for unsporting behavior.  This year’s Law changes appear to specify that the goalkeeper be cautioned because a penalty kick has been awarded and the goalkeeper was, in addition to committing a foul, also playing the ball.

And then there is the potential factor of the age of the players.  Anytime, with young players, there is a situation involving one or more attackers and defenders (one being the goalkeeper) in close proximity, with one or more fouls being committed under dangerous circumstances, it is often better to get play stopped as quickly as possible to keep everyone safe.  The U12 – U14 age group is right on the edge where on the one hand safety is emphasized but, on the other hand, if the players are experienced despite their age, applying advantage may be justified.

Sorting Out a Flurry of Kicks

(Originally published on 7/11/17, “Operation Restore”)

Alistair, an adult amateur player, asks:

Who fouls if a defender kicks the ball away from the attacker’s strike zone while in mid-swing and the attacker then kicks the defender’s ankle in the follow through?


OK, Alistair, were you the defender or the attacker in this little scene?  Fess up.  By the way, “strike zones” are for baseball players, but we think we get your drift.  What makes you think that the only two options are to charge one or the other player with a foul?  How about, no one committed a foul?  Or, perhaps, each committed a foul?

We’re not necessarily advocating any of these options but you have to admit they have to be considered in addition to the two you posed.  Frankly, without seeing the scene unfold, together with what immediately preceded and followed the main event, any answer we might give would be totally theoretical.  This is one of those decisions that vitally depend on nuances.

To be a foul within the framework of Law 12, the kick by the defender would not be an offense if, under all the facts and circumstances, the referee deemed the action to be not careless, reckless, or performed with excessive force.  Likewise for the kick by the attacker (though at least the attacker has one thing going for her — her kicking action started as a play of the ball and only evolved through momentum into a kick of the opponent’s ankle.  Nor do we have any information as to the vigor with which each kick was performed.  And about that “strike zone” — where and how wide is it?  And what happened as a result of this interplay of kicks?  Was the attacker in motion at the time of the contact?  Did the defender have to reach through the attacker’s legs to get to this “strike zone?”  Was the attacker’s follow through of her leg truly due solely to momentum or did she see a way she might “get even” for having the ball stolen from her while otherwise seeming innocent of any evil intent?  All of these questions (and others) provide potentially relevant data bearing on the carelessness, recklessness, or excessive force of each of the respective player’s actions.

If we were a lawyer arguing a case based on “balancing the equities,” we might say that the sequence was initiated by the defender who should thus bear the burden of proof that her kick endangered the safety of the attacker.  The attacker’s lawyer might argue that she couldn’t help what happened and the defender’s ankle simply got in the way.  And the judge might conclude that both parties were guilty of contributory negligence — they were adults, after all,  and old enough to assume the risks rather than being kids for whom we have a special responsibility to protect their safety.

Sorry.  It still comes down to — you hadda be there.  All we can do from our safe, off-field vantage point is to suggest some of the issues that would need to be taken into account in reaching a decision.

Retreating the Required Distance on a Free Kick

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

Jose, a U-12 and Under parent, asks:

If the Red team commits a foul, does the Referee need to tell whoever of the red team is standing close to the ball to start moving away from it or does the Referee have to wait for a blue team member to ask for it?


This is a frequent topic of conversation because actual practice in this matter is all over the board (or should we say “all over the field”?).  The best we can do here is to outline what are considered to be standard and accepted practices and procedures.  By the way, although the question was asked in the context of a free kick restart. what follows is roughly applicable as well to any restart where there is a distance requirement for the opposing team (e.g., particularly corner kicks and throw-ins but to a lesser degree also goal kicks — kick-offs and penalty kicks also have opponent distance requirements but these restarts are already ceremonial, a fact which is highly relevant and which we will explain shortly).

Let’s start off by noting that the Law assumes all opponents will immediately begin backing away the required 10-yard distance as soon as the offense is whistled because they know that is what is expected and, anyway, it is the sporting thing to do.  Uh huh.  This is not true across all player age groups — though for different reasons as between young players versus older, more experienced players.  For the former, failing to back away immediately is a matter of ignorance as to what the Law requires.  For older players, it is because they are at an age when they try to push the limits and “get away” with things (both at home and on the field).  For upper level youth, senior amateur, and pro players, it is because they are engaged in rational decision-making in order to achieve as much advantage as they can at minimal cost.

Effective mechanics for the Referee start immediately upon whistling the offense.  Free kicks are intended to be taken quickly and without interference (hence the word “free”) so one might think the Referee should begin shooing opponents away to allow this to happen.  One would be wrong.  Because the Law assumes opponents are supposed to do this automatically and immediately, Referees are advised to move away (preferably toward a position optimal for the free kick which is about to occur) and keep their mouths shut.  The attacking team, in fact, has the right to take the free kick as soon as the ball is properly placed even if there are still opponents closer than the minimum retreat distance.  A quick free kick may be advantageous to them because of any disarray among the opponents.  If the failure of all opponents to retreat to the full minimum distance hinders the attacking team’s ability to capitalize on the opponents’ confusion, the apparent kicker (not the spectators, not the coach, etc.) can request that the minimum distance be enforced.  That act, once acknowledged and announced by the Referee, turns the free kick officially into what is termed a “ceremonial” restart — i.e., from that moment, while the Referee is performing the requested service, the free kick cannot be taken except upon a signal (whistle) by the Referee.

Of course, the Referee might have turned the free kick restart into a ceremony on his or her own initiative if, for example, the event resulting in the free kick involved an injury or was the basis for a card being shown.  There are two other scenarios where the Referee might step in to turn the restart into a ceremony without being asked to do so.  One is if, in the opinion of the Referee, there are one or more opponents who are not simply failing to retreat the required ten yards but who are actively, clearly, and effectively engaged in forcing a delay in the taking of the free kick.  This can happen if an opponent takes possession of the ball and withholds it from the team given the restart or kicks the ball away, thus immediately interfering with how quickly the restart can be taken.  Another possibility is that an opponent is standing so close to the ball that no beneficial kick is even physically possible. These situations are usually considered so obvious and egregious a form of misconduct (delaying the restart of play) that it should result immediately in a caution (thus turning the free kick into a ceremonial restart anyway).  The other scenario where the Referee might step in without being asked (thus again resulting in a ceremonial restart) is if the teams are at a young enough age level that it becomes apparent they are not aware of or know how to exercise their rights in a free kick situation — usually, the look of utter confusion in the expressions of the attackers is sufficient to draw the Referee’s intervention.

So, there you have it.  No, the Referee does not get involved in shooing opponents away unless specifically asked to do so … and the asking is normally expected to come from the apparent kicker.  Only rarely and only under fairly specific conditions would the Referee intervene and, in all such cases, whether asked or not, the restart becomes ceremonial.

Arms and the Free Kick

(Originally posted on 7/6/17, “Operation Restore”)

Shane, a U-12 and Under parent, asks:

When blocking a free kick when your arms are by your side, is there an offense if the ball hits your arm and your arms do not move from your side?



The International Board has been very clear in the section titled “Handling the ball” in Law 12 (2017-2018 Laws of the Game).  It starts off by explicitly stating that the offense involves “a deliberate act of a player making contact with the ball with the hand or arm” and goes on to note that, among the things to be considered are “the movement of the hand towards the ball (not the ball towards the hand)” and “that the position of the hand does not necessarily mean that there is an infringement.”

What you described doesn’t even come close to an offense.

Dismissed Coaches

(Orignally posted on 7/5/17, “Operation Restore”)

Kristen, an adult pro fan, asks:

Can a coach who has been dismissed from the game watch the remainder of the game from the stands?


Maybe, maybe not.  First of all, a huge percentage of soccer games governed by the Laws of the Game don’t have “stands.”   Second, many local competition rules include specific restrictions on where a dismissed player or team official can or cannot be (e.g., at many tournaments, a dismissed team official or player has to report to the tournament tent for disposition).  Finally, the only general guideline available for dismissals (players or team officials) is that they must be “out of sight, out of sound” — meaning basically that they must be far enough away from the field and its immediate environs that they can take no further part in the match (which includes communicating through any electronic devices with “undismissed” players or team officials).  Violating this guideline, by refusing to leave or by returning or by attempting prohibited contact while the match is in progress, could be the basis for at least suspending play until the situation is corrected or by terminating the match altogether.

Teammate Plays Ball to Goalkeeper

(Originally posted on 7/5/17, Operation Restore)

Tim, an adult amateur Referee, asks:

Defender passes the ball to own goalkeeper who deliberately but inexpertly kicks the ball which then goes toward the goalkeeper’s own goal.  The goalkeeper catches up to the ball and handles it to prevent a goal.  Is the restart an indirect free kick and should the keeper be shown a red card for denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity?


Yes and no. Three matters of Law are involved here.  First, taken as a given, the goalkeeper’s initial contact with the ball did not involve the use of hands but the immediately subsequent contact did involve the goalkeeper’s hands.  It therefore meets the definition of the so-called “pass back” rule because there was no contact with the ball by anyone else between the pass by the teammate and the goalkeeper’s handling.  Second, the Law considers this an indirect free kick offense (no offense by a goalkeeper involving handling the ball can ever result in a restart other than an indirect free kick if the handling occurs inside the goalkeeper’s own penalty area).  Third, the offense for which the goalkeeper is being punished by giving the opponents an indirect free kick is not handling (meaning “handball”) and therefore does not come under the offense of handling (meaning “handball”) the ball to deny a goal or an obvious goal-scoring opportunity.  Accordingly, a red card for this play is not warranted.



Hijinks at a Free Kick

Chris, a HS/College referee, asks:

Scenario – a foul by the Blue team is committed near midfield.  The ball is properly located and a Red player is preparing to take the kick.  Meanwhile, a Blue player who was behind the ball when the foul occurred is moving back towards his goal to the defend. This Blue player is less than 10 yards from the ball but making no attempt to delay the free kick from being taken and is moving away from the ball. The Red kicker takes the free kick, deliberately kicks the ball into the back of the retreating defender, and then immediately turns to the referee asking for a yellow card.

My questions are, first, can you issue a caution to the Red kicker for unsporting behavior if, in your opinion, the player took the free kick with every intention of getting his opponent booked ?  My second question is, could you issue a red card for violent conduct (striking an opponent) if you deem that the player (whom you have already decided had deliberately kicked the ball into the opponent) did so as hard as he could?


Question 1 — yes, sure, because Law 12 (cautionable misconduct section, unsporting behavior) is written so broadly that it could encompass just about anything that you think deserves it.  We don’t mean to be flippant but “unsporting conduct” is rather general to begin with and “shows a lack of respect for the game” (one of the listed examples of unsporting behavior) is about as limitless as “how high is up?”  A retreating opponent who is closer than 10 yards at the time a free kick is taken has not committed an offense under the general Law 13 guideline that the offended team has the almost unfettered right to take the kick quickly, even with one or more opponents “failing to respect the required distance” and this extends to situations in which the kicked ball might make contact with said encroacher through no fault of his own.  Here, we have an attacker who has the unmitigated hutzpah (look it up) not only to aim the ball deliberately (as given in the scenario) at the opponent but now wants a card shown for the kicker’s lack of judgment.  The act of publicly by words or gestures asking for an entirely unjustified card could also be deemed a form of dissent.  In situations like this one, the real question is not “can you?” but “should you?”  One reason for “should not” is if the action calls for more a more vigorous reprisal.

Which brings us to Question 2 — and here we have to “interpret” your words. “As hard as he could” suggests the familiar “excessive force or brutality or endangering the safety of an opponent” particularly if the kicker were, say, over the age of 16 (though we know of a fellow referee who was almost knocked out upon being hit with a ball kicked by a U12 female player!).  Although a common scenario of this sort of play usually involves a thrown ball, we suspect that the damage from a kicked ball would likely be far worse.  Accordingly, the answer here is definitely, yes, a red card for violent conduct (not serious foul play because the kicker and retreating defender were not competing for the ball at the time) could, and probably should, be given (the expression on the face of the kicker reacting to this turnabout would be priceless).

A caution for UB, even if independently justified in the Referee’s opinion, takes a back seat to a red card for VC.  But the two are linked because the VC card would be a tough sell in the absence of the opinion that the kick was deliberately aimed at the opponent.  With no violence, the kicker’s action could be deemed UB (aided by the attempt to talk the Referee into a caution for FRD).  With a decision that the kick was an avoidable action of violence, bolstered by the evidence that it was deliberate, the send-off is the one to go with.

The restart, of course, is a DFK where the opponent was struck.

Quick Restarts

Rich, a U-12 and under coach, asks:

I coach a U12 boys team, and experienced a peculiar incident with a referee this past Saturday at one of our games. We were winning the game 2-1 and, within the last 10 minutes, our team committed an indirect free kick offense within the goal area.
What was peculiar is that the referee immediately directed the attacking team to place the ball on the goal line and raised his arm, all within seconds, and two attacking players that were directly in the area initiated a kick-pass and solid shot on goal, and subsequently scored. There was no time given for our goalie to prepare, nor any time whatsoever for our defense to establish protective positioning. My concern and following question is this. We are dealing with U12 boys and the safety of the our goalie was my first concern as he was not even looking towards the kick when it was made and, secondly, is there not a rule that puts responsibility on the ref to give the defending team at least adequate time to prepare and/or the right of the defensive team, especially the goalie , to acknowledge preparedness? Although the goalie did not get injured, it could have ended with a much different result. This all seemed very unsafe and unfair for these boys.


We regret to inform you that the Referee’s mechanics and procedures, as described, were 100% correct and far from being “peculiar.”  The call itself was correct (which you acknowledged), the placement of the ball was correct, and the signal for the restart was correct.  What you are questioning (the quick restart) is also correct.  Indeed, it is entirely consistent not only with the letter but also the spirit of the Law.

Every restart performed by a player with the exception of the kick-off and the penalty kick is, and is intended by the Laws of the Game  to be, taken as soon as the attacking team meets two conditions: the ball is properly placed and stationary.  Being the party aggrieved by an offense that was committed against them, they have the right to take the restart with no delay — even foregoing such ordinary requirements placed on the defending team as “respecting the required distance.”  Here (and we are only theorizing), the attackers exercised their legal right to take advantage of the confusion and disarray of their opponents by restarting play when the necessary conditions were met (stationary ball on the goal area line).  It was a gamble on their part that the likelihood of scoring (keeping in mind that it was an IFK restart) was greater if they did it quickly despite the increased risk of the ball being intercepted by nearby opponents.  They certainly would not be better off by waiting for all the things you wanted your team to be able to do — delay the kick, give us time to regroup, get more of our players between the goal entrance and the location of the kick, and get our goalkeeper primed and ready to defend.

We understand your frustration.  We would feel it also under the same circumstances but with one exception: we would know there was nothing we could do about it and that we were the ones that set up this scenario by committing the offense in the first place.  With very few and rare exceptions, a team which commits an offense resulting in a free kick restart has no rights … and certainly no right to detract from the Law’s award of the ball to the offended party.  Indeed, almost any attempt to interfere with or delay the attacking team’s right to a quick restart would be a cautionable offense.

There is nothing in the Laws of the Game contrary to this nor is there any expectation that the age of the players would affect this basic principle.  The only time a safety issue might be invoked is if a player had been seriously injured and the Referee was obligated to hold the restart until the injury was properly dealt with (not wishing to leave the impression that this might be a good strategy, we remind everyone that a faked injury is also a cautionable offense).  It is one of the core tenets in training referees that they should do nothing to cause a delay in taking throw-ins, goal kicks, corner kicks, or free kicks unless there is a clear, legal, and compelling reason to step in with an order to “Wait!”

“Pass-Back” Offense

Trevor, a U-12 and under coach, asks:

I know the pass-back rule prohibits the goalie from handling the ball if the ball is passed to him by a teammate. But I thought I saw an instance last week during a match where the ball was passed back to the goalie by one of his teammates but, as the ball was nearing the goalie, there was also an attacker going for the ball. The attacker was very close to winning the ball before the goalie had a chance to get it but the goalie ran to the ball and grabbed it up before the attacker won it.

Is that a legal move? Can the goalie pick up the ball if it was passed back to him by a teammate but an attacker is about to win the ball?


We are so glad you asked this specific question, not so much for the first paragraph but for the second paragraph because this offense is not only not well understood but the lack of understanding also tends to interfere with how it is called.

Not only was the GK’s action a violation of the law but the circumstances made it a violation that cannot be ignored.  Some “pass back” violations, even obvious ones, can be ignored if, in the opinion of the referee, the offense was trifling (just as with any other offense).  Now the root question becomes … why is this violation there?  Knowing the answer to this question enables the intelligent referee to determine whether it was trifling or not.

In point of fact, all four of the IFK offenses which only a goalkeeper can commit are in the Law for one primary purpose – to limit the amount of time during which the goalkeeper can legally withhold the ball from active challenge by taking hand possession of it.  Remember, the goalkeeper’s ability to do this is the single most important “right” the goalkeeper, and only the goalkeeper, has.  It is such a significant advantage the the Laws of the Game made it clear that the right has limits — no longer than 6 seconds (or thereabouts), no direct second possession, no pass back, and no throw back.

Accordingly, one of the prime criteria a referee needs to use in evaluating whether to whistle for a pass back violation is whether the goalkeeper is being challenged before taking hand possession of the ball.  If he is, and he actually takes hand possession under pass back circumstances, then the offense must be whistled.  If not, the offense could be (not must be) ignored (with perhaps a verbal warning) based on a host of other factors (e.g., the temperature of the game, the propensity for a team to commit offenses so far, the general level of friendliness, whether a prior warning had already needed to be given, etc.).

The scenario you offered has got to be one of clearest examples not only of the offense itself but also of one that has to be called.  The goalkeeper under potential or active challenge could always decide to play the ball in some way other than by taking hand possession and thus avoid the punishment but at a very high risk of not succeeding.  This keeper didn’t.