To All Regular Readers and Occasional Dabblers

In case you were thinking about this, given the times we are going through, the askasoccerreferee website remains live and well, free of COVID-19, and observing all rules of social separation and self-isolation.  We are happy to report that we ourselves are well and safe, if a bit stir-crazy, and remain as ready as ever to respond to your questions.

So, should you find yourself getting bothered by some situation or scenario you saw while watching a replay of a match between Iceland and Latvia in the 1969 World Cup, first check your schedule because there was no WC in 1969 and, even if there had been, we can just about guarantee neither country played a game in it.  If you paid for the replay, you just got scammed!  Can’t help with that.  If, however, you were watching an actual game with actual players under the Laws of the Game and still want an answer to your puzzlement, drop us a Q&A and we’ll be happy to answer, privately or (if it’s really a dilly) with a published answer suitable for framing.

Stay well, stay safe, and stay away.  Social separation is the best contribution you can make to the players, coaches, referees, and spectators that we will need again soon enough.

Decisions About Ball Possession

Lisbette, a high school and college fan, asks:

What happens if the referee is uncertain of which player last touched the soccer ball that traveled out of play?

Answer

Your question seems simple but carries a lot of significance for the referee.

Don’t take this the wrong way but “the referee always knows who last touched the ball” and proclaims his/her knowledge clearly, strongly, and with no debate.

The only exception to this is that a good referee will always accept information from an AR (if there is one) who might have had a better view (or is frantically waving the flag to catch the referee’s attention) and, if this seems needed, consults with the AR before making a public announcement (if possible).  However, any unnecessary delay in announcing a decision carries the potential for trouble.

It is important to remember in all this is that, except for the ball going out of play across the goal line (where the difference between a corner kick and a goal kick can be important), it is rarely significant in the case of a throw-in restart – statistics indicate that, on a throw-in, the ball is often taken by the opposing team within 2-3 “plays” following the throw (of course, it can be more significant either way the closer the restart is toward either goal).

It does the referee no good to dither about ball possession: the response must be firm and clear because, if players become aware of indecision, a large chunk of the referee’s reputation is gone and increasingly constant arguments from the players will be the result.  Indeed, this is true for virtually every decision the referee makes.  Players “smell” indecision (much as predators “smell” fear in potential victims) and will use that to their advantages whenever possible.  This is not a matter of Law but of officiating techniques developed over many years.  Obviously, it is better to make the right decision: the problem is that making no decision, hesitating too long and/or too often, or becoming embroiled in debate is deadly.…

Communications Between Referees and Players

Gabriel, a High School and college player, asks:

Can a referee use inappropriate language towards a player?

Answer

Umm, that’s a short, interesting, and loaded question.  If the language is “inappropriate,” by definition it would be wrong to use it.  It comes down to your (and the Law’s) definition of “inappropriate.”  It can’t be “anything that I don’t like” because that definition leaves no room for debate.

It is probably safe to say that, in general, it would be inappropriate for a referee to say anything to a player that it would be inappropriate for one player  to say to another player … with two important provisos.  First, players know each other (even if between opponents) and thus are in a better position to judge the intent and content of anything one says to another.  Second, while it is common in general for one player to speak to another (even an opponent) because they are engaged in a common endeavor, this is not the case with a referee and players – even if they happen to know each other outside the immediate game.  Referees have an obligation to limit their communications with players – even immediately before and after the game – to the specific performance of the referee’s duties.

As we have noted, a referee has no more (and arguably much less) right, for example, to use “offensive, insulting or abusive language” toward a player than a player has toward another player.  The big difference, of course, is that a player cannot red card a referee.  We can tell you, however, with great assurance, that virtually all referees have stored up many sharp-edged, brilliant, and wholly inappropriate things they would like to say to players, coaches, and spectators.…

Organizing Walls … Not!

Simon, an adult amateur fan, asks:

If a ref awards a direct free kick and measures out the 10 yards, should he wait until the goalkeeper has organized the wall and is ready before he restarts play? Secondly. If the aforementioned freekick comes from a foul by the goalkeeper, resulting in his sending off, should enough time be allowed for the keeper to get into place and organize the wall?

Answer

We have to correct several misconceptions – for all direct and indirect free kick restarts, there is no obligation for anyone, including the referee, to hold up that restart so that anyone organizes a wall!  Free kicks can be taken immediately, without any signal by the referee.  The only time a free kick is delayed is if the referee decides to make the restart “ceremonial” (meaning a whistle is required before the restart can be taken) and the referee is the only one who can make that decision.

Further, referees are neither expected nor required to measure out 10 yards.  The Law requires that opponents immediately withdraw to a minimum of 10 yards from the restart location.  If any opponent does not and this excessively delays the restart, he or she is subject to a caution for “failing to respect the required distance” – only new or hesitant referees ever measure out any required distance.  A common reason for the referee to hold up the restart is if the attacking team specifically asks for the minimum 10 yard distance to be enforced and, under these circumstances, the referee might move to some point on the field and direct all opponents closer to the restart location than that point to move back – a failure to do so or to unnecessarily delay moving back could also lead to a caution for any of the recalcitrant opponents.

Finally, if the goalkeeper commits a direct free kick foul inside his/her own penalty area, the restart is NOT a “free kick” but a penalty kick.  Penalty kicks are always ceremonial and the referee will not give the signal for the PK unless and until all parties, including the replacement goalkeeper and the designated PK taker, are in their proper place.  This would clearly include allowing time for the replacement goalkeeper to enter the field and take up his/her proper position on the goal line between the goal posts.  If the foul by the goalkeeper was an indirect free kick offense or if it was a DFK offense but was committed outside the goalkeeper’s penalty area, then the only obligation of the referee is to not allow the restart to occur until the red-carded goalkeeper has left the field and the defending team’s replacement goalkeeper is reasonably close to his/her goal (in other words, the referee wouldn’t whistle to restart play just as soon as the replacement goalkeeper enters the field).  See the opening 2 paragraphs above regarding the “organize the wall” issue.  If it is a PK, in fact, there is no “wall” anyway.…

Post-Game Misconduct

Kate, an adult amateur coach, asks:

At what point after the game does a referee’s jurisdiction end ? I am the secretary of a club and have received a suspension notice from our regional governing body. The referee saw 2 players mouthing off at each other in the car park approximately 20 minutes to half an hour after the game had ended. There was no physical contact . I have been told the players have been suspended and the matter passed to an arbitrator .

Answer

Under the Law and in accordance with standard mechanics/policies from US Soccer (which, from the language of your inquiry, suggests to us is not your governing body), the referee’s authority after a game lasts while the referee remains “in the area” of the field.  This is normally taken to include only the immediate environs – which, in turn, generally extends roughly about as far outside the field as a bit beyond the depth of the team areas.  Unfortunately, the Law/policy on this presumes a high level game played in a stadium so all that we said operationally means in such circumstances that the referee remains responsible until the officiating team exits the field into the stadium.  In practice and for everyday games where there are no changing rooms or stadiums, this becomes much looser.

However, we are more concerned about the passage of time in your scenario.  Short of a general melee involving whole teams, there is no reason for an official to remain in the area of the field for discipline matters for more than 10-15 minutes – even if the referee had to remain in the general area due to another assignment following soon after the game in question.

All this resolves into a fairly clear but at times indeterminate set of levels of concern.  Cards can only be shown to players or team officials during the match.  Once the match is over, the referee is responsible for including in the game’s official report to the competition authority any misconduct by players or team officials only while the persons committing misconduct and the referee are both still “in the area of the field” and only for a relatively short time — everyone has places to go and things to do so there is no good reason for sticking around.  At this second level of responsibility, the referee can include a general description of the misconduct plus a statement of what card and under what category of misbehavior that card would have been given had the conduct occurred during the game itself.  After this, the Law envisions no referee responsibility as a referee for any conduct by anyone.  Of course, depending on the behavior, there are civil or criminal remedies that parties can pursue.

Personally, we would suggest that the behavior in question occurred too long after the game and too far away from the field to remain clearly within the responsibility of the referee.  Of course, a league organization might well decide that it wishes to deal with behavior that, in their opinion, might reflect negatively on the organization’s reputation and might wish to gather information from the referee, not as a referee but as an ordinary witness to the event.…

Jersey Numbers

Christopher, a High School & College referee, asks:

The keeper wearing jersey #31 was injured and replaced with a substitute keeper wearing jersey #1.  This keeper then got a red card and had to leave the field. A player on the field became a keeper but wearing the same jersey #1 worn by the keeper who was red carded.  Is this permitted?

Answer

This is less a matter of Law than a matter of procedure governed by the local rules of competition.  Another way of putting it is that we have no particular answer to it because it is not strictly a Law question – the Law per se has nothing to say about jersey numbers, only the fact that the keeper’s jersey has to be clearly distinguishable from the jerseys of everyone else and that, in turn, is solely a matter of color (and secondarily, of design).

The purpose of jersey numbering has little to do with distinguishing field players from goalkeepers and much more to do with (a) maintaining a “clean” team roster and (b) enabling the referee to record jersey numbers rather than actual player names if/when there is ever a need to record behavior generally and cards specifically for the match report at the end of the match.  For example, the local rules of competition might well have a requirement that each player and substitute have a unique number on the jersey which matches the a number identifying the player in the roster given to the referee before the start of the game.  It also depends on the level of competition because, at lower levels, teams generally may not have sufficient funds to have uniquely numbered “backup” jerseys in cases like goalkeeper replacement and/or replacement of a damaged and/or bloody jersey.

By the way, note that, as part of the point made earlier that the Law has nothing to say regarding jersey numbers, there is certainly nothing requiring goalkeepers to wear any particular number (e.g., 1) or that a replacement player has to wear a jersey with the same number as worn by the player who was replaced.  At most, local rules might require that any jersey numbers noted on a team’s roster might need to be adjusted as/when there is a change.…

Offside (Rare But Legal)

Barry, an adult amateur fan, asks:

 

Is there anywhere within the offside rule that means the free kick to opposition can be taken in your half of the pitch?

 

Answer

 

Yes, of course.  While kind of rare (mainly because most team styles of play make the conditions it would require rare), it can certainly happen.  Consider the following (simplified to save time and space but with all pertinent information):

 

SCENARIO CONDITIONS

  • Red versus Blue
  • Red #7 has the ball in his own end about 30 yards up from his goal line
  • The Blue goalkeeper is defending his goal but all his teammates are crowded upfield and all ten of them are either in Red’s half of the field or in their own end of the field but within 10 yards of the midfield line, all massed generally to the right side of the field
  • Red #16 is about 12 yards into the Blue end
  • Red #7 sees “space” (no opponents) on the right side of the field
  • Red #7 kicks the ball toward the empty right side of the field
  • Red #16 anticipates his teammate’s action and begins running toward where he estimates the ball will land, in the process of which he crosses the midfield line and, five yards in, takes control of the ball

DECISIONS

  • Red #16 is in an offside position (ahead of the ball, ahead of the second to last defender, and in the opposing team’s end of the field) while Red #7 has the ball in his possession
  • Red #16 has committed an offside offense while in an offside position (coming from where he originally acquired it) and is correctly whistled by the referee
  • The restart is an IFK for the Blue team where Red #16 became involved in active play by interfering with play (touching the ball) and that location is 5 yards inside the Red team’s end of the field

So, why do we have this question arising now and so many believing that it is not possible to have the offside offense punished in the offending team’s own end of the field?  That is also simple to answer.  Because the Laws of the Game changed several years ago but a lot of people didn’t fully understand the implications of the change.  Not too long ago, when an offside offense was committed, the decision resulted in an IFK where the offside position was originally achieved (i.e., where the attacker was when he or she acquired the offside position) but the International Board changed it to where the offense was committed while in an offside position.

 

Because it was impossible to acquire an offside position in your own end of the field, the offside offense restart was always in the defender’s end of the field.  Although it was always possible (given the scenario’s terms) to have committed the offside offense in your end of the field, the restart was always shifted to the opposing end of the field … until the Law changed.  Many simply did not understand all the consequences of this change in the Law.  There had been no comment on this when the change was first made but, within a year, it had become obvious that many were arguing that the restart couldn’t be where the Law change now made possible and, so, in the next year’s Law changes, the International Board added the observation that, of course, the restart location could be in the attacker’s own end of the field under certain (admittedly rare) conditions.  In short, the Law change didn’t involve either offside position or offside violation requirements — it “merely” changed the location of the restart.…

Restarting After An Injury Stoppage

Marc, a U13 – U19 coach, asks:

 

In a U14 game, a team is in possession of the ball, and the referee stops play due to a serious injury. After the injury is taken care of, the referee goes to restart play with a contested drop ball. I mentioned that, in these situations, it’s customary for the opposing team to give the ball back to the team that had possession, and the referee indicated it’s against the Laws of the Game for him to ask the opposing team to do this.
1. Can you please advise if it’s against the Laws of the Game for him to ask or suggest this? I believe there’s a clause that indicates the referee shouldn’t specifically address players for anything not covered in the Laws of the Game, but I believe upholding the spirit of the game would warrant asking/suggesting giving the ball back.

2. Can you please advise what the recommended approach is for the ref when players may not be aware of this custom/tradition? If the ref is barred from asking/suggesting playing the ball back to the other team, an uncontested drop ball comes to mind, but seeing as the ref can’t limit the number of players participating in the drop ball, it doesn’t sound like this could be enforced.

 

Answer

 

Question 1 – It would be inconsistent with the Laws of the Game for the referee or any official to make such a suggestion, much less to enforce anything of this sort.  Indeed, other than exhortations not to commit an offense, it would be unprofessional for any official to offer any advice to any team, player, or team official pertaining to the manner in which they should conduct their play.  To make this point even more pointed, referees have long had an aphorism – if you don’t want the coach to tell you how to do your job, avoid telling the coach how to do their job.  This clearly applies to players as well.  There is no provision of the Law, however, which specifically prohibits it because, as with many other issues related to the Laws of the Game, the International Board did not feel it necessary to deal with something which would so obviously be a violation of professional ethics.

 

Question 2 – No, we cannot offer any such advice because doing so would aid and abet what we have already noted would be a violation of professional ethics.  If a team wanted to do so, there is no violation of the Law, just as there would be no violation of the Law if a team decided not to do so.  The same, by the way, applies to the so-called “preferential drop” when, say, an injury stoppage occurs with the goalkeeper in possession of the ball, thus causing a dropped ball restart contestable by both teams at a location which puts the goalkeeper’s team at a perceived disadvantage.

 

The “flavor” of the issue you have raised is strikingly similar to something that became a matter of concern for the International Board about 10 or 11 years ago.  It was commonly thought that a team had an obligation to restart play (which was usually a throw-in) by releasing the ball to the opposing team if that opposing team had kicked the ball off the field because one of its players appeared to have been injured (almost always this was done by kicking the ball across a touchline).  The team usually threw the ball in the direction of the opposing team’s goalkeeper and none of the thrower’s teammates were expected to contest for the ball.  Sparked by a spate of incidents (including one  in an English Premier League match) where this so-called “tradition” was or was not honored, the International Board declared in a Circular issued in 2009 that stopping or not stopping play for a possible injury (minor or serious) falls solely to the referee, not to a team, and this sparked an item in US Soccer’s annual Law change memorandum the same year as follows:

 

Reminder to referees

Referees are reminded that Law 5 states that the referee must stop the match if, in his opinion, a player is seriously injured.

USSF Advice to Referees:  This statement is intended to reinforce a guideline issued earlier by both the International Board and USSF that the practice of a team kicking the ball off the field to stop play when there is an apparent injury on the field detracts from the responsibility of the referee under Law 5 to assess the injury and to stop play only if, in the opinion of the referee, the injury is serious.  Referees are therefore advised to be seen quickly and publicly considering the status of any player seeming to be injured and clearly deciding whether or not the situation merits a stoppage of play.  The referee must control this decision as much as possible.

 

The topic and the brief statement above in red was issued by the International Board and the text following it in bold italics is the official explanation/meaning/impact from US Soccer.  A further reminder on this issue was considered sufficiently important that similar language was included in a later circular and memorandum a year or two later.…

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.…

Mayhem on the Field

Vanessa, a U13 – U19 coach, asks:

My son plays on a u14 club team. We had our semi final this past weekend. My son was fouled by another player and they exchanged words.  My son was walking away and the other player lunged at and started to physically attack my son.  Both boys started fighting. The ref tried breaking them up but the other team’s players came and it was chaos. Refs had completely lost control of game. Meanwhile, my son is being jumped by 6 players of the other team.  He is on the floor being kicked and punched by the other team. I see that he is bleeding and the refs aren’t helping him, so I ran on the field, pulled my son up and held him tight, basically shielding him from getting hit again. All of this was caught on video. My question, is when can a parent, coach, or bystander intervene and enter the field for the safety of the child if refs have lost control of game?

Answer

That is at once both a deeply pertinent as well as unanswerable question.  There is the Law … and then there is practicality.  Finally, there is so much more we would need to know (despite your detailed description) about what did and did not happen that would be directly relevant to coming up with any useful answer.  Nevertheless, here goes.

First, “the Law” makes completely clear that no one is allowed to enter the field of play without the express permission of the referee.  Note that the Laws of the Game were and still largely are written with a particular sort of game in mind – e.g., Britain’s men’s national team versus Mexico’s men’s national team played in Azteca stadium which seats more than 100,000+ spectators where the entire perimeter of the field of play is fenced and patrolled by security guards.  We assume that doesn’t describe the game in your scenario and, as a consequence, much of the behavior you described simply could not happen in a match directly sponsored by FIFA.  It is thus not surprising that things could happen in the ordinary, everyday youth match played in a local field which is guided by a local league which is affiliated with a state association which is affiliated with US Soccer which is affiliated with FIFA.  That’s like being a second cousin twice removed.  It’s still the Laws of the Game, with some limited differences that take into account the age and experience level of the players, but such differences are mainly limited to substitution rules, the size of the field, etc.  So, the official answer is that, unless and until the referee officially declares the game terminated, it remains illegal for anyone to enter the field of play without the permission of the referee.

Second, standard mechanics for officials taught worldwide in association with those Laws, provide that, in the event of a confrontation involving players, the primary task of the officiating team is to attempt to prevent any widening of the altercation but otherwise to watch and record misconduct which must then be included in their match report which then goes to the “local competition authority” which then has the task of sorting out who did what to whom, when, and how seriously.  Directly intervening in an altercation is not recommended – the officiating team is (a) at most 3 people, (b) most likely themselves  youths who are themselves probably only 2-5 years older than the players, and (c) potentially faced by as many as 22 players plus various substitutes from off the benches.  We are not aware of any local referee training which explicitly provides that any of the officials individually or all of them together are expected to wade in and start pushing or pulling players away from each other (i.e., “breaking up the fight”).  Can you imagine the legal liabilities (particularly in the ever-litigious US) faced by an official who started physically grabbing youth players and tossing them around?  Referees are firmly and in no uncertain terms told that they must not touch players.  What you were implicitly advocating would have put all the officials into serious legal jeopardy!

Third, it is both incorrect and unfair to say that the “refs had completely lost control of game” – more accurately, the players had taken control of the game and the coaches had lost control of their players.  The referee team is not tasked with “breaking up confrontations” – they are tasked with doing what they can to prevent a widening of one, to observe the commission of misconduct, to terminate a match, and to write a full, accurate report of who did what for later submission.

Fourth, as a practical matter, it is quite understandable for one or more parents to feel impelled to jump in to protect their children and support their team.  Of course, doing so is quite likely to lead to a widening of the conflict unless the intervention is very specific and limited to protecting one or more players who appear to be the target of any violence.  We note that no mention was made about the actions and behavior of the coaches – they should be “first responders” and the referees should (though this is likely to get lost in the building mayhem) quickly signal permission for the coaches to enter the field and exercise their more direct and meaningful authority regarding the behavior of their players.

Fifth and finally, everyone who saw what happened should make notes to document their recollections and then vigorously pursue whatever avenues are available with respect to the “local competition authority” to ensure that those who started and/or added to the mayhem are properly punished to the degree of their culpability.  Only in this way can you help make less likely similar occurrences in the future might.…