Referee – Coach?

Ian, a youth coach, asks:

Can a Referee coach a team during the game?  If not, which rule does this breach?


One of the really great things about the Laws of the Game is that it has only a few (17) actual “rules” and is written in such general terms that these rules include a lot of flexibility.  This allows Referees to interpret them (within accepted guidelines) in pursuit of the long-accepted but never-included core objectives of the entire body of rules — safety (of the players), fairness (among the players and between the teams), and enjoyment (of the players and, to a lesser extent, of the spectators).  As soccer (or football, as it is otherwise widely known) grew to become the most popular sport in the world, the actual word count of these Laws has grown: they have gradually become relatively more detailed, more specific, and (while remaining organized in modern times into 17 sections), the Law writers have added definitions, interpretations, information about mechanics and procedures, and advice on such specific important concepts as advantage and offside.

Moreover, we believe the Laws of the Game has always been unique among all the major sports as regards its reliance on tradition.  Sometimes (particularly in the case of participants in the United States) this is frustrating precisely because not everything they need to know is actually in those Laws.  The sport assumes that you will know, understand, and appreciate this.  The question you are asking is one of these things.

There is nothing in the formal Laws — nor in any of the parallel rules governing such variations of the sport as envisioned by NFHS (high school) or NCAA (college) — which would prevent a coach or assistant coach from serving as the Referee or Assistant Referee in a match involving their team, but it just wouldn’t happen.   Oh, it might at a level involving very young players (many games at the U4 – U5 – U6 age level are “officiated” by a parent or coach), or involving such unofficial matches as scrimmages, or if the assigned official fails to arrive (though even here it is more likely that the coaches would identify, if possible, a parent who happened also to be a certified official and who would step in by temporary common agreement to  meet the emergency).

But this is expected to be rare exception to what lies at the heart of the officiating function; namely, that someone needs to be in charge of applying the rules and making decisions affecting what is happening on the field who does not care which team wins.  Everyone else cares — the players certainly, the coaches whose income might depend on the team’s record or who might have a son or daughter on the team, and the spectators who almost always either have a family connection with one or more players or who have paid money to see a favored team play.  The officiating team does not.  Its concern is how the game is played, not who wins, and “how the game is played” is defined by adherence to the Laws of the Game as understood and applied by them in accordance with their training and lack of favoritism.

So, could someone officiate a match involving a team of which they are a coach?  Yes, theoretically, but it would be an implicit violation of the core concept of “Referee neutrality” as to decision-making and outcome.  In fact, this is deemed such a fundamental restriction that it is almost always applied even where there is a degree of separation, as would be the case where the coach/Referee was officiating a game involving a team which that coach/Referee’s team might play some time in the future.

It is often not known or understood that soccer was played for a long time with no Referees at all.  The sport evolved at a time and in a culture where “sportsmanship” was deemed such an important, core, and assumed ingredient in the game that disputes about play were decided by the participants themselves.  Indeed, there were neither coaches nor Referees.  Gradually, this changed with persons being appointed to make decisions about the legality of some event on the field only if the issue could not be decided by the participants and only if the issue were “referred” to these persons (hence the title of that person as “Referee”).  Ultimately, the role of this person developed and solidified into the modern concept of the “Referee” as a neutral, professional, and trained person.  Yet, this development, while implicit in virtually every word in the Laws of the Game, was and remains unwritten.  The closest the sport has come to saying anything on this subject is to be found in the 2016/2017 version of the Laws, early in Law 5 (The Referee): “Decisions will be made to the best of the referee’s ability according to the Laws of the Game and the ‘spirit of the game’ and will be based on the opinion of the referee who has the discretion to take appropriate action within the framework of the Laws of the Game.”

Abandoning a Match

A youth referee asks:

Can the Ref abandon the match and not tell the coaches? Had a situation where the Ref said that, in his eyes, the match was over after a parent and coach came on the pitch to stop two kids fighting then ended up fighting themselves. The Ref never blew for full time but said to the other coach it’s finished anyway. Now in his report he is saying he abandoned the game but did not tell anyone this. Can he do this?  I am a a Ref myself and don’t know.


Not wishing to be flippant but the obvious answer is, yes, he can do this … because he did it.  And we’re not sure how the Referee could do anything more to signal that the match has been terminated beyond leaving the field himself.

On a more serious note, the referee is given the authority to terminate a match due to what used to be called “grave disorder” — which means any events on or around the field which would cause the Referee to be concerned about the ongoing safety of the players or the officiating team based on actions by the players, substitutes, team officials, and/or spectators.  By the way, the Law no longer distinguishes between “abandoning” a match or “terminating” a match — the terms are used interchangeably.  There is no particular need to blow the whistle to announce this but, in practice, the whistle has usually already being blown (perhaps numerous times!) in response to the events which eventually resulted in the decision to terminate the game (in this case, the start of the players fighting).

Just based on the information provided, it would seem that termination would not be considered an incorrect response to (a) players fighting, (b) a coach and a parent entering the field illegally (which would be the case if the Referee didn’t explicitly give them permission to enter) and (c) then themselves fighting.  That would definitely be a “hostile environment” not conducive to trying to get the teams back onto the field after removing the fighters and expecting the teams to play peacefully.  It might have been useful to officially notify both teams that the match was being terminated with a simple statement that the decision was required based on a concern for everyone’s safety.  Neither is required.

Anytime the Referee ends a match via termination (or abandonment), full details must be included in the match report.  Further, most leagues, tournaments, referee coordinators, or assignors appreciate a quick telephone call or email message alerting them to the likelihood of further “discussion” about what happened.

Cursing, Cards, and Communication

Caitlin, a youth referee, asks:

If I don’t overhear the cursing, but someone tells me about it, would that be a yellow, red or no card?


It depends.  First, who told you?  Second, what kind of “cursing” was alleged?

Let’s take them in order.  If a player, team official, or spectator told you, the answer is “no card” because these are not reliable sources of information generally, but particularly not if what is being alleged is misconduct involving a caution or send-off.  The only sources of information on which you can rely regarding behavior that might lead to any official punishment are the members of your officiating team — assistant referees, fourth official, etc.  Furthermore, when you are told (even if the information comes from, say, one of your ARs) is critical because that determines what you can do about it.  If the information comes before or at the next stoppage, you can indeed issue a card based solely on that information (see below about what color) but, if it comes later (say, at the midgame break), the best you can do is to warn the offending player and then respond swiftly should it happen again.

Now, as to card color (and assuming the information came from an official source, i.e., one of your ARs), there is cursing and there is CURSING.  “Cursing” is a rather generic term that would include simple expletives at the minor end of the range and rising from there to truly offensive, insulting, or abusive language at the major end of the range.  The problem, of course, is telling the difference between even the extreme ends of the range.  However, only offensive, insulting, or abusive words, phrases, or gestures warrant a red card (see the not terribly helpful definition on p. 165 of the 2016/2017 Laws of the Game — basically, it defines such language as the sort for which you would give a red card! — but it does add such clarifiers as “rude, hurtful, disrespectful”).  Useful advice on this matter from a USSF publication in 2014 states it this way:

  • 12.D.2 The referee should judge offensive, insulting, or abusive language according to its content, the extent to which the language can be heard by others beyond the immediate vicinity of the player, and whether the language is directed at officials, opponents, or teammates. In other words, the referee must watch for language that is provocative, public, and personal. In evaluating language as a send-off offense, the referee must take into account the particular circumstances in which the actions occurred and deal reasonably with language that was clearly the result of a momentary emotional outburst.

The above quotation ends with: “The referee’s primary focus must be on the effective management of the match and the players in the context of the overall feel for the Spirit of the Game.”

Improper language not rising to the level of a red card can be handled by a caution (unsporting behavior) or a stern warning.

All About Correct Decisions

Ben, a competitive youth coach, asks:

A ball is kicked into the penalty area on the ground.  A striker is the first to react and runs to the ball. The keeper is closer and runs to the ball to pick it up but misjudges the speed of the attacker. The attacker and goalkeeper are both running at the ball. The attacker reaches the ball about a yard before the keeper who has jumped at the ball when the attacker takes her touch. The touch goes into the goalkeeper as the keeper’s momentum takes her headfirst into the legs of the attacker and trips the attacker (the attacker had no chance after touching the ball to avoid being tripped).  What is the correct call?


You’re going to get tired of hearing this here but, “You have to be there!”  Equally important in understanding what follows is “There is no ‘the correct call’!”

No matter how detailed the description of the event, there is still a lot of potentially critical information missing here.  For example, had anything like this happened before in the match?  How did that turn out?  What do you know about the individual players who were involved?  What has been the temperature of the match so far?  What is the competitive skill level of the players (e.g., U19/D1 or U13/D5)?  Where were you — on the spot?  Trailing play?  At an angle to see space between the players or were you straight on?  We could go on and, at some point, you would probably get exasperated and start wondering if we are ever going to get to the point.  The problem is that this is the point.

OK, some answers.  So far (right on up to the final sentence which asks the question), everything described would be considered normal play in a competitive match between skilled, experienced players.  It starts to look a bit dicier if the players are young, coached by volunteers, and have low to moderate skills.  At these two ends of the spectrum, the answer to the question should probably be different without even getting into all the other pertinent factors listed above.  At both ends of the spectrum and for all points in between, the referee should be moving with play and bearing to the left to keep play between the referee and the lead AR instead of slowing down at the top of the penalty arc and having only a straight-on look.  Every sentence describing the build-up to this critical event screams “collision!”  The referee must be there in order to “sell” whatever decision has to be made.

Now, on to the other issue.  Is there any single one that can be called correct?  No.  At the skilled end of the spectrum, the likely “most correct” course of action is for the referee to be close and for the players involved to know that that the referee is close.  This course of action would likely include an understanding that each player (the striker and the goalkeeper) is doing what is expected of her.  Strikers kick balls.  Goalkeepers dive for balls.  Additionally, goalkeepers are more likely to put themselves into more dangerous positions.  Experienced players know these facts (strikers and goalkeepers better than most) and are willing to take risks.  We might hope that an aggressive striker, while pushing the envelop as regards her distance from the goalkeeper, would pull back and perhaps not attempt her usual explosive attempt to volley the ball.  We might hope that an otherwise fearless goalkeeper would, despite her being the last line of defense against being scored upon, be very careful in a diving save so as not to overturn the onrushing striker.  But then, weighed against safety, we must also recognize that our job includes enabling players to demonstrate their skills.  The wise referee at this end of the spectrum should judge the ensuing collision to be simply a part of the game and, though prepared to stop play quickly if there is an injury, be otherwise prepared to let play continue.

At the inexperienced, unskilled end of the spectrum, safety trumps all other concerns and we neither want nor expect such close judgments and risk-taking to be made by either player.  At this end of the spectrum, the wise referee will not only be close but perhaps even talking to the players as the play unfolds.  The wise referee will also recognize that, when the collisions occur (the ball being struck at the goalkeeper and the goalkeeper’s dive upending the striker), the burden of avoiding recklessness falls on the striker in this case.  A close evaluation must be made as to which player pushed the envelop too far first and, here, the answer is, on balance, the striker.  Depending on the force of the striker’s kick, the offense could be judged at least careless and perhaps reckless.  However, regardless of the striker’s burden, the goalkeeper might also be guilty of misconduct (even with the restart going to her team) if the referee judges that the particular manner of her lunge to the ground increased the danger to the striker (e.g., having feet up with cleats exposed).

In between these ends of the spectrum, the wise referee must judge how soon the goalkeeper made her play for the ball on the ground, how long the striker waited to make the final play on the ball before the goalkeeper made her inherently dangerous lunge toward the striker’s feet, and the extent to which either player attempted to avoid contact with the other.

Recalcitrant Coaches

A HS/College Referee asks:

I was officiating a U15G game. Before the game even started, I and my ARs took our positions on the field. I blew my whistle to get the teams to take the field. The Home team came right out and took their side of the field. The Visiting Team stood on the sideline listening to their coach give last minute instructions. I proceeded to wait another 15-20 seconds (to let him complete his instruction) then I blew my whistle a second time … no response. I then waited another 15-20 seconds and whistled a third time and stated loudly and within 10 yards of the team “Coach, let’s get your team on the field” … still no response. I then stepped closer and said “Coach, let’s go,” but he stuck his head up and stated “What???” I said “Let’s go” … but he proceeded to keep coaching. I said “Coach, you have a warning.  Let’s get them on the field” but again only “What??” I gave him a yellow card for dissent.  Is this the correct procedure, or is this a delay of game?


First off, any answer to this has to depend on a critical issue — namely, who or what was the competition authority?  In other words, (a) what set of rules were you under and (b) did those rules involve any local exceptions?  We ask because, although none of the standard rule sets (IFAB, HFHS, NCAA) has an explicit rule or ruling pertaining to a team failing to take to the field when requested by the referee, each rule set provides different tools the referee can use in such a case.  Moreover, specifically with respect to IFAB’s Laws of the Game as practiced in the US, many local competitions (leagues, tournaments, etc.) have special rules which can and do provide recourse.  Indeed, we are not familiar with a single tournament in this country which does have some sort of unyielding mandate to start and stay on time.

For example, many youth and adult amateur leagues around the US require that a game must start on the scheduled time and that, if a team does not or cannot field at least the minimum number of players at the scheduled time (or within some certain number of minutes thereafter), the referee is authorized either to consider the match as forfeited then and there or to go ahead and start the clock (this would apply to any period of play, not just the starting period) until some point is reached after which the match is considered abandoned by the players.  This can cover not only situations in which a team doesn’t have enough players present to start and either knows no more will appear or is waiting to see if more will appear.  This would also cover the situation you describe where a team refuses to take the field when required (which can also happen at any stoppage — a coach might decide to withdraw his or her team due to disagreement with circumstances or some specific decision with which the coach vehemently disagrees).

So, we cannot answer the core question without knowing the rules applied to the game.  And, if there are such rules, our answer would have to be, first, know what they are ahead of taking the assignment and, second, simply and faithfully follow them.  You might even engage the coach of the team which is ready to play in an effort to advise the visiting team of these rules.  However, if there are no local or competition-specific rules pertaining the scenario, we suggest you look to common sense and what you would do if, at the scheduled time, there was only one team present.  How long would you wait?  What reasonably could you do to ascertain the circumstances for the absence?  If this involved the very beginning of the match, could you adjust the length of the periods of play to accommodate the delay?  Are there following games which would be adversely affected by the delay?  Is it late enough in the day that the delay could result in unsafe lighting?

There is another approach that might be considered.  Even though the opposing team in your scenario is there, technically they are not “there” because “there” is defined as “on the field of play” and, as long as they are not, they are in effect not there at all.  This means that they are subject to any requirement that a game start on time or at least within some specified grace period … and that might become the most potent item of information you could bring to the attention of the recalcitrant coach.  “Coach, the game must begin in [x] minutes.  At exactly that time, I will whistle to start play, note the absence of the minimum number of opposing team players on the field, terminate the match according to Law 3.1, and include full details in my report to [the competition authority].”  Nothing needs to, nor should be, added to this little speech.  Then follow through.  Period.

By the way, don’t even consider formally cautioning the coach in this scenario.  First, it is not permitted under the Laws of the Game.  Second, it will only step on the tail of the dragon.

Misconduct Before the Match

An adult referee asks:

When can a referee show cards before the game as the new laws talk about when the game starts and during field inspection?


This is actually one of the more interesting Law changes announced in 2016.  Previously, referees were allowed to show yellow and red cards for misconduct before the match (from the time they entered the area of the field) and after the match (from the end of the match , including any tie-breaking procedures, to when the officiating team left the area of the field.  More to the point, a yellow card issued before the match “counted” if a second yellow card were issued during the match — the second yellow would earn a red card just as if the first caution had occurred during the game.  A red card before the match, which resulted in the usual dismissal from the field, did not also result in the team having to play “short.”

With the 2016/2017 Laws, however, the International Board changed things in two ways.  First, no cards (red or yellow) could be displayed, regardless of the conduct, before the opening whistle of the match and therefore a “second yellow” send-off could only be based on cautions issued during the match (not before or after).  If any misconduct occurred before the match which would otherwise warrant a send-off (e.g., spitting or violent conduct), the player involved would still be sent off and (as before) the team could still field the same number of players.  In either case, all misconduct before or after a match, including otherwise cautionable offenses, must be documented in the match report.

Something else changed as well.  The International Board decided to mark the beginning of the “before the game” time by the appearance of the officiating team for the purpose of conducting the inspection of the field.  While this sounds acceptable, the Board was thinking of international and national  matches and other very high level matches where much of what happens is governed by tight schedules and highly ceremonial activities (such as formal field inspections).  In these kinds of matches, the officiating team is usually sequestered in stadium rooms until their first official appearance and so their formal entry onto the field to begin their publicly visible responsibilities under Laws 1, 2, and 4 is easily recognizable.

For most of us, though, things are much looser, less regimented, and often complicated by assignment schedules which include multiple matches where the same officials, as a team, may be “at the field” for long periods of time throughout the day.  This makes it difficult to determine the precise moment when the authority to send off a player before the game actually starts.  Our advice to you is that it starts when you decide it starts (and, likewise when the match is over, when you want your authority to send off a player will end).  It would be a good idea not to abuse this flexibility by, for example, marking the start of your before-the-game authority by when you drive into the parking lot or the end of your authority as late as the middle of the next game!

The bottom line in all this is that you are no longer authorized to show any cards before the first whistle or after the end of official play (including overtime and other tie-breaking procedures mandated by the rules of competition).  You can send off any player, substitute, or substituted player before or after the game (within the limits described above).  All misconduct before or after a match (cautionable or red cardable) must be included in the game report.

When Is It Over?

A high school/college player asks:

The game has seconds remaining. There is a deliberate handball in the penalty area. The referee does not see it but the AR raises his flag. The referee then whistles to end the match. The players start walking off of the field. The AR runs up to the referee and they talk. The referee then brings the players back on the filed and awards a penalty.

Can the referee award a penalty after the game has ended?

Answer (note: answered solely in terms of a USSF sanctioned game)

The 2016/2017 Laws of the Game state clearly in Law 5 that “the referee may not change a decision on realising that it is incorrect or on the advice of another match official if play has restarted or the referee has signalled the end of the first or second half … and left the field” (emphasis added).  There are several important aspects of the Law which must be understood  in order to provide guidance on this question.

The AR is an integral member of the officiating team and Law 5 tasks the referee with performing his/her responsibilities “in cooperation with the other match officials.”  This means that the referee has a duty to receive and act appropriately on information provided by an AR.  There are several situations that help us understand the relationship between the referee and an assistant referee.  For example, the Law allows a card for violent misconduct (but not a foul) to survive a stoppage and restart of play if an AR had seen the offense, signaled the referee, and maintained the signal until recognized by the referee.  Another example is an attacker in an offside position who becomes actively involved in play (and is properly signaled for an offside violation by the AR but the signal is not seen), followed shortly thereafter by a foul committed by an opposing player which was seen and whistled by the referee.  Here, the Law allows the referee to accept the offside violation signaled by the AR and, since it occurred before the defending player’s foul, to punish the offside violation and then to deal with the defender’s actions as misconduct occurring during a stoppage of play.

Put these things together and we have (a) the AR signaling a PK offense just before time expires but not seen by the referee until the end of the 2nd half is whistled combined with (b) the fact that, although time had expired, the referee had not yet left the field.  Accordingly, the referee could properly accept the information from the AR, rescind his decision that time had expired (which it hadn’t prior to the offense), and bring the teams back onto the field for a PK — which would be in extended time because time would expire while the PK restart was being administered.   All the rules applying to “a PK taken in extended time” would apply.

Of course, this sort of scenario would not occur if proper mechanics had been followed — specifically quickly making eye contact with both the ARs before signalling for the end of the period (first or second)!   Nor should the correct referee’s decision here be complicated by such extraneous factors as the score (no matter what it is).



IFAB: one step forward, one step backward

By Paul Gardner

I think it unlikely that there are many people around who would consider the International Football Association Board (IFAB) to be an up-to-date group. But, the IFAB is making an attempt, it seems. It has just approved a major rewriting of soccer’s rules and David Elleray, the man in charge of the overhaul, says one of its aims is to bring the rules up to date.

The intention, then is good. Whether it’s been achieved, I cannot tell you, as the IFAB appears reluctant to let anyone see the new rulebook. A bad sign, that — it strongly suggests that while the IFAB may be updating the rules, it is not modernizing its modus operandi. The traditional tendency to reveal as little as possible (one that the IFAB shares with referees) remains in place.