Crowd Control

David, a U12 and Under coach, asks

Can a referee threaten a coach with a yellow card because a spectator yelled out they were offsides you need to call dad or they’re playing physical against our team and you’re not calling it you need to call it both ways?

Answer

First of all, it is against both training and protocol for a referee to “threaten” a card, regardless of color, to anyone – player, coach, spectator, etc.  You either give it or you don’t.  At most, the referee could advise someone that his/her behavior was not acceptable, which should be taken by any ordinarily intelligent person as a warning.

Second, there are standard procedures for dealing with the behavior of spectators.  If any particular spectator or the spectators in general (and I am speaking here of situations that do not involve large arenas or spectators numbered in the thousands) are having an obvious adverse effect on the game – on players, coaches, bench personal, or the officials themselves – the standard procedure approved by US Soccer years ago is to stop play and advise either or both coaches that they must control their spectators.  A reasonable amount of time is given to do so (by by the coach or coaches calming the misbehaving  persons and/or by requiring them to leave the area of the field – often referred to as “out of sight, out of sound”), and then reporting back to the referee that the matter has been controlled.  If the issue has not been resolved within a reasonable period of time (in the opinion of the referee); or if, having been advised that the coach or coaches are unable to regain acceptable behavior by the misbehaving spectators, the problem cannot be solved; or if, having achieved enough improvement that play might be restarted, the problem recurs, the match is terminated and the match report by the referee must include the steps taken and results achieved (or not).

Often, the competition authority has persons representing the league, tournament, or association at the field and willing to assist the referee in restoring order.  The referee and the coaches should use them if that assistance is available.

The basic point in all this is that the officiating team is not responsible for the behavior of spectators nor does the referee have any direct authority over them nor can they interact directly with them at any time.  All problems regarding spectators must be handled by the coach/coaches, the site officials, and/or the sponsoring organization present at the field.  The only tool the referee has is to stop play, restart play after peace is achieved, or terminate the match if peace cannot be achieved or maintained.

As for being “harassed” by allegedly wrong offside decisions, or too much physicality in play, or by the ever-present “call it both ways” nonsense, none of these usually rise to the level of needing the “nuclear option” of stopping play, much less terminating the game.  Referees are routinely advised in training to ignore such stuff.  The defining moment justifying a stoppage is if the behavior becomes wide, broad, persistent, and is interfering with the ability of players and/or officials to handle their responsibilities on the field.  When that is the case, however, don’t hesitate to push the button and then deal with the fallout later.…

The Calling of Dangerous Plays

B A, an adult amateur player, asks:

We were playing a pickup game tonight. Let’s say I was the keeper. Ball is misplayed (high) into the penalty area. The young lady playing as one of my defenders is facing me from about 10 feet away while I am on the line protecting the goal. I am the closest person to and facing her. She sets up to make a high kick clearance and an opposing player comes running up behind her and jams his head in a downward motion while she is already in the process of kicking the ball and the opponent nearly gets kicked in the head. Some people were chattering about it being a dangerous play on her. From my perspective, it was a dangerous play on him. Playing in a dangerous manner is, to me, any action that, while trying to play the ball, threatens injury to someone. Despite the level of his head only being ducked to a shorter player’s chest height, I believe he endangered himself.

Answer

Close, but not entirely correct.  Historically, the rule of thumb for questions of safe play between two opponents requires balancing several criteria.  First, with what body part is each player (we’re simplifying all this into two players, each from a different team, and each of approximately equal size – height, girth, and strength – note the absence of gender as a criterion) using to challenge the opponent?  Second, where in the body area is the challenge occurring?  And third, what is the relative degree of competence and experience held by the opponents (again, we’re simplifying this in terms of the overall experience and degree of capability of the two teams collectively).  In other words, one of the two players engaged in the challenge may be clearly different as regards his or her opponent and/or the competence level of the players across the two teams, but how would the referee rate both teams as part of the larger competition, age, division level, etc.?

Now comes the “rule of thumb” applied to two teams or any two opposing players.  The traditional practical line is the middle of the body versus the location of the ball.  Assuming the opposing players are roughly comparable in overall competence, the game assumes that a ball higher than waist level is played with the head or upper body core (i.e., chest or shoulder or, as of 2020-2021, the upper arm above the bottom of the arm pit).  A ball below the waist level is played with the foot/feet, knee, and leg portions above or below the knee.  In such cases, and excluding clearly disparate levels in the use of strength, the challenge can be vigorous without being considered dangerous.

Change any element of what we described and play begins edging into being dangerous by this fact alone.  The obvious pictures should immediately come to mind – head-to head (not inherently dangerous), head to foot (inherently dangerous), foot to foot (not inherently dangerous), foot to head (inherently dangerous).  Now, there are various obvious holes here – even foot to foot can be dangerous (strength aside) if one player is kicking the ball and the other player is kicking the shin!  At the same time, the point is “inherent danger” and a player who tries to match his head against the opponent’s foot – whether this is above the waist or not, depending on the location of the ball – is committing an inherently dangerous act.  And here is where the third rule of thumb comes in (see the end of the first paragraph).  Let’s take age as a simple (perhaps even simplistic) stand-in for degree of experience.  The same combinations we described above, if undertaken by a pair of experienced players (e.g., say, u14 – u15 years and above) are inherently less dangerous than if the players were u10-u13s).  Similarly two teams of u16s, one at division 1 and the other at division 4, have clearly disparate experience levels and, in fact probably shouldn’t even be playing one another!   And while a team of U18 players opposed by a senior amateur team might be thought inherently disadvantaged, that might not be the case if the former was at the D-1 level and the senior amateur team, though older, may be considered disadvantaged if they were a recreational team.

So, a useful generalization (with all kinds of ifs, ands, and buts) is that attempting to play a ball below waist level is creating a dangerous play if the opponent is using his foot.  And so on.  Do you call it? Well, you should be prepared to call it while watching the whole thing closely and to make your decision based on such inherently dangerous elements as degree of distance above or below the waist, degree to which both players are actively attempting (or not attempting) to play the ball, etc.  You understand, of course, that the “waistline” is not a real line (think generally of “midsection” instead of “line”).  And you take into account the age/experience of the players.  We can confidently suggest the exact same “high kick” at a ball above an opponent’s shoulders that would likely be whistled immediately and vigorously (and likely with a card of some color) at a U14 game might be totally ignored (not even worthy of a finger-shaking in a World Cup game.

By the way, none of what is offered above is part of the Laws of the Game.  The Law simply refers to “dangerous play” in connection with play that could “threaten injury” to someone or “preventing a nearby opponent from playing the ball for fear of injury.“  The above discussion, however, is a core concept in training referees and has been around literally for many decades.

We have spent 4 lengthy paragraphs (and a short one) trying to lay out what an experienced referee would have running through his or her mind upon seeing an apparently potentially dangerous play, but it boils down to this – what do those players in this game at this moment of play need to have called in order for the game to remain safe, fair, and enjoyable?…

Restarts and Minimum Distances

Mark, a senior amateur player, asks:

When defending, can a referee ask me to move away from the ball during a free kick, only to have the attacking player perform a quick free kick? What if the referee moves me too far back? I was always under the impression that the attacking player needed to ask for 10 yards in order to have me physically moved but the referee instructed me otherwise.

Answer

CAN a referee do this?  Yes.  SHOULD a referee do this?  No.  It is contrary to standard management techniques for a quick restart.  It gets a little complicated but here is the short version.

Scenario 1: When there is a quick free kick pending, the referee should intervene only if an opponent is so close to the restart location that is it obvious the kick cannot be taken without hindrance.  In this case, the referee steps in and immediately states that the free kick is now a ceremonial free kick which cannot be taken until the referee specifically signals that it can be taken … and then the referee cautions the opponent for “delaying the restart of play” (in this case, the caution is not “fails to respect the required distance” but any caution given as part of Scenarios 2-4 would be given for this reason).

Scenario 2: When there is a free kick pending and one or more opponents are retreating the required distance but are not yet at the required distance when the attacking team takes the kick and one of those retreating opponents moves to and does in fact make contact with the ball, the referee halts play, cautions the opponent, and gives the attacking team a retake of the original free kick restart at the original location.  Note: the referee can decide not to stop play if the opponent’s contact with the ball results nevertheless in the ball returning to the attacking team’s possession and in an advantageous position for the attackers.

Scenario 3: When there is a free kick pending and one or more opponent are retreating the required distance but are not yet at the required distance when the attacking team takes the kick and the ball makes contact with one of those retreating opponents without that opponent making any move to the ball, the referee allows the contact (i.e., doesn’t punish it) and play proceeds without any stoppage.  The contact with the ball by the opponent who is closer than he/she should be was not the result of any effort by that opponent and is due solely to the attacking team’s wish to kick the ball despite the closenesss (except for Scenario 1) of the opponent.  In other words, the contact was not made as a result of any movement other than continuing to retreat by the opponent.

Scenario 4: When there is a free kick pending and an attacker requests that the referee enforce the minimum distance, this immediately leads the referee to convert the quick free kick to a ceremonial free kick which cannot be taken except upon a signal by the referee which is not given until all opponents are at/beyond the minimum distance.   The restart now can only occur by a signal from the referee.  If,  following this signal but before the kick is taken, an opponent moves inside the minimum distance and makes contact with the ball, the referee stops play, cautions that opponent who moved inside the minimum distance before the kick is actually taken, and then orders the kick to be retaken (ceremonially) once all opponents are at/beyond the minimum distance.  Repeat as and if needed.

Two notes about Scenario 4.  First, the referee can decide to deny the request if, in the referee’s opinion, all opponents are already at or beyond the minimum distance and the attacking team’s request is a delaying tactic.  Second, an attacking team’s request for a ceremonial restart is not the only reason for doing so.  For example, the referee can declare a ceremonial restart on his/her own initiative if, for example, there has been an injury, a card needs to be given related to the reason for the stoppage in the first place (e.g., a foul), or a substitution is being requested by the attacking team.

By the way, your “always under the impression” is incorrect.  In the absence of a specific request by the attacking team (other than in Scenario 1 conditions) to enforce the minimum distance, the Law assumes and expects that all opponents are retreating or already have retreated to the required minimum distance.  Each opponent is expected to retreat without any request by the attackers or the referee: their failure to do so could lead to a caution.

Referees step into this on their own initiative only in the case of a Scenario 1 – and this is true the older and/or more experienced are the players involved.  The only time we have ever stepped in on our own initiative (i.e., without a request by the attacking team) is if the players are young and/or inexperienced and clearly do not know what to do (and/or the attackers are equally young/inexperienced and do not know of their essential right to take the kick without any signal by the referee if that is what they choose to do).…

“But I got the ball, Ref!”

H. Gillan, a U13 – U19 referee, asks:

Foul or no foul?
Game: U14 boys, Division 2.
Scenario: a red defender makes a sliding tackle almost from behind (roughly thirty degrees angle from behind) outside the reds’ penalty box (between the touch line and the box). The red defender clearly gets the ball first. But immediately after getting the ball, he also gets the legs of the blue striker (who, at the time, is moving with the ball towards the reds’ left corner area). The blue striker collapses (not very seriously), and the ball goes out for a throw in.
My question is: did the red defender commit a foul? (He got the ball first, but he also got the legs).

Answer

We can’t tell you how many times over the years we have been forced to clarify once again the following principle.  It’s been a while and, even though everything that follows has been said many times on this website, perhaps it is time to go through it again.

It doesn’t make any difference whether a player “got the ball” if, thereafter, the player trips, kicks, tackles, runs into, runs over, or otherwise commits mayhem on an opponent.  “Getting the ball first” is irrelevant.  The decision you have to make in these instances is, did the player trip, kick, tackle, run into, run over, or otherwise commit mayhem on the opponent deliberately/intentionally?  If so, DFK and a caution if it was done recklessly or a red card if done with excessive force.  If the subsequent action is judged not to be deliberate or intentional, it is nonetheless unsafe play and merits an IFK for playing in a dangerous manner.  In making this decision, you need to take into account the age and experience level of the players as well as what has been going on in the game up to that point.

What you described is always a foul (DFK or IFK) but what you do about it is where the real decision-making occurs and demonstrates the art of refereeing.  You can, for example, decide that, though the action is a foul (particularly if the decision is that it was an IFK offense), circumstances are such that you feel it was doubtful or trifling, as a result of which you might only chew out the defender with varying degrees of growling, frowning, or forcefulness.

A long time ago and for a period of only two years, the Laws of the Game talked about tackling for the ball and making contact with the opponent’s leg(s) in a manner which might have given the impression (particularly for Americans who are not steeped in the traditions of the game) that making contact with an opponent’s leg(s) was ok so long as you got the ball first.  That was, is, and always has been sheer nonsense and it only took the International Board a relatively short time (given the 150+ years the game has been around in its modern form) to drop that language entirely.  Despite this, there remain referees who got their entry level training during that short period and then failed thereafter to realize that the Law on this matter had been modified.  Or they continued to listen to the out-of-date ramblings of referees who “learned” this untruth and passed it along to their referee friends like a cold or the flu.…

Deflections, etc.

JM, a High School and College referee, asks:

What is a misplay?
What is the difference between deliberate play and deflection?

Answer

This is one of those apparently short and straightforward inquiries that turn out to be more complicated than expected, hence this answer which is many times longer and more detailed than the question.  Here goes.

We don’t understand your reference to “misplay” – the term doesn’t exist in the Laws of the Game (or any NFHS/NCAA Rules).  In general conversation, it could be used for what might be called an “oopsie.” (Sorry for this technical term.)  A player swung the leg to kick the ball and missed entirely.  A player was defending the net and attempting to head away a shot on goal  but slipped on wet grass or artificial turf and fell down. You were intending to challenge an opponent by a charge on his right shoulder because you guessed he would zig right but the opponent zagged left instead and you missed contact entirely.  Etc.

As for deliberate play versus deflection, it depends on the opinion of the referee.  A deliberate play is intentional (although that is little help because it simply replaces “deliberate” with “intentional”) because the player consciously intended/chose to do something.  It is applicable across all actions on the field – play of the ball, play of an opponent, direction of movement, etc.  Some things happen on the field on purpose and sometimes what happens is due solely to chance.  It is a broad concept relevant to lots of actions.  If a player runs down the field because she doesn’t want to be “here” but, instead, wants to be “there,” then that action by itself is a deliberate play.  From that simple, basic event, deliberate play becomes increasingly complex where the “play” includes a teammate, an opponent, the ball, or any combination thereof.

In soccer, however, “deflection” has a rather more limited meaning and context which almost always focuses on the ball.  A deflection can occur when the ball strikes any part of the goal frame – we call it a deflection because the resulting movement of the ball is from an inanimate object which causes the path of the ball to change resulting solely from the purely physical contact between two inanimate objects (e.g., the ball and, say, a goalpost), i.e., the subsequent path of the ball is determined solely by physics.  “Deflection” is therefore a value-based word – it is, in effect, a conclusion about a set of circumstances.  We all understand the kind of deflection associated with the ball bouncing off the crossbar.  The point, though, is that “deflection” can also apply meaningfully to the ball making contact with a person – attacker, defender, or even the referee.  The referee element is easy – long history basically defines any referee contact with the ball as a deflection … even if, in response to contact, the referee knocks the ball away as a conscious though unplanned action.  In effect, we count the referee as an equivalent of the goalpost when it comes to ball contact.

On the other hand, if a player makes hand contact with the ball entirely accidentally (i.e., not deliberately), the player may well be judged not to have committed an accidental handling offense depending on the specific behavior of the player but it is not ever considered a deflection if the hand/arm is above the head even if the player clearly made no deliberate, conscious move.  In short, in such an instance, holding a hand/arm above the body is taking a risk because any ball contact in such a scenario, accidental or not, is treated as though it was deliberate.

In between these polar opposite scenarios stands the referee who has to judge the context of any contact between the ball and the body of a player.  More often than not, it doesn’t make any difference to the game because, with the exception of hands/arms, any such contact presents no issues of Law.  There are exceptions, however.  One such exception is body contact with the ball by a defender who is between an opponent who last played the ball and a teammate of that opponent who is in an offside position.  If the ball contact with the defender is judged to be a deflection and the ball’s rebound takes it to the attacker who was in an offside position, then the Law says that the offside-position attacker is still in an offside position (with all that this entails).  If the ball contact with the defender is followed by what the referee judges to be a deliberate play rather than a deflection, then the offside-position attacker is (with some exceptions) deemed to no longer be in an offside position.

Also somewhat ironically is the fact that an attacker can play the ball intentionally (and legally) to strike the opponent in such a way that the ball is deflected off the field of play, thus resulting in the attacker’s team regaining possession of the ball.  For example, an attacker dribbling the ball down along the touchline who is faced by one or more opponents who appear likely to be capable of blocking the attacker’s path could deliberately kick the ball directly at the legs of one of those opponents such that the ball would be deflected off the field (the same ploy could be attempted to gain a corner kick).  Risky but effective.…

What Matters?

David, an adult amateur players, asks:

Why do refs allow players to gain 20 yards with a throw in but insist on free kicks being taken from the place of the foul? Surely more of an advantage is gained with throw ins not taken from where the ball went out of play because the ball can’t be thrown as far as it can be kicked?

Answer

There are several ways to respond to your questions:

  1. Generally referees do not routinely allow a variance of 20 yards on any regular basis.  Some referees do it for shorter distances, some referees do it occasionally, some referees are comfortable with leeways of, say, 5 yards or so, and some referees allow no leeway at all (ever).
  2. The giving of more than the allowed variance of about a yard is more common the farther away the throw-in is from the goal.  The closer the goal being attacked, the more likely the referee will be stricter in enforcing the one yard maximum.
  3. As for restarts on the field (free kicks), we would say the two above points pertaining to throw-ins are often applied to free kicks and for roughly the same reason – some variance beyond what the Law demands, depending on the location, the conduct (flow) of the game, the acceptance of the players, etc. rarely matters.
  4. One of the most fundamental underlying principles of the Laws of the Game (commonly and readily accepted) is summed up in some language which used to be directly in the Laws of the Game but was dropped a long time ago because (as the Brits would say) the statement is or should be so fundamentally understood as to be not worth the effort to keep it in written form – “The Laws of the Game are intended to provide that games should be played with as little interference as possible, and in this view it is the duty of referees to penalize only deliberate breaches of the Law.  Constant whistling for trifling and doubtful breaches produces bad feeling and loss of temper on the part of the players and spoils the pleasure of spectators.” (From International Board Decision 8, under Law 5, commonly thought of as one of the most fundamental principles of “the Spirit of the Game” – my emphasis)
  5. In short, if it doesn’t matter, keep your whistle down.

COVID-19, Soccer, and Masks

As sports organizations are preparing to evaluate the issues and options of re-opening their sport to public display, the question has arisen regarding the wearing of facemasks by soccer players.  We understand that the International Football Association Board (IFAB, the Board) is currently evaluating certain specific issues that might come under their purview as they are the organization responsible for creating, maintaining,  and interpreting The Laws of the Game at all levels.   No publication date for this has yet been announced.

A specific question has been directed to this website regarding soccer players wearing during a match the sort of facemasks which are currently recommended for the general population when international, national, regional, or local competitions are resumed.  After careful consideration and consultation with persons directly responsible for determining what requirements may be imposed under the Laws of the Game, we are prepared to offer the following advice on this matter.

Law 4.4 in the 2019-2020 edition of the Laws of the Game (and expected to remain unchanged in the as yet pending 2020-2021 edition) states that “Non-dangerous protective equipment, for example headgear, facemasks and knee and arm protectors made of soft, lightweight padded material is permitted … .” (Emphasis added) This language has been in the Laws of the Game since 2016-2017.  Although it is almost certain that “COVID-19 facemasks” would not likely have been in the minds of the members of the International Board when this section of Law 4 was crafted, it is also likely that the sorts of facemasks they did have in mind were more solid, complex, and aimed at protecting the wearer for dangers which did not include viruses. 

As with any other “protective equipment” encountered on the field, facemasks need to be inspected by the officiating team before the wearer engages with other players in active play.  The only aspects of a facemask relevant to such an inspection are (a) whether it is protective as opposed to decorative and (b) whether it is dangerous.  There is no reason to believe that the wearing of otherwise non-dangerous protective facemasks would not extend equally to substitutes, substituted players, or any other person normally allowed to be in the team area. 

In short, the Laws of the Game already allow but do not mandate the wearing of protective, non-dangerous facemasks by individual players as well as by the entire team.  Of course, if a local rule of competition requires the wearing of a facemask, this must be recognized and enforced by the referee as a condition of accepting the assignment to officiate a game in that competition.

Note that nothing offered here on this subject is necessarily also applicable to members of the officiating team – this issue will likely be addressed by the International Board or, if not, left to affiliated national organizations for resolution.  The advice is intended only to assist referees in handling the wearing of COVID-19 protective facemasks by players engaged in active play.  Note finally that nothing offered here allows the referee to order or require any player to wear a facemask unless such a requirement is directly imposed by the rules of competition.  It is up to individual officials decide if they wish to accept any assignment where the wearing or not wearing of COVID-19 protective masks is inconsistent with that referee’s preference.

Readers who are involved in soccer matches governed by NFHS or NCAA rules will need to research any comparable mask guidelines issued by these organizations.…

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 advantage 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.…