Where Is the Danger?

Daniel, an adult amateur fan, asks:

In the penalty area, a defender bends to head the ball at a low level in front of an opponent who tries to kick the ball towards the goal. The attacker hits with the foot the opponent’s head. How should the referee decide?


This is, technically, not a Law question but a Refereeing question.  And it is interesting (very helpful also) that you phrased it as “How should the Referee decide?” rather than “What should the Referee decide?”  The difference between these two questions is that the second question wants to know the end result whereas the first question wants to know what information is relevant to making the decision.

We can’t answer “what” the Referee should decide because this is one of those situations where “you had to be there” to know exactly what the Referee saw, what further advice from a different angle the assistant referees might be able to provide, and particularly what led up to the described event.  Accordingly, we will focus on certain generalizations about this sort of scenario that come from listening closely to experienced Referees and by our own direct experience over many years.

The standard “formula” is that, below the waist, feet are expected to play the ball and a head invading the area below the waist would normally be considered potentially dangerous.  Chests and heads are expected to play balls in the area above the waist and an opponent intruding a foot above the waist would normally be considered a dangerous action.  Without actual contact in either of these scenarios (i.e., foot on head below the waist) we could have no offense at all or, at most, a dangerous play offense if an opponent is unfairly prevented from playing for fear of engaging unsafely.  With contact, there is great likelihood of a direct free kick offense — an offense which, moreover, would hover in the “careless” or “excessive force” misconduct realm depending on the specific circumstances.  So, where the ball is clearly above the waist level, safe play presumes the use of chest and head but not feet, and the higher the ball is above waist level, the stronger is this conclusion.  The farther the ball is below the waist, the stronger is the conclusion that play should involve feet, not heads or chests.

That said, there are lots of “ifs” and “maybes” that must be considered.  For example (and probably the biggest “if”) is the waist area itself – that is a sort of “no man’s land” where either head or feet might be used and in either case could be considered dangerous and worth close attention.  Here, we normally advise the Referee to evaluate the potential for danger by looking at the issue of which player initiated the play on the ball.  If player A clearly began a movement which involved putting his head down to the area of the waist to make a play for the ball and, despite seeing this occur, player B (an opponent) nevertheless responds with starting to play the ball with a foot also at waist level, we would usually consider that player B has created the danger because player A in effect set the terms of the play and player B now has an affirmative responsibility to avoid raising his foot to the same level as player A’s head.  Similarly, if player A had clearly made the first move at a waist-high ball using his foot, player B would be considered the one causing danger by bringing his head down to the waist level as a countermeasure.

But even here, there are problems.  First, what if the two players’ movements, one with the foot and the other with the head but both at waist level, occurs simultaneously?  Second, what if one player is not positioned to see what the other player is doing?  Normally, we tend to not give the benefit of the doubt to players who operate on the “blind side” of an opponent.  Third, the goalkeeper is often a complicating factor since goalkeepers more routinely engage in play at lower body levels with their hands, which tend to be accompanied by their head.  This is something attackers know and are commonly expected to take into account.  Fourth, there is a slight bias in favor of a player who is initiating a play of the ball with the head because, once started, the developing position of the head tends to result in obscured vision regarding what the opponent might be in the process of doing … until it is too late.  Finally, in all this, the age, skill, and experience level of the players must be taken into account.

We cannot cite any Law in support of these generalizations — beyond “safety, fairness, enjoyment, and the display of skills” as the ultimate objectives for all officials.  They are part of the “lore” of officiating, developed over a long period of time in practical response to real-world player behavior, and passed down in Referee tents all across the world.…


Why would a referee for a U11 game eject a parent/spectator from the game for yelling “Communicate with your partner” to the referee. They never said hey ref, or anything, just stood up and yelled “Communicate with your partner”. This also lead to suspension of the next game for the spectator as well as being suspended from attending practices until the spectator attended a hearing which is complete BS in this league anyways. Where does one go to report this referee for abuse of his postion? I am guessing he violated some sort of code of conduct.

My answer (April 30, 2012):
No, there would not appear to have been any violation of any code of conduct, other than by the parent. This is NOT Little League baseball, for goodness’ sake. However, the referee would appear to have violated my rule of inverse stupidity: The less you know, the more you call.…


Thanks to all who contributed. These will be the last responses posted.

Feedback 5:
The way an effective referee should manage a free kick will depend on what actually happens during the free kick process, whether quick or ceremonial. We like to label free kicks as quick or ceremonial, but not every “quick” free kick will be the same, and not every “ceremonial” free kick will be the same.
One variable that referees have to realize exists is that most players don’t really know (or pretend they don’t know) how far 10 yards actually is. I have often told an argumentative coach or player who doesn’t agree with “my 10 yards” to simply look at the center circle to realize how far 10 yards really is. Of course that statement only works with someone who wishes to have a rational argument with you.

I have experienced all of the following situations and think that common sense, Law 18, tells me to deal with them in the following ways – generally speaking, there are exceptions at times. And I’m sure there are several other possible situations. Can’t wait to see that new USSF video. That might make me see the light even more.

Situation 1:
Multiple defenders line up in a wall that they honestly think is 10 yards away from ball, but it isn’t (say 7-9), and kicker asks for 10 yards.
Proceed with ceremonial free kick (i.e. establish position of free kick, tell kicker to wait for whistle, back up wall to 10 yards making sure kicker does not try to move ball any further forward during this time, take up a appropriate field position depending on circumstances, signal for kick to be taken.) If defender then encroaches and affects kick in disadvantageous way for kicking team, caution for FRD and repeat ceremonial free kick.

Situation 2:
Multiple defenders quickly line up in a wall that they honestly think is 10 yards away from ball, but it isn’t (say 7-9), and kicker takes unobstructed quick free kick.
Continue play.

Situation 3:
Multiple defenders quickly line up in a wall that they honestly think is 10 yards away from ball, but it isn’t (say 7-9) and kicker takes quick free kick. The kick is affected by a defender who encroaches from this wall in a way that is disadvantageous to the kicking team.
Stop play, caution encroaching defender for FRD. No need for attacker to ask for 10 yards in this case. Restart with ceremonial free kick.

Situation 4:
Multiple defenders quickly line up in a wall that they honestly think is 10 yards away from ball, but it isn’t (say 7-9) and kicker takes quick free kick. The kick is affected by defender(s) who have maintained their position in this wall in a way that is disadvantageous to the kicking team.
Stop play. A caution in this case is probably not needed. Simply warn/educate defenders about proper 10 yard distance and restart with ceremonial free kick. Consider cautioning if same defending team does this again at another free kick.

Situation 5:
No defensive wall is formed, but when kicker takes quick free kick a defender who, in the opinion of the referee, is obviously less than 10 yards away from the spot of the kick, lunges toward or makes some other type of movement to intercept and obstruct the path of the ball once it was kicked. In other words, if the defender had stood still the ball would have continued past this defender on its own path.
Stop play. Caution defender for FRD. No need for attackers to ask for 10 yards in this case. Restart with ceremonial free kick.

Situation 6:
No defensive wall is formed, but when kicker takes quick free kick a defender who, in the opinion of the referee, is obviously less than 10 yards away from the spot of the kick, intercepts the ball because it was directly kicked to him/her, and this defender had no intention of obstructing a passing lane to an attacking teammate nor a shot on goal.
Continue play, unless misconduct has been committed by the kicker.

Situation 7:
No defensive wall is formed, but when a kicker takes quick free kick a defender who, in the opinion of the referee, is obviously less than 10 yards away from the spot of the kick, intercepts the ball because he/she managed to intentionally quickly stand in the way of a passing lane to an attacking teammate or a shot on goal.
Stop play. Caution defender for FRD (and possibly deal with any misconduct committed by kicker). No need for attackers to ask for 10 yards in this case. Restart with ceremonial free kick.

Situation 8:
No one is within 10 yards of the ball except for one defender who tries to deceive the referee by non-chalantly walking in the path of the ball as the kicker is running up/preparing to take the kick. The kicker is affected by this action and/or the ball is intercepted by the defender.
Stop play. Caution defender for FRD. No need for attackers to ask for 10 yards in this case. Restart with ceremonial free kick.

Situation 9:
Once the ball is spotted for the free kick, one or more defenders quickly stand directly in front of the ball (or at some distance that is obviously less than 10 yards away) to intentionally delay the kick until his teammates can set up a wall or otherwise establish better defensive field position. In the opinion of the referee, this has affected the kicker’s timing of when/where to kick the ball.
Caution defender(s) for FRD. No need to ask for 10 yards in this case. Restart with ceremonial free kick.

Situation 10:
Once the ball is spotted for the free kick, one or more defenders quickly stand directly in front of the ball ( or at some distance that is obviously less than 10 yards away) to intentionally delay the kick until his teammates can set up a wall or otherwise establish better defensive field position. In the opinion of the referee, this has not affected the kicker as he/she has played the ball quickly in a different direction.
Continue play and warn defender(s) of their cautionable offense.

Feedback 6:
There are many societal issues that affect the way people behave on the field. In the course of my life, particularly the past 25 years, I have noticed an increase in the negative way referees, umpires, officials are treated.

Since I have started doing girls softball and high school and youth soccer, while I was never one to complain about an official, I have little patience for those who do.

As a parent or spectator, I do not question calls. I teach my daughter to respect each of her opponents, to respect the difficult job the officials have, and to stay within herself by playing her game the way she knows it should be played. She knows that if anyone needs to say anything to an official, her coaches will do that. I don’t believe such sportsmanship is widely taught anymore.

As a coach and a fellow official, I might discreetly ask a question about a call, or about a rule, but I do not argue and I do not demean, like many coaches, players, and parents do too often.

Nor do I publicly comment on a call made by another official. If someone asks me a question about a rule, I’ll discuss the rule, but not call or the person who did or didn’t make it.

Each person watches the game from a different angle; therefore, each person sees a variety of plays differently. Each person knows the rules to varying degrees; therefore, plays that may seem incorrect to some are, in fact, actually correct, and vice versa.

My goal in calling a game, especially below middle school level, is to call the game as best I can, in the fairest way possible, while allowing there to be a flow to the contest.

With the youngest kids, I explain why after making a call. Could I call all those games tighter? Absolutely. Would anyone like hearing the whistle a hundred times? Doubtful.

As the players get older and more experienced, I call the games tighter and I say why a lot less. And while I sometimes forget to say play on, thereby at least acknowledging the foul, I do sometimes let minor violations go because I don’t perceive calling them will make a huge difference in the game.

In games played by adults, it is my perception that some referees call the games hoping to get as little garbage back as possible.

Applying every single rule to the letter in a recreational adult league game is not what some of these guys want to do, especially on a Sunday morning.

In countless adult league games I’ve been to for softball, basketball, flag football, and soccer, part of the league schedule, as well as gym or field availability, can be a factor in the blowing of the whistles.

I also don’t think that some of the adult league officials take the games as seriously as some of the players, who still treat the contests as life and death. For others, and perhaps for the refs, too, the fact that the games are recreational applies that the enforcement of the rules can be a little more lax.

As an official, on a field with coaches and/or players who always think they know more, I think we pick our battles. While flagrant fouls clearly deserve red cards, and so too do constant infractions of minor fouls, who really likes to give red cards?

And in an adult recreational league, who really wants the added aggravation and a situation in a parking lot with an offending player afterward?

Getting excessively angry with and hating officials is a mark of immaturity. No offense meant to the writer of the original note. But when the game is truly a game, and nothing more, I bet the tone and underlying feelings are quite different.

Feedback 7:
Just as reformed drunks and reformed prostitutes are least charitable to those currently still in bondage to those conditions, so players who have become referees tend to be hardest on those of our brethren who are less proficient than we all could hope.

It would be wonderful if all referees thoroughly understood the underlying spirit of the Laws, as well as the Laws themselves and their proper application. It would also be wonderful if all players and coaches understood, or even occasionally read, the Laws – even more marvelous if all players strove to play fairly all the time. But we must deal with the world as is, not how we wish it to be.

All of us referees are works in progress; not one of us has ‘arrived’. The real issue is those referees who do not perceive their own shortcomings, and, due to that lack of insight, make no effort to correct those deficiencies. This is where mentors and assessors come in, to provide the perspective that self-analysis cannot attain.

The best we can do, as colleagues of our demonstrably less-than-knowledgeable fellows, is recommend, and continue to recommend, that they seek out guidance from more advanced referees that they can trust, such as Week in Review and Askasoccerreferee.com.

But be prepared for rejection – two hallmarks of underperformers (in any field) are a lack of awareness of their own shortcomings, coupled with a dire lack of motivation to do anything about it, even after they gain awareness.

Parents sometimes discover that, in spite of how hard they strive and how many parenting books they have read, their children still end up going sideways on the road of life. It doesn’t mean those parents did a poor job, it just means that those children needed to learn from their own mistakes, instead of the mistakes of others. Some referees will never get better: what you have in front of you is as good as it gets. Yes, it’s frustrating. But the alternative is not having a referee today. While that may be preferable, there’s really no way to know that ahead of time.

And as one very good coach in another sport once said, to win a championship, you often have to be good enough to win in spite of the officiating.…


Feedback 1
One thing that should help is the new 20 minute video Managing the Free Kick from USSF. Everything we should be doing (if we aren’t already) is contained therein. I have already used it in some clinics over the winter/spring and it got a good reaction. At least in Illinois, it will be part of the required material for all recertification clinics. I’ve also used it in entry classes instead of the slides re mechanics and then discuss from there.

I, too, am saddened and perplexed by how things got to the point that something as fundamental as this requires this level of special emphasis by USSF. On the other hand, it is also true that teaching doesn’t always lead to learning (whether in the classroom or on the pitch.) Players will try to get whatever advantage they can unless we put an end to it. We need to instill a higher level of confidence (“I know the Laws …”) and courage (“… and I will apply them correctly”) in our compatriots.

Many of the referees don’t get to see very many really good referees in action — they are busy covering way too many games. Not everybody has the various soccer channels on TV/cable.

One thing that would help fertilize the grass-roots would be more good, high-level referees work more low-level games. Some of the tournaments and assignors in this area are actively trying to get more State and National refs for the youth and ethnic games. If part of our job is to “educate the players”, we should be using refs who are the best at it at all levels.

Although the reader’s complaint was about a particular issue, I think it is a symptom of a wider problem but some of my suggestions above would apply to any aspect of the game.

Thank you for the opportunity to respond.

Feedback 2
There is a fourfold problem with management of our referees when it comes to enforcing the Laws of the Game.

1. There are referees that are comfortable with their performance and do not try to improve on it (mostly Grade 8 referees). They are not pressured to improve as some assignors are woefully short of referees and will take all comers to fill the schedules. There is the impression that with some assignors, performance does not impact which games or level of games you are assigned. Grade 8 referees do not get assessed so can remain comfortable with their performance.

2. There is no visible distinction (you know, the badge) between a Grade 8 referee and a Grade 7 referee although the effort to remain a Grade 7 is significantly greater than a Grade 8. And it does not seem to impact what games you can get. You might get more Grade 8 to advance if there was a greater prestige.

3. The schedule for some adult leagues do not allow for 90 min games, are single games, and late at night. This does not make them attractive except to “fill the square” or get an assessment. It would seem that USSF affiliation would be affected by inadequate scheduling.

4. With many amateur adult games being filled by Grade 8 referees, you run into the problem of training. They are taught the laws but little to no techniques for enforcing the laws. They also listen to “senior” referees that lead them astray with their inadequate technique/understanding (as you have seen with some of the questions you have received). They may have seen a professional game (MSL, EPL, BL, etc) where the referee did little to get the players away and they listened to the commentators erroneously talk about what should be done.

I have enjoyed working with higher level referees and picking up techniques on how to handle different situations. I have read the Ask a Soccer Referee answers to questions, especially for unusual situations that I have not experienced, which has given me confidence to enforce the laws in the spirit of the game. I also read the Referee Week in Review on USSOCCER.com on a weekly basis to glean out nuggets for me to use on the level of games I referee. I miss the discussion that came with the “You Make the Call” clips. I have felt that clips from youth games would help Grade 8 referees (and some Grade 7s) versus using clips from professional games. In addition, newscasts do highlights from games to give you a flavor of the game as part of their report. Could we not create a similar report from professional games and youth games where the referee’s performance was being highlighted? Highlights from a good game and ones that have gone downhill would be good for review by less experienced referees.

For the encroachment question – I would verbally tell the players to back off but not interfere with a quick restart. If they do not move and are hit by the ball, I would caution the player and do a restart. Usually after one caution, they get the message. I also look for the path they took to get in front of the ball. If they went out of their way to get there after the ball was set up, then I may stop the proceeding to caution the player (feel of the game/situation).

Unfortunately, it is part of the gamesmanship of the game which needs to be controlled without making each free kick a ceremonial restart.

Two cents from an old Grade 7 referee.

Feedback 3:
The original question is one I have seen so many times over the years that it truly is frightening. The hangup, I think, is in the reliance on the qfk instead of the retreating of ten yards. We, as referees, want the qfk, but the overwhelming majority of FK’s are slow movers, and when the statues start appearing, the ONUS is put on the attackers to ask for ten yards, when the ONUS should be placed on the defenders to GIVE ten yards. That, I think, is the biggest hangup. The attackers have done nothing wrong, and they are being rewarded with a FK. The defenders should immediately retreat and not stand around 2-5 yards from the ball. You can not go quickly with defenders in your path, and well coached defenders will be in your path. If a defender is within 10 yards on the first free kick of the day, I announce very loudly that that isn’t ten yards and you know better than that. And if it happens again, I’m not afraid to pull the card out. I haven’t had to pull the card out yet. But, this nonsense that the only way an attacker is going to get ten is to ask for it, has to stop.

Feedback 4:
For my feedback, I want to focus less on the specifics of LOTG, and more on what we refs can do to make a difference for the game we love.

I was first a ref as teenager more than 30 years ago. Back then, there were no Grade 9 or 8’s. All refs had to pass a written test AND a fitness test. There weren’t a lot of young refs back then; the game was really picking up in popularity for the first time, primarily due to NASL, and I was swept up in the fever along with many others. All of the older refs mentored me. Some more than others, but all had a hand in making me a decent ref. And I was decent, even as a 14 year old kid. I made decisions with confidence and enforced the Laws properly. This didn’t happen because of a memo from Chicago, or even the State, but because a group of older, wiser referees took an interest in my development.

As I recertified for the first time in 30 years last Spring, I was struck as I looked around the classroom at the Grade 9 class (my state requires all new refs to be Grade 9 for a season; a good idea I think). There were so many young people, especially in the 12-14 year old range. I thought about how they would all pass the test, and then would be more or less thrown to the wolves – expected to deal with petulant players, irate coaches, and misinformed parents (I didn’t have to deal with this in the ’70s; parents didn’t know anything about the game and knew they didn’t know). They were so excited to receive thier badges at the end of class. Call me a cynic, but all I could think about was that half of them would drop out after a year or so.

And mostly because they wouldn’t get any mentoring or instruction from the older refs, like I did.

This was one of my main motivations for getting back in. I want to help young refs get better and to demonstrate that good refereeing is not found only at the professional level of play. I plan to go for grade 7, only because that is a requirement to be an Instructor.

I know that many of you do take the time to help the younger refs. I see it on the pitch every week. But we need more of you to help. We need the more experienced teenaged refs to help the new “Blue Badges”.

So, if you are helping younger refs, thank you. Encourage other experienced refs to do the same.

Changing the game, and specifically, the behavior of the players in the restart situation we’ve discussed, will happen because the grass roots refs have made a difference in the development of future refs.…


Request for Feedback:
This note came to us last week. I am posting it here to ask for feedback from fellow referees on their reactions to this state of affairs. Feel free to circulate the note to others, or to direct them to the site.

Please give us input by posting the same way you would send a question. We will post the most useful responses here as well. This is a wonderful opportunity to teach one another and to provide our less-than-accomplished fellow referees with the means to do it right.

Many thanks to all.

Jim Allen

The Note

I thought that if I became an official, I would learn to appreciate what they go through, and stop hating them so much. Now, I’ve made a lot of friends, but, as I still play in Adult leagues, I still hate officials when I step between the lines as a player. Being in this unique situation as I know all the guys and work with them, I have been reflecting on why I still am so angered by officials. It came to me after a Men’s over 30 match this past Tuesday. We are our own worst enemies out there. Guys refuse to properly apply the laws of the game. We all know them-hell the best officials, supposedly, in the world know them, and, yet, we saw how this worked in the World Cup. Is it lack of fortitude? Is it officials worried that the players won’t like them, and they’ll get poor ratings if they call the game as it should be called? I don’t know-the truth is probably somewhere in between. 

I have many issues with this, but let me just give you one so I don’t take up too much of your time. Team B commits a foul on Team A. Team A sets the ball to begin the re-start. Player or players of Team B purposely delay the re-start by lining up in front of the ball clearly not giving 10 — hell 3 yards in many cases. How should this be handled? I know how I handle it, and I would argue with anyone that I do it correctly. The problem is, hardly no one else does it the right way. Furthermore, because I am, basically, the only one who does it correctly, players become used to the wrong way and the proper way looks strange. I do youth and adult matches, and play in the adult league and all players from a young age to seasoned guys who played at high levels in college and professional, truly believe that the team that got fouled must ask for 10 yards. They believe that because, my fellow officials screw it up and do not apply the laws properly. I got into it with a guy on the other team the other night because his team did this all game and the center refused to address it. I pleaded with him to stop allowing them to delay the re-start; especially in our offensive third when we have a potential goal scoring opportunity of the quick re-start. Please help me-I am so frustrated with this, and I want all my fellow officials to apply the laws properly, so we can start to re-train the players. Please provide me with exactly how you handle the situation I described above, both the first time it happens, and subsequent occurrences. Also, how you handle it when Team B actually touches the ball before it travels 10 yards ie. quick re-starts where a player for Team B purposely touches the ball before a travels 10 yards, and when a wall is lined up less than 10 yards away and the ball strikes the wall.


I was watching a game on TV from England’s premier league and was surprised to see a player with a diamond on each ear lobe during the whole game. I’m concluding the center referee didn’t care about this infraction because it was obvious that four officials couldn’t possible have missed this glaring jewelry. I suppose he thought it was not hazardous.

It was demeaning to the game to see a player in repeated closeups flashing his elegance right at the referee team. Then I thought assisting the assigned referee does not mean capitulation to his peculiar whims. So, what course is available to the assistant referees and fourth official? Can they refuse the assignment until the center referee gives way or should they just take it in stride and report it in their game report?

USSF answer (November 17, 2008):
The longer we live, the more we see — and the more we notice that both players and referees sometimes flout the Laws of the Game, or at least fail to follow them clearly and logically.

No, the assistant referee and the fourth official may not boycott the game for referee failures of this sort. They can certainly make their observations known and must then cooperate with all instructions from the referee that do not cause the assistants or fourth official themselves to violate the Laws. If the failure by the referee is an egregious one, then the assistant(s) or fourth official should report it to the appropriate authorities.…