Doubtful or Trifling

Michael, an adult/amateur fan, asks:

Have referees been instructed to be lenient with the foul throw rules?  The reason I ask the question is according to the official rules of the game, 75% of throw ins are foul throws standing on the field of play, lifting foot, walking with the ball away from the point the ball left the field of play.  It may sound petty but rules are rules .


Ever make a right turn on red with no one coming toward you?  Ever throw piece of trash out the car window?

The requirements for a throw-in are very clear – (1) throw the ball into the field where it left the field; (2) use both hands over the head; (3) face the field; (4) make the throw within 2 yards from the left, right, or back from where the ball left the field; and (5) have both feet on the field at the moment of the throw (this includes each foot being any combination of on the touchline or behind the touchline).   Compare this list of offenses with, say, that the goalkeeper can remain in control of the ball with his/her hands for no more than 6 seconds and that a restart after an offense must be taken from where the offense occurred (there are exceptions from this rule but they are generally rare).  All of these offenses are routinely ignored to some extent – even though there are 5 things to remember regarding throw-ins , one criterion for the goalkeeper’s time for holding the ball, and one criterion for where most restarts are supposed to be taken.

One of the first “rules” a referee learns about 2 seasons into officiating is that you call what matters.  What offenses make a difference?  What offenses give the offender or the offender’s team an unfair advantage?  One of the most fundamental rules at the core of the Laws of the Game is that an offense, all other things being equal, should generally not be called and play stopped if the offense is doubtful and/or trifling – “doubtful” means it may or may not occurred and you lack the facts to know for sure, “trifling” means that the offense occurred but didn’t affect either team one way or the other.  Both concepts have been at the core of soccer for more than 50 years (including the 35 years that we have been officiating, training referees, and evaluating referee performances).  Sometimes you call an offense which is doubtful or trifling early in the game to make clear that you understand what is happening.  Sometimes to make a point.  Sometimes to slow down the game at some particular moment.  Lots of reasons.  The “beautiful game” is action and motion, not constant stopping.

We pick and choose what needs to be called, and sometimes those needs are not clear to those off the field who almost always focusing on a certain team and/or a certain player and don’t see the rest of the field.  How often do you see or hear a spectator or fan yelling about the wrong behavior of the fan’s team or of one the fan’s relatives?  Practically never.

The Law says the ball is thrown in where it left the field but I have often allowed as much as several yards deviation if the thrower is a couple of yards from the “correct” throw-in point but otherwise prepared quickly to restart.  Why?  Because that much variance is less important the farther away it is from the goal that team is attacking.  The “lifted foot” is only an offense if it occurs at the exact moment of the release of the ball – easy to see if the thrower is standing or walking to the touch line but very difficult to determine if the thrower has grabbed the ball and is running toward the touchline.  And what does “facing the field” mean exactly?  There is no definition but, as a practical matter, most referees would agree that it is a lot easier to define it in the negative – i.e., what is illegal NOT facing the field.

We instruct referees to know what is and is not permitted behavior or actions, but we also advise them that constant whistling for every violation makes the game no fun for anyone.  By the way, we would strenuously dispute the allegation that 75% of throw-ins involve a violation of the Law.