Jose, an adult amateur fan, asks:
We were playing a game, winning 1-0. Of course, every time the ball went out, we took our time getting it. The Referee kept stopping his watch. We argued that he shouldn’t stop it every single time but he said we were walking too slow on purpose to get the ball. So, as soon as I did the next throw-in, one of players in my team just kicked it as far as he could. The Referee gave him a yellow card. We argued that the ball was in play and he could kick it anywhere he wanted. Was he right?
Yes … and no. Where and how a ball is played is generally solely a matter of team tactics and usually does not constitute an offense. Having said that, however, a team in possession of the ball for a restart (other than kick-off, penalty kick, or drop ball – all of which are controlled entirely by the referee), a team is not allowed to delay the restart of play (which is why we are amused by your statement that “Of course … we took our time.”). That’s why there is a specific caution for “delaying the restart of play” but “delay” is an imprecise word that depends on (you guessed it) the opinion of the referee. On a free kick, for example, a team generally has the right to perform the restart as quickly as it wants – even with opponents closer than the minimum 10 yards required by Law 13 – but it could also request the referee to take some extra time to enforce the minimum distance. That would be a delay but one that is acceptable under the Law.
In the same situation, however, an opponent could run right up to the ball and stand a foot or so away from it, thus preventing the free kick. This is a clear example of delaying the restart of play and should result in an immediate caution. In the case of a throw-in restart, the ball has obviously left the field and needs to be retrieved (since most recreational youth and adult amateur games do not use “ball-boys” who simply feed a new ball to the throwing team). If an opponent started to retrieve the ball and wasted time doing so, that would be a clear violation and would earn a caution, but what if the throwing team “took its time” going to get the ball by walking slowly, picking daisies on the way, wiping the ball to clean it, stopping for conversations, etc.? Now it is up to the referee to decide if the ball retrieval is “normal” (meaning enough, but no more than enough, time to perform the task) or whether it was being done to waste time, particularly if doing so was clearly for the purpose of gaining an unfair advantage. If so, then that becomes cautionable as “delaying the restart of play” – though USSF referee training stresses the wisdom of informing the delaying player/team when it starts to happen that the delay is unacceptable with the threat of a card implicit if it continues and/or is repeated. Subsequent additional warnings are not required.
There are two problems with this. First is the simple fact that punishing for delaying the restart of play doesn’t change the fact that the delay occurred and, worse, that the imposition of the punishment itself eats up some more time. Second is whether the local rules/customs of competition allow for the addition of time to offset unacceptable delays (both those caused by external events such as weather or injuries as well as by a team wishing to chew up time for its own unsporting purposes). In tournaments, particularly, it is not uncommon to advise participating Referees that “adding time” is seriously discouraged except in such extreme cases as serious injuries even though the Laws of the Game allow it. Referees have to accept the rules in place if they accept the assignment – if something is sufficiently unacceptable, they should refuse to accept the game.
The point here, though, is that the referee can only punish unfair and excessive delay but he or she cannot prevent it, at least not without cautioning his or her way through every player on the offending team and then by starting over giving second cautions (resulting in a red card) for those who continue to commit the offense. To the extent possible in accordance with the Laws of the Game, the referee can also thwart the purpose of time wasting restarts by adding compensatory time to the end of the half in which this is occurring (which, not surprisingly is also when most of the time wasting itself occurs).
By the way, most experienced referees have learned that it is not a good idea to stop their watch for such delays – it is far too easy to forget that you have done so until the next time you look at your watch and discover that it was never restarted! So, the lesson here is to focus on excessive delays, on delays which appear to have a tactical and unfair purpose, warn first that you understand what is going on and that it is not acceptable, use your authority to add time for the period of excessive delay (if the local rules allow), and then prepare to follow through with the appropriate punishment. Remember, however, that the target is excessive delays. Soccer, despite its emphasis on constant, continuous action, has lots of “down time” – actual match data has determined that a 90 minute game may often have no more than roughly 60-65 minutes of real playing time (i.e., the ball is in motion on the field). And kicking the ball hard off the field to lengthen the amount of time it might take to retrieve it is not by itself an offense – if the other team is concerned about it, it can post supporters around the field to retrieve balls or have a supply of extra balls (all inspected and pre-approved by the referee) at their team bench or just off the field behind their net which they can immediately offer to the referee to assist in getting play restarted.