The following happened late in the season in a U16 boys travel game. Experienced, skillful teams. With about 5 minutes left in the game, I whistle a tripping foul on the defense (who is leading 2-1) about 5 yards out from the left corner of their penalty area. The attacker who is going to take the kick places the ball where I indicate, and a 3-man defensive wall quickly forms approximately 10 yards in front of the ball. The attacker positions himself to take a quick free kick, but a fourth defender strolls in front of him, walking slowly towards the defensive wall. The attacker stares at me, knowing (from what my practice in the game has been so far), that if he asks for 10 yards, I’m going to make the kick ceremonial, which he clearly doesn’t want. So he says nothing. At this point, it seems that I am hamstrung. If I don’t do anything, the attacker is unfairly denied a quick unobstructed free kick. If I whistle to caution the fourth defender, the kick becomes ceremonial, which the attacker didn’t want (and this late in the game and the season, a caution would be a very small price to pay for denying the quick free kick). If I move to actively manage the wall, the kick also becomes ceremonial.
What I did was to say sharply to the fourth defender, ‘Back up!’. He took one more step toward his defensive wall, whereupon the attacker blasted the ball into the upper right corner of the net, tying the game.
The defending team was of the opinion that my two words to the fourth defender were sufficient to make the kick ceremonial, they protested, and lost the protest. But the protest committee thought this was a close case, noting that generally anything a referee says in this situation tends to make the kick ceremonial. I don’t disagree, but am at loss as to how best to manage this situation fairly.
USSF answer (March 11, 2009):
You did not commit any breach of the Laws, so we cannot comment on the advice of the protest committee, although they are correct in that by saying those two words you did interfere in the taking of the free kick, thus turning it into a ceremonial free kick. However, we are at a loss to design any other way for you to accomplish the end you had in mind, short of immediately stopping the game, cautioning the defender, and then signaling for the kick to continue. Given that you made a different choice, the only other thing we could suggest for your consideration would be a caution to the defender for unsporting behavior, administered after the kick.