Referee – Coach?

Ian, a youth coach, asks:

Can a Referee coach a team during the game?  If not, which rule does this breach?


One of the really great things about the Laws of the Game is that it has only a few (17) actual “rules” and is written in such general terms that these rules include a lot of flexibility.  This allows Referees to interpret them (within accepted guidelines) in pursuit of the long-accepted but never-included core objectives of the entire body of rules — safety (of the players), fairness (among the players and between the teams), and enjoyment (of the players and, to a lesser extent, of the spectators).  As soccer (or football, as it is otherwise widely known) grew to become the most popular sport in the world, the actual word count of these Laws has grown: they have gradually become relatively more detailed, more specific, and (while remaining organized in modern times into 17 sections), the Law writers have added definitions, interpretations, information about mechanics and procedures, and advice on such specific important concepts as advantage and offside.

Moreover, we believe the Laws of the Game has always been unique among all the major sports as regards its reliance on tradition.  Sometimes (particularly in the case of participants in the United States) this is frustrating precisely because not everything they need to know is actually in those Laws.  The sport assumes that you will know, understand, and appreciate this.  The question you are asking is one of these things.

There is nothing in the formal Laws — nor in any of the parallel rules governing such variations of the sport as envisioned by NFHS (high school) or NCAA (college) — which would prevent a coach or assistant coach from serving as the Referee or Assistant Referee in a match involving their team, but it just wouldn’t happen.   Oh, it might at a level involving very young players (many games at the U4 – U5 – U6 age level are “officiated” by a parent or coach), or involving such unofficial matches as scrimmages, or if the assigned official fails to arrive (though even here it is more likely that the coaches would identify, if possible, a parent who happened also to be a certified official and who would step in by temporary common agreement to  meet the emergency).

But this is expected to be rare exception to what lies at the heart of the officiating function; namely, that someone needs to be in charge of applying the rules and making decisions affecting what is happening on the field who does not care which team wins.  Everyone else cares — the players certainly, the coaches whose income might depend on the team’s record or who might have a son or daughter on the team, and the spectators who almost always either have a family connection with one or more players or who have paid money to see a favored team play.  The officiating team does not.  Its concern is how the game is played, not who wins, and “how the game is played” is defined by adherence to the Laws of the Game as understood and applied by them in accordance with their training and lack of favoritism.

So, could someone officiate a match involving a team of which they are a coach?  Yes, theoretically, but it would be an implicit violation of the core concept of “Referee neutrality” as to decision-making and outcome.  In fact, this is deemed such a fundamental restriction that it is almost always applied even where there is a degree of separation, as would be the case where the coach/Referee was officiating a game involving a team which that coach/Referee’s team might play some time in the future.

It is often not known or understood that soccer was played for a long time with no Referees at all.  The sport evolved at a time and in a culture where “sportsmanship” was deemed such an important, core, and assumed ingredient in the game that disputes about play were decided by the participants themselves.  Indeed, there were neither coaches nor Referees.  Gradually, this changed with persons being appointed to make decisions about the legality of some event on the field only if the issue could not be decided by the participants and only if the issue were “referred” to these persons (hence the title of that person as “Referee”).  Ultimately, the role of this person developed and solidified into the modern concept of the “Referee” as a neutral, professional, and trained person.  Yet, this development, while implicit in virtually every word in the Laws of the Game, was and remains unwritten.  The closest the sport has come to saying anything on this subject is to be found in the 2016/2017 version of the Laws, early in Law 5 (The Referee): “Decisions will be made to the best of the referee’s ability according to the Laws of the Game and the ‘spirit of the game’ and will be based on the opinion of the referee who has the discretion to take appropriate action within the framework of the Laws of the Game.”