Restart Management

Hyung, a referee of U12 players, asks:

It’s not clear to me how to manage restarts for free kicks when the attacking team doesn’t know the procedure/options (e.g., ceremonial vs quick ).  Should the attacking team always initiate asking the Referee for a ceremonial restart? What if they don’t ask?  Is it the Referee’s duty to ask the attacking team?  A few seconds pass and it’s obvious the attacking team will not take the free kick quickly.  Also, they didn’t request enforcing the minimum distance (10 yds).  Is it at this point the Referee should take charge and do the free kick ceremonially?  If the attacking team doesn’t ask for 10, is 5 yds acceptable? Is this in the rules? Is it best for the Referee to lead in this confusing situation and restart ceremonially?


You have some good questions here, all of them pertaining to issues of correct or preferred mechanics and procedures but not so much matters of Law.  In fact, the term “ceremonial restart” is not found anywhere in the Laws of the Game — it is entirely a matter of tradition and recommended procedures.  In short, you will not find answers to any of your questions except in publications which, mostly unofficially, attempt to explain the art of refereeing.

We can, however, start with some fundamental principles and work from there.  First, the core definition of a free kick (Law 13) is a restart given to a team because the opponents have violated the Law in some way and the Referee has stopped play for it.  It is called a “free” kick because the team awarded this restart must be given the opportunity to put the ball back into play without hindrance or interference (i.e., freely).  To this end, all opponents are required by Law to retire (move away) at least ten yards from the location of the free kick in every direction.  This is a legal burden placed on the shoulders of every opponent and the Referee’s job is to punish any opponent who fails to do so (before, during, or after the kick).  In a perfect world, what should happen is that, as soon as the Referee whistles for a stoppage and signals a free kick restart (indirect or direct), all opponents hurriedly move at least ten yards away in the spirit of sporting behavior and the attacking team is able to take its free kick in a matter of seconds.

Unfortunately, this expectation is rather akin to also asking players who commit an offense to publicly admit their error, apologize to the opposing team, hand the ball over to them, and clear a path between the kick and the defending team’s goal.  Needless to say, this is not what happens in our imperfect world.  What usually occurs, depending on the circumstances of the stoppage, the temperature of the game, what’s at stake, and simple hormonal imbalances, is that some opponents will try to interfere — by not moving at all, by standing near the ball, by kicking the ball away, by blocking the likely path of the kick so as to diminish the attacking team’s ability to recover from their opponent’s commission of a violation, and other tactics limited only by the inventiveness of wily soccer players trying to gain an advantage at almost any cost.

All of this is summarized briefly in the general principle that the Referee’s obligation in these cases is to allow, expect, and protect as much as possible the taking of the quick free kick.  Why?  Because a quick free kick (a) gets play moving again — usually a good thing, (b) restores as much as possible the condition of the harmed team prior to the offense, and (d) serves as a better deterrent to future illegal acts.  The antithesis of the “quick restart” is the “ceremonial restart.”

Some restarts are always ceremonial as a matter of Law — kick-offs and penalty kicks.  The dropped ball restart is technically not ceremonial but, by definition, cannot occur until and unless the Referee is ready (the chief characteristic of a ceremonial restart is the requirement that the restart can only occur when signaled by the Referee’s whistle).  All of the remaining  ways to restart play (free kicks, throw-ins, goal kicks, and corner kicks) are expected to be performed quickly, not ceremonially.  At the same time, any of these remaining restarts can become ceremonial if the Referee so decides.

There are five generally recognized and accepted reasons why the Referee might decide to convert a quick restart into a ceremonial restart.

  • A legal substitution request is recognized and granted by the Referee.
  • One or more yellow and/or red cards need to be given (remember, the Law requires that, in all but two rare exceptions, a card must be given at the next stoppage of play following the commission of the misconduct for which the card is intended).
  • An injury has occurred during any existing stoppage or prior to a stoppage where the restart is otherwise normally to be quickly taken.
  • The Referee needs to confer with a member of the officiating team (subject is irrelevant) or needs to discuss some important matter with a player (e.g., a warning lasting more than a few words).
  • A team given a quick free kick restart clearly expresses a desire that the referee enforce the minimum distance for opponents.  Since this applies only to the team in possession of the restart, they are in effect deciding to give up their right to restart quickly in exchange for insuring all opponents at least ten yards away (by the way, by longstanding tradition, the request for this should come from a player on the team, not from a team official, and preferably from someone who is near the restart location).  By the way, even if asked, a Referee might (and has the authority to) decide that the request is frivolous because opponents are already retired to the correct distance.

Why, one might ask in connection with the 5th bullet point, should it be necessary or advisable for a team, which has the right to a quick restart with no hindrance by any opponent closer than at least ten yards, to have to ask that it be enforced?  Good question.  Reread the the third paragraph of this answer.

OK, by now you are probably wondering when we will get around to answering the questions.  Well, like most complicated matters (and these questions are actually rather complicated), we need to offer some foundational background before getting to the point … which is below.

In the general course of refereeing competitive matches involving skilled, experienced, and knowledgeable players, it is assumed that they know all this and so, Referees officiating such players should not — indeed, must not — become involved with asking anyone if they want the minimum distance enforced.  The Referee should do nothing and say nothing to interfere with the taking of the quick free kick — take up the appropriate position as quickly as possible, watch things carefully, and be prepared to deal with any violation of the Law that needs punishment.  At the same time, the experienced Referee will understand that the request to enforce the minimum distance doesn’t have to be (though it usually is) communicated by voice.  It can be requested, for example, by body language or eye contact.

But what to do when officiating inexperienced, unskilled players who are (perhaps like their coaches) not knowledgeable as to the Law?  Here, and only here, an astute Referee might step in upon seeing confusion, irritation, hostility, or frustration (which can only get worse if left unresolved) and either ask if they want the minimum distance enforced (which carries the risk of receiving only blank looks or such meaningful vocalizations as “Huh?”) or proceed to “set the wall” before announcing, by whistle, that the free kick can now be taken.  Our rough approximation as to the highest age level at which this approach might be taken is under 12 and younger (with under 14 included only if facing really inexperienced players despite their age).

The last question we will deal with here is whether the minimum distance can be less than ten yards.  The answer is, no.  The Law requires this distance and it is not an accident that it is the same distance as the radius of the center circle and the penalty arc.  However, that said, at very young ages, the Law governing play usually prescribes smaller fields with commensurately smaller internal dimensions.  Unless locally modified, it is generally safe to set the minimum distance at whatever radius is used for the center circle.