Mark, a senior amateur player, asks:
When defending, can a referee ask me to move away from the ball during a free kick, only to have the attacking player perform a quick free kick? What if the referee moves me too far back? I was always under the impression that the attacking player needed to ask for 10 yards in order to have me physically moved but the referee instructed me otherwise.
CAN a referee do this? Yes. SHOULD a referee do this? No. It is contrary to standard management techniques for a quick restart. It gets a little complicated but here is the short version.
Scenario 1: When there is a quick free kick pending, the referee should intervene only if an opponent is so close to the restart location that is it obvious the kick cannot be taken without hindrance. In this case, the referee steps in and immediately states that the free kick is now a ceremonial free kick which cannot be taken until the referee specifically signals that it can be taken … and then the referee cautions the opponent for “delaying the restart of play” (in this case, the caution is not “fails to respect the required distance” but any caution given as part of Scenarios 2-4 would be given for this reason).
Scenario 2: When there is a free kick pending and one or more opponents are retreating the required distance but are not yet at the required distance when the attacking team takes the kick and one of those retreating opponents moves to and does in fact make contact with the ball, the referee halts play, cautions the opponent, and gives the attacking team a retake of the original free kick restart at the original location. Note: the referee can decide not to stop play if the opponent’s contact with the ball results nevertheless in the ball returning to the attacking team’s possession and in an advantageous position for the attackers.
Scenario 3: When there is a free kick pending and one or more opponent are retreating the required distance but are not yet at the required distance when the attacking team takes the kick and the ball makes contact with one of those retreating opponents without that opponent making any move to the ball, the referee allows the contact (i.e., doesn’t punish it) and play proceeds without any stoppage. The contact with the ball by the opponent who is closer than he/she should be was not the result of any effort by that opponent and is due solely to the attacking team’s wish to kick the ball despite the closenesss (except for Scenario 1) of the opponent. In other words, the contact was not made as a result of any movement other than continuing to retreat by the opponent.
Scenario 4: When there is a free kick pending and an attacker requests that the referee enforce the minimum distance, this immediately leads the referee to convert the quick free kick to a ceremonial free kick which cannot be taken except upon a signal by the referee which is not given until all opponents are at/beyond the minimum distance. The restart now can only occur by a signal from the referee. If, following this signal but before the kick is taken, an opponent moves inside the minimum distance and makes contact with the ball, the referee stops play, cautions that opponent who moved inside the minimum distance before the kick is actually taken, and then orders the kick to be retaken (ceremonially) once all opponents are at/beyond the minimum distance. Repeat as and if needed.
Two notes about Scenario 4. First, the referee can decide to deny the request if, in the referee’s opinion, all opponents are already at or beyond the minimum distance and the attacking team’s request is a delaying tactic. Second, an attacking team’s request for a ceremonial restart is not the only reason for doing so. For example, the referee can declare a ceremonial restart on his/her own initiative if, for example, there has been an injury, a card needs to be given related to the reason for the stoppage in the first place (e.g., a foul), or a substitution is being requested by the attacking team.
By the way, your “always under the impression” is incorrect. In the absence of a specific request by the attacking team (other than in Scenario 1 conditions) to enforce the minimum distance, the Law assumes and expects that all opponents are retreating or already have retreated to the required minimum distance. Each opponent is expected to retreat without any request by the attackers or the referee: their failure to do so could lead to a caution.
Referees step into this on their own initiative only in the case of a Scenario 1 – and this is true the older and/or more experienced are the players involved. The only time we have ever stepped in on our own initiative (i.e., without a request by the attacking team) is if the players are young and/or inexperienced and clearly do not know what to do (and/or the attackers are equally young/inexperienced and do not know of their essential right to take the kick without any signal by the referee if that is what they choose to do).