(Originally published on 7/8/17, “Operation Restore”)
Jose, a U-12 and Under parent, asks:
If the Red team commits a foul, does the Referee need to tell whoever of the red team is standing close to the ball to start moving away from it or does the Referee have to wait for a blue team member to ask for it?
This is a frequent topic of conversation because actual practice in this matter is all over the board (or should we say “all over the field”?). The best we can do here is to outline what are considered to be standard and accepted practices and procedures. By the way, although the question was asked in the context of a free kick restart. what follows is roughly applicable as well to any restart where there is a distance requirement for the opposing team (e.g., particularly corner kicks and throw-ins but to a lesser degree also goal kicks — kick-offs and penalty kicks also have opponent distance requirements but these restarts are already ceremonial, a fact which is highly relevant and which we will explain shortly).
Let’s start off by noting that the Law assumes all opponents will immediately begin backing away the required 10-yard distance as soon as the offense is whistled because they know that is what is expected and, anyway, it is the sporting thing to do. Uh huh. This is not true across all player age groups — though for different reasons as between young players versus older, more experienced players. For the former, failing to back away immediately is a matter of ignorance as to what the Law requires. For older players, it is because they are at an age when they try to push the limits and “get away” with things (both at home and on the field). For upper level youth, senior amateur, and pro players, it is because they are engaged in rational decision-making in order to achieve as much advantage as they can at minimal cost.
Effective mechanics for the Referee start immediately upon whistling the offense. Free kicks are intended to be taken quickly and without interference (hence the word “free”) so one might think the Referee should begin shooing opponents away to allow this to happen. One would be wrong. Because the Law assumes opponents are supposed to do this automatically and immediately, Referees are advised to move away (preferably toward a position optimal for the free kick which is about to occur) and keep their mouths shut. The attacking team, in fact, has the right to take the free kick as soon as the ball is properly placed even if there are still opponents closer than the minimum retreat distance. A quick free kick may be advantageous to them because of any disarray among the opponents. If the failure of all opponents to retreat to the full minimum distance hinders the attacking team’s ability to capitalize on the opponents’ confusion, the apparent kicker (not the spectators, not the coach, etc.) can request that the minimum distance be enforced. That act, once acknowledged and announced by the Referee, turns the free kick officially into what is termed a “ceremonial” restart — i.e., from that moment, while the Referee is performing the requested service, the free kick cannot be taken except upon a signal (whistle) by the Referee.
Of course, the Referee might have turned the free kick restart into a ceremony on his or her own initiative if, for example, the event resulting in the free kick involved an injury or was the basis for a card being shown. There are two other scenarios where the Referee might step in to turn the restart into a ceremony without being asked to do so. One is if, in the opinion of the Referee, there are one or more opponents who are not simply failing to retreat the required ten yards but who are actively, clearly, and effectively engaged in forcing a delay in the taking of the free kick. This can happen if an opponent takes possession of the ball and withholds it from the team given the restart or kicks the ball away, thus immediately interfering with how quickly the restart can be taken. Another possibility is that an opponent is standing so close to the ball that no beneficial kick is even physically possible. These situations are usually considered so obvious and egregious a form of misconduct (delaying the restart of play) that it should result immediately in a caution (thus turning the free kick into a ceremonial restart anyway). The other scenario where the Referee might step in without being asked (thus again resulting in a ceremonial restart) is if the teams are at a young enough age level that it becomes apparent they are not aware of or know how to exercise their rights in a free kick situation — usually, the look of utter confusion in the expressions of the attackers is sufficient to draw the Referee’s intervention.
So, there you have it. No, the Referee does not get involved in shooing opponents away unless specifically asked to do so … and the asking is normally expected to come from the apparent kicker. Only rarely and only under fairly specific conditions would the Referee intervene and, in all such cases, whether asked or not, the restart becomes ceremonial.