Walls and More Walls

Aaron, a High School and College referee, asks:

On a set play (free kick), if the defending team sets a wall five yards from the ball and the center official tells them to move back, but does not say “on my whistle,” the attacking team takes a quick kick straight into goal, should the referee allow the goal?  The center said, “Move back, the law states ten yards. Come on, move back.”


A referee intending to talk to the opponents about their positioning vis-a-vis the ball on a restart against them should first state “wait for my whistle” and then take care of the problem.  It is unfair to both sides for the referee to be talking without ensuring that the restart will not occur because both sides are having their attention turned toward the referee and the attacking team could take advantage of this by kicking the ball.  Unfortunately, many referees are not aware of this.  Referees talking to players should not occur in these circumstances – if something is wrong enough that you plan on ordering players to adhere to the Law, then you have the obligation to visibly and audibly hold up the restart.  After all, this is one of the reasons why you have a whistle.

In doing anything like this even with the best of intentions, you are still interfering with the game.

Keep the following in mind:

  1. It’s the players’ game, not yours.
  2. Except for very young kids, allow each team to make mistakes … and then apply whatever the Law demands for the mistake.  They’ll learn not to make the mistake.
  3. Read the teams – is the attacker nearest the ball clearly ready, willing, and able to restart, even though one or more opponents might be within the 10 yards minimum distance?  Let the kick proceed – remember (1) above.  If the kicker sends the ball to an opponent nearer than 10 yards with that opponent, at the moment, in the process of backing away, keep quiet and let the play happen as the attacking team wanted it even if they ultimately messed up.
  4. Step in immediately, including the use of your whistle, if one or more opponents are so obviously close to the restart location and are making no meaningful effort to back away (including such tricks as walking across the probable path of the probable kick direction).  This changes their offense from “failing to respect the required distance” to “delaying the restart of play” … and show a yellow card to the opponent.
  5. Insert yourself, after clearly stating “Wait for my whistle,” and then proceed if the attacking team clearly requests enforcing the minimum distance but if and only if there is one or more opponents within that minimum distance.  Whistle play to restart immediately if, in your opinion, the opponents are already at least 10 yards back: don’t engage in backing opponents away if they are far enough back.
  6. An opposing team has no right to set “a wall five yards from the ball” nor does the referee have the right to be caught in this trap of wasting time (which helps the opposing team) – 7 or 8 yards maybe, but not 5!

The International Board has now made the referee’s life more difficult (as of 2019-2020) by allowing the appearance of a second “wall” consisting of one or more attackers.  Law 15 now provides that one or more attackers are permitted to set themselves at least one yard away from the defending team’s “wall” if that wall consists of 3 or more opponents.  If only one or two opponents are defending against the restart, there is no restriction against an attacker joining the party.  However, if there is a three-defender wall, any attacker nearer than one yard at the moment of the kick (e.g., by lunging closer in the last moment), the result is a whistle and the award of an indirect free kick for the former opponents, now having become the attackers!

Although all this may sound interesting, there are several hidden dangers here about which, as yet, the International Board has not provided advice.  For example, suppose at a ceremonial restart, the whistle has been sounded for the commencement of the restart and only two defenders plus an attacker are constituting “the wall” (all perfectly legal).  But, before the kick actually occurs, another defender suddenly joins the wall, thus making the once legally ensconced attacker now illegally in a wall of three defenders.  Then we have the issue of what constitutes a “wall” in the first place.  How close do three or more defenders have to be to be considered a “wall”?  Arms linked?  Shoulders touching? Standing with no body contact but objectively being within, say, five inches?  Six inches?  By the way, the International Board has yet to define “a wall,” apparently assuming  that everyone knows what it is.

Also by the way, the above two paragraphs apply, as of 2021, to NCAA (collegiate) matches as well.