The following situation arose in a recent game I watched:

Attacking player with a breakaway towards opposing goal is pursued and illegally tackled by a defender right about 18 yards from goal.

Attacking player had possession, only keeper to beat, and was moving in the direction of goal (4 Ds fulfilled). Referee whistles foul and awards DFK outside of box. The referee apparently “loses track” of the offending player and does not remember a number/who to send-off (though he was certain that a send-off for DOSGO was warranted). Play is restarted without any recognition of the misconduct that took place, just a DFK. After the match the referee claims that there is “nothing [he] could have done in the situation.” He just messed up…

Is this true? Shouldn’t someone have been sent off from the offending team even if the referee was unsure exactly who? If that is true where does that authority come from in the laws, interpretations, and other sources governing the beautiful game and how should the referee go about selecting a player to send off?

Thank you for all you do!

USSF answer (September 29, 2009):
Back in 2004 we stated quite clearly that “The resourceful referee will do everything possible to punish the correct person for serious misconduct. In doing so, the referee is expected to make appropriate use of the assistant referees and the fourth official.” That answer and the following exception, based on guidance from the IFAB over the past two years (see the Interpretations of the Laws of the Game and Guidelines for Referees in the back of the Law book), apply to this situation: If the AR had seen the misconduct, had raised his flag, and had maintained it through the ensuing play, the referee could give the card and the send-off once he became aware of the AR’s flag. Unfortunately, in this case the AR does not appear to have seen the incident. If the ARs and the fourth official are unable to provide the necessary information, then the referee has a problem — one that should never have occurred.

Thus, under the strict interpretation of the Laws, the referee was correct: if no member of the officiating team could identify the miscreant, he could legally do nothing. Players cannot be sent off willy-nilly simply because the referee failed to attend to his duties. However, this sort of situation is a case in which the referee might ask that the captain of the offender’s team provide the necessary information. The captain cannot be forced to do this, but the referee might suggest that the game will be abandoned if the miscreant is not produced. In all events, the referee must provide full information (or at least as much as he has retained) in the match report.

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