© 1998 jointly in the following individuals: Jim Geissman, David Graham, Jim MacQueen, Connie Matthies, Jim Meinhold, Chris Mohr, Gary Rue, Ken Smith, Dave Teetz, Ron Tremper, who are together known pseudonymously as the SOCCER-COACH-L LOTG COLLECTIVE

Law 5 - The Referee

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The referee has full authority to make all decisions regarding all 17 Laws. On matters of fact, such as whether a goal was scored or a foul was committed, the referee's decisions are final and not subject to appeal. The referee's authority extends to the coaches and other spectators, if needed.

While ensuring the safety of the players is the referee's primary objective, he should permit the game to flow and not call trivial fouls, nor should he call fouls where stopping play for a free kick would be less beneficial to the fouled team than permitting play to continue.

An important tool for the referee is Law 18, Common Sense.


Unlike American [gridiron] football, soccer is a fluid, non-stop game without built-in breaks in play to permit the players or coaches to choose whether to accept penalties. Instead, the referee has been given the authority both to identify fouls and to decide whether to call them, while the game continues. This exercise in real-time judgment is usually carried out more consistently when done by only one person.

When appraising a referee, a coach or other observer should watch at least one half of a game to try to understand the referee's sense of game flow, and not judge on the basis of one or two calls.

Questions on Law 5

5.01 What is the advantage rule?

This rule says, don't stop play for a foul if the play continuing on the field is already working or expected to work to the benefit of the fouled team.

5.02 Okay, that's the technical definition. Can you give an example?

Sure. Suppose a breakaway is starting, and three attackers, with the ball, have just crossed the halfway line and are confronted by two defenders. There's nothing else between them and the goal except about forty yards of field and the goalkeeper. One defender deliberately throws herself at the attacker, bringing down both the attacker and herself. The action is a clear foul, and probably deserves a caution as well. But... the ball squirts free and goes right to one of the other attackers, and suddenly a two-on-one breakaway has started.

Consider the referee's options. One option is to stop play, show a yellow card, and have the ball brought back to the spot of the foul for the free kick. While this is happening, the defenders will get organized, and the free kick will probably not lead to a breakaway. The other option is to let play continue, on the basis that a two-on-one breakaway is a major advantage for the attacking team, possibly even better than the original three-on-two. If the referee is going to show a yellow card, he can still do so the next time play stops. In either case, a genuine foul was observed. However, under the second option, although the referee called the foul, he didn't stop play for the free kick, and play continued because the play going on was more advantageous to the fouled team than a free kick would have been. (Advantage implies that the foul was called, i.e., recognized by the referee -- however, play was not stopped. In the American gridiron football sense, the referee judged that the fouled team would decline the penalty if given the choice.)

There's a similar case that is often confused with advantage, but is not. Suppose that the defender attempts a tackle and while doing so trips the attacker, but only causes her to stumble briefly, after which she continues on with the ball still under control. Some referees will blow the whistle, but to most referees, this situation is trifling and *not a foul at all* -- it's merely an "attempted foul." If the act isn't a foul, then the subsequent decision isn't advantage, rather the referee simply decided to ignore it.

To be a foul most actions need to have some effect on the play. In the words of Law 12, the act must be committed "in a manner...careless, reckless or using excessive force." Causing a momentary stumble may not be any of those.

The Laws formerly contained this beautiful paragraph, which still applies even though the words are no longer there:

"The Laws of the Game are intended to provide that games should be played with as little interference as possible, and in this view it is the duty of referees to penalise only deliberate breaches of the Law. Constant whistling for trifling and doubtful breaches produces bad feeling and loss of temper on the part of the players and spoils the pleasure of spectators."

5.03 How do I know when advantage has been applied?

The signal is for the referee to extend both arms forward. The referee may also say "Play on," and/or "Advantage." This means that the referee saw a foul, but elected not to stop play for a free kick. If it was a serious foul that will lead to a yellow or red card, the referee can still show the card the next time play stops. (If a red card is coming, the referee will almost always stop play immediately.)

5.04 The referee said, "Play on, advantage," but then stopped play. Why?

The referee first applied advantage, but then he realized that the play wasn't working out as well for the fouled team as he thought it would, so he changed his mind and awarded the free kick instead. This is perfectly acceptable, and the Law gives the referee a few seconds to change his mind.

5.05 The referee uses advantage sometimes, but usually he just awards free kicks. How does he decide which way to do it?

Usually, advantage is given to an attacking team in the opponents' half of the field when a good attacking opportunity is developing, although advantage is almost never given when the alternative is a penalty kick! Defenders in their own half are almost always given free kicks instead of advantage. Another consideration is that referees usually don't use advantage early in the game, before they have established a feeling for how the game is "flowing" -- if the game doesn't seem to "flow" at all, many referees will avoid advantage entirely.

5.06 Some referees blow the whistle for every little thing, while others let some pretty physical play go. Why?

The referee is supposed to let play continue unless fouls are creating injury, causing the team in possession to lose the ball, or leading to bad feelings on the part of the players that may result in retaliation. Some referees correctly sense that the players (and coaches and parents) are willing to tolerate physical play without becoming angry, and let play continue without interruption, which helps the players' enjoyment. Another referee may make the same judgment, but be in error, leading to the players retaliating for what they perceive to be uncalled fouls. On the other hand, a referee who calls too many trivial fouls also spoils the enjoyment of players and spectators.

The fouls that a referee chooses to call indicate his skill at recognizing fouls and his sense of how much control he needs to exercise in each particular game. If you, the coach, think the referee is drawing the line at the wrong point and trouble is brewing, you should share your opinion, in a way calculated to appeal to the referee.

At younger ages, referees are instructed to call more fouls, to help teach the players what is and isn't permitted.

5.07 This referee is very slow to blow the whistle. Isn't that bad practice?

This might just indicate prudence, not poor refereeing. Some referees tend to wait a little while after fouls to see what the effect of the foul is on the play. If there's no effect, or if there is advantage to the fouled team, they may not call anything.

5.08 I asked the referee about a call he made, and in reply he mentioned some Laws that I can't find in the book. What's going on?

The laws are meant to be very brief and simply define a legal soccer game. They do not include instructions on how to play or how to referee. To help referees apply the laws consistently, FIFA and USSF (the international and USA soccer federations, respectively) provide additional instructions and advice which carry the weight of law, even though they are not in the book. Furthermore, in 1997 the lawbook was rewritten and some of this extra material that was formerly included was removed to make the text shorter still. However, this material still applies. FIFA is preparing a book of instructions for referees. In the USA, USSF has consolidated the law interpretations and unwritten rules in USSF Advice to Referees on the Laws of the Game, which was published in 1998. The on-line version is kept up-to-date as new interpretations arise.

The SOCCER-COACH-L web page includes links to several of these resources, including FIFA's Laws of the Game (as revised 1997), FIFA's Questions and Answers on the Laws of the Game (not yet updated to reflect the new laws), and United States Soccer Federation Memorandums explaining changes to the laws and recommended practices. Except for the Q&A, each of these is updated at least every year.

If you still have a copy of the Laws from before 1997, be sure to keep it. Even though the book was rewritten, only a few substantive changes were made. The major changes were: scoring permitted from kick-off and goal kick, ball does not have to move its circumference to be in play on a kick restart, keeper can't handle throw in from a teammate, and the keeper may move along the goal line at a penalty kick. Otherwise, excepting a few minor points that are mentioned in these web pages, the 1996 laws still apply, including some details that are not even in the current book.

The earlier editions contained the following sections of special importance:

5.09 Usually there's only one referee for our games, and he doesn't always see when the ball goes over a line. How can we help him?

You can offer to provide two assistant referees or linesmen. They can raise a flag when the ball completely passes outside the field. If they are trained or even certified referees themselves, the referee may accept their inputs on other matters, such as offside or fouls.

5.10 My son, who was lining our game, saw a foul and waved his flag. The referee saw him, but told him to put the flag down. Why did he ignore his assistant?

There are two possible explanations. One is that the referee was treating your son as a "club linesman," and had asked him only to signal when the ball went out -- even though your son saw something the referee didn't. Club linesmen are officials who aren't certified referees, and/or aren't technically neutral, being affiliated with one of the teams. The other explanation is that the referee also saw the incident and decided either that it was not a foul at all, or that advantage should be applied.

5.11 The other team's supporters became very angry and abusive, and the referee terminated the game. We were ahead at the time, but the referee wouldn't say that we won. Why not?

The referee has the authority to manage the game, including terminating it if things get out of control. However, he doesn't have authority to assign a winner, except by reporting the number of goals that were scored. He will send a report on the game to the league, and the league will have to decide what to do.

5.12 Why doesn't the referee explain his calls? An American football referee has an extensive repertoire of signals.

Soccer referees use the whistle to stop play, and then an arm signal to indicate how play will restart -- not to explain why it was stopped. For instance, after a goal is scored the referee points to the center circle, because the next play will be a kick-off. If there's a foul, the players involved usually know what happened, and just want to know that a free kick has been awarded. Most referees will explain what the call was if asked, however they are not obliged to. But remember that the referee has a limited vocabulary to explain fouls -- there are only about a dozen fouls mentioned in Law 12, a very small set of terms to describe the multitude of unfair things that can happen on the field. If you ask the referee after the game, he may give you a fuller description of what he saw and how he made the judgment.

5.13 The referee awarded my team a free kick. Then he saw the linesman's flag up, talked with him, and then awarded the other team a throw in. Can he do that?

Yes, he can. If play hasn't already been restarted, the referee can correct his calls. In your case, apparently the ball went over the touch line without the referee realizing it, and then the foul occurred after the ball came back in. Because the ball was technically out of play, a free kick couldn't be awarded for the foul, although the referee could have shown a yellow or red card for misconduct -- whether the ball was in play or not.

5.14 This referee never looks at his linesmen, so he's missing some important calls. What can I do?

It's really up to the linesmen to do something to get themselves more involved. If you can say it nicely, you might mention the referee's poor mechanics to the referee assignor. This referee probably works most games by himself, and isn't accustomed to working with assistants.

5.15 Why doesn't the referee always stop play when a player is injured?

The law says the referee should stop for a "serious" injury, but let play continue until the ball goes out of play for minor injuries. The dividing line between serious and minor injuries is up to the referee, although referees are usually quicker to stop the game when younger children are involved. Another factor in the referee's decision is whether a strong attacking play is going on -- if the injured player's team is about to score he is more likely to let play continue. Some players know the protocol whereby the team in possession kicks the ball into touch when they see an injured player, and then other team throws the ball back to them on the restart, but it is rarely seen in American youth soccer, and the referee often has to intervene.

On other occasions, the referee may judge that the supposedly injured player is merely faking an injury in order to cause the referee to stop play, to nullify the opponents' advantage. This is a very tricky question, and the referee must make a fine judgment in a very few seconds.

5.16 After some bad language between players, the referee stopped play, gave the players a talking-to, and restarted with an indirect free kick. That calmed the situation, and the game concluded normally. Later, I looked in the law book, and discovered the referee can't do that. Once he stops play like that, an indirect free kick is only the legal restart if he calls a foul like obstruction or cautions one of the players involved. Can or should I do anything?

Obviously this referee didn't want to go overboard in dealing with the players, and no doubt he chose this solution to help with game control. In US High School rules, what the referee did was proper provided one team had clear possession. Under the FIFA rules, however, you are quite correct that a referee who did this would have committed a technical error which could lead to a successful protest by one of the teams. If the match in question was governed by FIFA and not NF rules, what the incident shows is that soccer referees have -- and exercise -- a great deal of latitude in interpretation. Sometimes referees will do things which are not in strict accordance with the rules because their sense of the "Spirit of the Game" overrides the letter of the Laws. In a case like this, given that creative law-bending can backfire if a legalistic protest is filed, many referees will avoid a drop ball by calling a foul -- no matter how trivial -- on one of the players. This enables them to stop the game, speak to both players and restart the action smoothly.

5.17 Two of our players got into a fight during pre-game warmups. The referee, who was on the field inspecting the other team, saw it, and wouldn't let them play in the game -- just as if he had shown them both a red card. Can he do that? The game hadn't even started.

The referee's authority over the players and other aspects of a match begins when he enters the area of the field -- when he leaves the dressing room, if there is one -- and continues until he departs after the conclusion of the match. So yes, he was within his rights to forbid the two players from participating, just as if the incident had occurred during the game. If he followed accepted procedure, he would have done this without showing a red card, however -- cards are reserved for players and substitutes, while the game is going on. The referee can also issue a sending-off for a fight or other serious misconduct that occurs at half-time or after the conclusion of the match, such as when the teams are shaking hands. A referee is supposed to report such incidents to the league; most leagues treat them the same as send-offs during play as far as suspensions or other penalties are concerned.

Note 1 : even if these players were listed as starters, you should have been permitted to substitute other players for them -- in other words, you should not have had to play short-handed because of an incident which took place before the start of play.

Note 2: you should note that the referee's authority extends only to the immediate vicinity of the field. If your players had been seen by the referee fighting in the parking lot before the game, he would have reported the incident, but could not have prevented the players from taking part in the match.

Many referees make a point of departing immediately at the conclusion of match to avoid becoming involved in any trouble -- this may be especially true if the referee believes himself to be the likely target.

5.18 Why aren't referees more consistent? Why don't they just follow the Laws of the Game?

There are at least four major factors that contribute to what is perceived as inconsistent refereeing: differences from one referee to another, differences from one game to another, differences from one part of a game to another, and occasional inconsistencies between the letter of the law and what players and coaches perceive as fairness.

It's obvious that referees vary in personality, fitness, approach to game management, knowledge of the laws, and experience -- to name a few important factors. There's not much that can be done in any one game, although over the long run coaches can feed evaluations to referee assignors and administrators. Positive words about the better referees, and constructive criticism of weaker ones usually work best.

As far as the other sources of variation are concerned, the referee may be doing exactly the right thing by being inconsistent, as strange as that may seem. The referee is not just enforcing the Laws -- he is charged with managng the entire "spectacle" of the match, which requires flexibility. In general, a referee who likes to let the game flow always needs to monitor the attitudes of players and coaches and be ready to "tighten up" when the situation warrants.

Different games need to be handled differently. For example, high school boys varsity players usually expect and can tolerate more physical contact than young girls in a recreational league. Some high schools have very intense rivalries where every game is a war, with bad feelings even before the opening kick-off. Ethnic groups differ in playing style, expectations regarding physical contact, and tendencies to waste time or dive or fake fouls. The referee needs to consider all these issues in determining what needs to be called. The problems are magnified when the teams have conflicting expectations, or when a major title rides on the final score.

The referee's attitude to game control may change as the game goes along. In the first minute, the referee doesn't know whether a game is going to flow, but in the second half he probably does, although the mood can change abruptly. Games can change quickly. For instance, a game which starts out very intense and close may become a blowout if one team loses heart after one or two goals. In such a case, the losing team may feel insulted and try to get even by fouling, or may simply give up and offer token opposition, so the referee cannot easily predict the mood of the losing team. Conversely, an underdog may be surprisingly competitive, leading their opponents to become intense and combative as they see their anticipated easy victory melt away.

Sometimes the referee seems to violate the Laws themselves in the interest of fairness. Suppose a team takes a quick free kick from the wrong location (wrong in their favor) just outside the opponents' penalty area, but shoots over the goal. According to the Laws, the restart was not conducted properly and the specified action is to retake it. Practically, however, the referee doesn't give a second chance, and awards a goal kick. (If they score, then the retake may be in order.) In an important sense, the referee is not bending the law in this case, but is just following the directive not to stop the game for "trifling and doubtful breaches." The offense is trifling in relation to the potential consequences of any intervention by the referee, so he is quite right to ignore it.

Another case of the referee paying attention to the overall situation rather than minor details arises when time expires as the ball is heading towards the goal in a tied game. Technically, time is up when it's up, but most players and coaches would prefer to let the game be settled then and there.

5.19 You sound like referees are being noble when they depart from the letter of the law to be more "fair." But we have to adjust to a completely different style of interpretation almost every game. Talk about unfair! Even if they have reasons to bend the law sometimes, why can't they at least be the same as each other?

Adjusting to referees is something coaches have to do -- there's no denying that. For example, you might decide to discontinue the offside trap if offside calls seem erratic. A case like offside will probably affect both teams equally, but at other times, a referee's idiosyncracies may end up benefiting one team, even though no bias is intended. If the ref awards a penalty kick for handling the ball in a case that almost all referees would have judged accidental and not a foul, you can lose the game, with no chance to get even because it only happened once. If that happens, you have to console yourself with the belief that had the same thing occurred to the other team, the same call would have been made -- which is usually the case. Sometimes the ref's style can systematically benefit one team which happens to have players whose play takes advantage -- for example by permitting the ball to be played by crossed arms on the chest. Start with the attitude of "that's how the laws are for this game," and take advantage of them or ignore them, as you wish -- but remember the referee is probably trying to be fair, he's just different.

At least in the USA, the number of soccer programs has grown so explosively in the past decade that the supply of referees and, more importantly, referee instructors hasn't kept up. We can only hope that as the sport matures, a higher and higher proportion of referees will attend clinics and come out with a more consistent view of their role and the laws.

5.20 Why are the Laws changed so often? The referees are too inconsistent already and changing the Law just increases the amount of variation.

"The spirit of the game," or the players' and fans' unwritten understanding of how a fair game of soccer works, is the key to the evolution of the Laws. Soccer was widely played before the first laws were written in the middle of the 19th century. The first unified rules were an attempt to find common ground among pre-existing codes that had slight differences to permit inter-regional play, rather than the creation of a new game. Still today, most of the world's soccer players and fans learn the game informally as children, and may never have formal exposure to the Laws of the Game. The game they learn is based on a fair chance for all players, not legal technicalities, and evolves only slowly.

The current Laws should be understood as a codification of that widely-shared informal idea of fair soccer, not a new game defined from scratch. The codification may not match everybody's idea of what's fair, but that is the intention. As noted earlier, when referees occasionally depart from the letter of the law (assuming it's not a simple mistake) it's often in the belief their decision is more in this spirit.

Because playing to the Laws does not always lead to a result that is preceived to be fair, and because the style in which the game is played changes over time, occasional changes are required. When the International Board decides that goalkeepers should not be permitted to handle a throw-in from their teammates, for example, it is because they believe that too many teams have been using this tactic to take the ball effectively out of play and deny the other team a fair chance to play. This may not be a problem in the games we coach, but the International Board is more concerned with matches such as the World Cup. So if you encounter some new wrinkle in the laws you think is unnecessary, like the "pass-back" law, remember it's in there to promote fair play, not just to annoy you.

5.21 I am respectful toward referees and acknowledge they usually know more about the LOTG than I do, but there's no getting around the conclusion that this ref's a bozo. He's killing the enjoyment even when he's not killing our team (and sometimes our opponent) with bad judgment, bad calls from out of position, poor game management, and occasionally, ignorance or misinterpretation of the rules. What can I constructively do?

Rule No. 1 is never argue with a bad referee, since you expose yourself to the real chance of getting tossed out for dissent and, even if you get away with arguing, you probably will just make the referee worse. Remember, newer refs who are already nervous will make even more mistakes when you yell, and stupid ones aren't going to bother to read the rules just because of your griping. Unless it's something as bad as allowing a retake of a PK because your goalkeeper moved along the line, it's probably not worth the risk to even politely challenge the referee's knowledge of the rules. About all that you can constructively do is to ask -- politely -- for clarification: "Sorry, ref, I wasn't watching; what was the call, please?" A bit more aggressive is something like "Sir, I am not dissenting from the call, but just asking, did you see the [insert alleged infraction here] and take it into consideration?". However, you'd better have a charming personality to pull this off, and not try it too often.

You can complain or appeal to league or tournament authorities after the game about referees who are truly awful and in over their heads at that level of play, but remember: the referee is final judge of facts, and you won't win arguments about factual interpretations, and your complaints will carry more weight if you are the winning team.

If the referee is making systematic errors, such as not knowing this year's law changes, you can factor that in to your team's tactics -- for instance avoid the offside trap if the referee or linesman doesn't seem to know the offside law.

You might look at the referee's badge and see if it is for the current year. But even if it is, not all referees attend clinics as part of their recertification, and they don't all read the lawbook. Remember too that there are refs who simply don't agree with some recent law changes or official interpretations and are reluctant to enforce them.

5.22 Same question as 5.21, except that this time the referee's bad judgment and game management is literally killing your team - the game is getting unacceptably rough and out of hand, and you're afraid someone may get badly hurt. What can you constructively do?

This is a very difficult issue. First, it helps if you haven't been whining all along to the ref about every instance where one of your players was charged or tackled, thereby demonstrating your palpable ignorance of the rules and SOTG about allowable physical contact in what is after all, a contact sport. Second, it will help if the opposing coach feels the same way; send an emissary (unless perhaps the rough stuff by the other team appears a deliberate strategy encouraged by their coach). Third, this is one time you may have a duty to speak up to the referee that you are concerned for the safety of the players on both teams (not: "That was a horrible no-call on that last tackle!"). Fourth, you can try having your team deliberately kick the ball out of play very often to simply try to slow the game down for awhile. Fifth, send someone to get the referee assignor or some league official over to observe what's going on, if possible. Sixth, if all else fails, you have a tough decision: is this bad enough that in good conscience, you really must pull your team off the field for their safety? If so, quickly poll your players' parents about what they want to do (get them on record as behind you), and know that this is a major decision, falling on your sword for the good of everyone involved. NOTE: There's probably a league rule suspending coaches who pull their teams out of games, and you should be aware that pulling your team off the field may have serious consequences for you personally.

5.23 There's no all-girl league at the right age group for the upcoming indoor season, but my girls want to play. I'm thinking of entering the team in a boys' league that will also have some coed teams. Will the girls be safe?

Mixed games are a problem, but the referee can create an environment that's safe for everyone. Boys may be larger, faster and more aggressive than girls, depending on the age, which can cause potential safety issues simply through the action of physics -- momentum equals mass times velocity. At ages roughly under 12, boys may not recognize potentially dangerous situations and take action to avoid them. To counter these forces, the referee will need to keep a relatively tight rein on things, and stop all forms of careless and reckless play. This is a challenge, but it can be done. However, if the girls are smaller and not used to the speed and level of aggressiveness, be prepared for them to get legitimately knocked around to some degree. You will need to keep a close watch on things, and tell the referee (in the right way) if your players are being endangered or intimidated, and possibly tell the league management if things seem to be out of hand. If the response is tough luck for entering a boys' league, you might consider withdrawing the team -- even withdrawing from the current game. Another suggestion is to sign up a couple of boys.

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Law 5

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Updated December 7, 1998