© 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 18"

Common Sense, or Spirit of the Game

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There is no "Law 18", of course, but just the same you'll sometimes hear referees refer to it as the most important of all the Laws, because it overrides all the others. It's simply the application of common sense in interpreting and applying the Laws so as to ensure that a referee's decisions don't go against the spirit of the game (SOTG). "Law 18" provides that common sense and SOTG are always more important than the letter of the law, and if you're lucky, you'll have referees who apply Law 18 conscientiously.


So what is this "spirit of the game" that's so important it can override the written Laws? It's something which all referees have to judge for themselves based on their experience and their conception of what sort of sport soccer is, but for most referees a number of factors are important:

  1. natural justice;
  2. flow of the game;
  3. letting the players determine the outcome of the match.

Two factors in particular need to be stressed, because they help to distinguish soccer from other common team sports, and because they can lead to decisions by officials which are mystifying for spectators who are unaware of the basic differences between soccer and other sports which they are used to.

  1. Tradition:

    Much of soccer is based on letting the game be played as it evolved, and the LOTG simply are intended to give referees a basis on which to mediate disputes. A basic difference between soccer and other sports is that the referee is a "judge" who interprets the LOTG and applies them as needed to settle disputes between players and teams, not a policeman who applies every LOTG exactly as written to every single case where the law is violated.

  2. Intent of the Law:

    Many soccer laws are intended to control certain things (time wasting, for instance) but could be mis-applied to other things. It is important for every coach, player and referee to understand the history and intent of each law in order to understand the true SOTG.

What this means in practice is that in the service of SOTG, referees are frequently called on to temper their judgements with simple common sense. For example, if a referee blew his whistle every time an offence of any kind was committed, most games would be nothing more than a protracted and frustrating series of restarts. This occurs at all levels: very young players sometimes commit minor fouls inadvertently through clumsiness or lack of skill, and older players use gamesmanship to see how much they can get away with. All referees will let some offenses go: just how many they will allow before stopping play, and just how serious an offence it takes to stop play, is something players and coaches must learn to adjust to as early as possible in the match.

Such situations arise more frequently than the casual spectator might think, and it is the hallmark of the best referees that they are able to maintain complete control of a match while allowing the players plenty of leeway to keep the game flowing.

Questions on "Law 18"

NOTE: Most of these questions appear in one form or another somewhere in the FAQs on individual laws. They are reproduced here simply to serve as examples of how referees typically resolve conflicts between the letter of Laws and the dictates of reason.

18.01 I saw the referee speaking to one of our opponents as they were jogging up the field. I didn't hear what he was saying, but it looked as though he was lecturing him about something. If the player had done something wrong, why didn't the referee just stop the game and punish him?

Good referees will often have what they call a "quiet word" with a player who has committed several minor 'niggling' fouls, just to tell him that any more similar behaviour will bring a caution. In this way, they try to keep the game moving while letting the offender know that they are aware of what he's doing.

18.02 One of our opponents was clearly offside as his team played the ball into our penalty area. The assistant referee had her flag up, but the referee just waved at her and didn't give us the free kick for offside. The AR told me she assumed that was because the ball had gone straight to our keeper -- does that seem right?

Yes. If your keeper already had possession of the ball near where the opponent would have been called for the offside infraction, there was little to be gained by giving a free kick. Common sense requires that the goalkeeper should simply be allowed to punt the ball back upfield or distribute as he chooses in order to restart the game with the minimum of delay.

18.03 Our opponents had a throw-in near the half-line in front of our bench, and the referee let their player take it from a spot that wasn't all that close to where the ball went out, but later in the game he was really sticky about making one of my players take one from the exact spot where the ball went out in their end. Why did he let them have an advantage, but not us?

Most referees allow some latitude on throw-ins when the ball is not near enough to either goal for a goal to be scored as an immediate result of the throw-in, especially if it helps to get the ball back in play quickly. When a throw-in has the potential to affect the outcome of a game, however, you will usually find that referees are much more vigilant about making players observe the letter of the law.

Similarly, you will often find that referees are much stricter about the direction of a throw-in if a scoring opportunity is likely to result. At mid-field, they may be less interested in the rights and wrongs of a close call than in getting the game restarted, and players can demonstrate good sportsmanship by not arguing over these calls, which normally have little if any effect on the match.

18.04 In stoppage time, our opponents had us pinned in our own penalty area for a couple of minutes. We were under a lot of pressure and kept wanting the ref to blow his whistle for the game to end. As soon as we cleared the ball out, he did blow for the end of the game, just when we might have had a counterattack!

Most referees prefer to wait if at all possible for the ball to be in a relatively neutral area of the field before blowing the final whistle, so as not to deprive a team of a clear goal-scoring opportunity. Once they have decided that time added on for stoppages in play has expired, however, they will usually blow their whistle as soon as the ball reaches midfield, so you should not count on being able to launch a counterattack in these circumstances. Similarly, very few referees (except those in jurisdictions where a time clock supersedes their authority) will ever blow the final whistle while the ball is in the air on its way toward the net!

18.05 We arrived at a field for a game at the start of the season and found that the grass had not been cut for some time and that the ground was wet and rutted in places. The two coaches consulted the players' parents, and everyone was in agreement for the game to go ahead, but the referee inspected the pitch and then said the match would have to be cancelled. That seems a bit extreme, to go against the coaches, the parents and the players! Who does the ref think he is? I heard he gets paid even if the match doesn't go ahead.

By agreeing to allow the match to proceed, the referee would have been accepting responsibility for the local conditions, even if all those concerned said they were prepared to accept the consequences of any accident. It is his duty to check the condition of the pitch before the game and his paramount concern at all times must be the safety of those involved. If he is in any doubt about the safety of the pitch, he should not allow the match to proceed -- sorry!

18.06 The Laws say the goalkeeper must release the ball into play after no more than four steps, but I clearly saw our opponents' keeper take 5 or 6 steps on a number of occasions. Why won't the referee penalize him for this?

This is another of those cases where if referees were to call every violation of the letter of the law, the spirit of the game would be the real loser. The real point of this provision is to ensure that goalkeepers do not seek to gain an unfair advantage by running from near the goal line to the top of the penalty area before releasing the ball, or from one side of the area to the other. As long as the referee is satisfied that the goalkeeper is not seeking to gain an unfair advantage, he is unlikely to punish an extra step or two, especially if they are small.

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Law 18

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Updated February 26, 1998