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Dealing with Officials

The referee is a central part of the game, although ideally you will hardly notice him, like the grass on the field. As well as making matter-of-fact decisions, most refs use what they observe to develop and refine a mental model of how the game is and should be going. If you give the ref suitable positive feedback, you will find that sometimes it is possible to influence his mental model, possibly to the benefit of your team or both teams.

What you think are mistakes or missed calls might just be legitimate differences of interpretation. The law is clear that handling must be deliberate to be called, for instance, even though many observers think it's a foul every time the ball and an arm come in contact. On the other hand, if the referee isn't calling shirt-pulling, heel-clipping or other "sneaky" fouls, it might be that he doesn't realize they are occurring.

If you think the referee is missing certain calls, you may be able to constructively assist him. Having your captain or players politely tell the ref that specific players on the other team are using bad language or pulling on shirts, for instance, may cause the ref to pay more attention to those particular matters. If you would rather tell him yourself, then be at your most charming and phrase it as, "Ref, can you please pay more attention to number 8, who's doing such-and-such when you're not looking" rather than as a criticism. Another way to convey this information is to have a quiet word to the Assistant Referee on your touchline just before halftime. For another view, see "Reading the Referee".

You have limited options if you believe the referee is really dreadful. 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. A new referee who is already nervous will make even more mistakes if you yell, and few will re- read the rules just because of your griping.

You might ask politely for clarification: "Sorry, ref, I wasn't watching; what was the call, please?" In general, adopt an approach of providing information the referee seems to be unaware of about how the game is going, rather than giving opinions about his judgments. If you try something more aggressive, you'd better have a charming personality.

You can complain or appeal to league or tournament authorities after the game about referees who appear to be in over their head at your team's level, but remember: the referee is final judge of facts, and you won't win arguments about factual interpretations. Provide an objective report, not simply a list of complaints, and it will carry more weight if you are the winning team.

Application of the Laws

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. If the referee or linesman seem to interpret the offside law in a way different from what you have taught your team, you should probably avoid the offside trap, and be sure to defend all the way to the goal line, and play to the whistle. Some apparent inconsistency can arise when special rules used in only one competition, such as high school, are applied to other games by mistake. Examples include restarting with an indirect free kick (US high school) instead of a dropped ball (FIFA) after an injury stoppage, and some substitution procedures.

Even if the referee's badge is for the current year, not all referees attend clinics as part of their recertification, and they don't all read or remember the lawbook. (USSF referee badges have the rank above the shield, such as "Referee" or "State Referee," and the current year at the bottom; a badge with just the USSF shield is not a referee badge.) Remember too that a few referees simply don't agree with some recent law changes or official interpretations and are reluctant to enforce them strictly. For more discussion, see the FAQ on Law 5 in the LOTG web pages.

Extreme Danger

If things are so bad that your players are being injured or the conditions are extremely dangerous (e.g., lightning in the immediate vicinity, or extreme heat and humidity) you might have to do more. This is a very difficult issue. First, it helps if you haven't been whining all along to the ref about every instance of your players being charged or tackled -- soccer is 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 -- he may be a competent ref who is simply applying an inappropriate standard of physical play, and will understand your position. Fourth, you can try having your team deliberately kick the ball out of play very often to slow the game down for a while. Fifth, send someone to get the referee assignor or a 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, so be aware that pulling your team off the field may have serious consequences for you personally.

Appealing Referee Decisions

The referee's decisions on matters of fact are not subject to appeal. If he says it was or wasn't a foul or a goal, then it was or wasn't. And even if there is an error of law, in many leagues and tournaments appeals are not permitted for the practical reason that there is no way to replay games. In recreational leagues, another consideration is that win-loss records are not considered so important, and the level of refereeing may be just a fact of life, especially if the refs are unpaid volunteers.

However, some clubs or leagues have avenues of appeal for the rare cases where a misapplication of the laws determines a game's outcome. Here are some examples (assume a tie score near the end of the game):

  1. awarding the attacking team a direct free kick at the spot of a foul within the opponents' penalty area -- it must be either a penalty kick (from the penalty mark) or an indirect free kick from the spot of the foul, depending on the foul;
  2. awarding a penalty kick when the goalkeeper handles a throw-in or kicked pass from a teammate within her own penalty area -- a goalkeeper can never commit the handling offense within her own penalty area; this is a technical infraction for which the proper restart is an indirect free kick;
  3. allowing a goal when a penalty kicker misses initially but gets the rebound off the goal post and scores -- he may not play the ball a second time until another player touches it.

Most cases like these involve a judgment of fact that is final (that a foul occurred at a certain location, for example), followed by a decision to restart play in an incorrect manner. This points up an inherent difficulty of any appeal -- it can be hard to prove that the outcome would have been different following a different restart.

Even a successful appeal will at best only get you a replay with a new referee -- results cannot be awarded by an appeal board. This means there's no point in appealing a single error in a lopsided game. But, if all the conditions are met and you still feel you must appeal, then be sure to make notes while the event is still fresh in your mind, and be prepared to put down a non-refundable fee, complete some forms, write a factual report on exactly what happened in the game (and who said what and in what sequence, if applicable), and attend a meeting.

Dealing with referees successfully is a black art. The very best coaches manage to get their point across while radiating little, if any sense of anger and outrage, and with a minimalism that is a skilled art unto itself. They can often, with very little said, none of it harsh, as much subtle gestures as words, get a conscientious referee to be alert for potential hints of unfairness in the way the game is being called for their team. However, the R-E-S-P-E-C-T approach has one limitation: it requires that the referee is the kind of person who is conscientious and considerate, and at least minimally competent. Coaches need to know how to deal with the other kind, too, which sometimes unfortunately means that if none of the things you listed work, they have to shut up and shudder, requesting later to the league that they not get that referee again.

Updated 1 April 1999
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