The Watch and the Whistle

A Primer for Youth Soccer Referees
by Christopher Seiwald

$Date: 2019/09/07 $
Copyright 2004-2019 Christopher Seiwald. You may use this work in any way as long as you cite the title and author as the original source.

Last updated 7/7/19 to reflect the 2019 changes to LOTG, marked in this color.

Short Version/ Long Version


This is an introduction to youth soccer refereeing for people who know the game but don't know how to officiate.

This document was started in 2003 by a 2nd year USSF soccer referee. Before I took the referee course, I hunted the Internet trying to find a straightforward primer, but only found oblique rule books and trails and tidbits of advice here and there. Even after I took the course and knew the rules, I was still in the dark about the mechanics of actually refereeing a game.

So I decided to write this for aspiring referees looking for a primer to get them onto the field.

This document is not a replacement the vaunted Laws of the Game (LOTG) or real experience but it can give you the footing to get more out of them all.

This document describes FIFA's laws and its three referee system, called the diagonal system of control, which uses a center referee (CR) on the field and two assistant referees (ARs) along the edges. It does not describe high school soccer rules or its much disparaged dual system, which has two referees on the field.

This document is written from the perspective of the center referee, but special mechanics for the ARs are described as well.

This document is not authoritative. Sticklers should note that there is a well defined line of authority on the Laws of the Game, and I am not in that line. I do my best to correct errors, but none of this bears any official approval.

I update this document regularly to reflect the law changes and to incorporate suggestions. Email me at

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Table of Contents

This document is broken into sections arranged roughly in the chronological order of your duties. You can read them in order, but the sections are meant to stand on their own as well.

Off the Field -- Practical Procedures
What a Soccer Field Looks Like -- Laws and Mechanics
The Arrival -- Practical Procedures
With Your Mind -- Background Information
With Your Body -- Practical Procedures
The Starts, Restarts, and Stops -- Laws and Mechanics
Offside -- Laws and Mechanics
Indirect Free Kick Fouls -- Laws and Mechanics
Direct Free Kick Fouls -- Laws and Mechanics
Learning to Recognize Fouls -- Background Information
Game Control -- Background Information
Misconduct -- Laws and Mechanics
Tie Breaking -- Laws and Mechanics
You Blew it -- Practical Procedures
The Departure -- Practical Procedures
Appendix: My Sources -- Background Information

Each section has one of three forms:

  • Background Information: non-procedural information that should roll around your head
  • Practical Procedures: practical procedures and mechanics not related to the Laws of the Game
  • Laws and Mechanics: the Laws of the Game, retold, along with mechanics

This is the Long Version with all the sections. There is also a Short Version that includes only the five Practical Procedures sections.

Off the Field

Practical Procedures


To referee you should be able to keep up with the play, and that means walking, jogging, and sometimes sprinting. If you are otherwise out of shape, run a mile or two a few times during the week.

You can get fancy and practice running backwards and sideways, as you'll do a fair bit of that on the field as well.

Get the clothes

You need the uniform to referee: no one believes you without it. You need the official shirt and socks, and passable shorts and shoes.

If you are only going to get one shirt, it will be probably be the default yellow, but see what color is most often used in your league. It is supposed to contrast with the players. They also come in red, black, blue, and green. To be really spot on, you'll want all of them so that you can coordinate (hopefully in advance) with the other two referees. The shirts have a velcro patch over the left pocket where you affix your referee badge (with the current year on it).

The socks are long black ones with the USSF logo across the calf (in the United States), and they are usually meant to fold over at the top.

Plain black shorts work, but the ones made for referees have the big pockets you need to carry around the player passes and coin.

You should wear turf shoes or cleats, and they should be mostly black. White sneakers go as well with a referee uniform as they do with a business suit.

Keep your shoes clean. Tuck your shirt in. Make sure your socks stay up. Respect starts with the uniform; the better prepared and dressed you are when you walk on the field the more the teams will honor your game.

Online retailers have all you need, but you'll probably want to try shoes on at a local soccer or sporting goods store.

Get the equipment

You'll need Red & Yellow Cards and two flags made for refereeing, and then a watch, a whistle, a pen, a coin, and a water bottle.

The Red & Yellow Cards are specialized. I keep the Yellow in my right front pants pocket, and the Red in my right back pants pocket. Some refs keep the Yellow in their shirt pocket. Keeping them separate is a good idea -- it's embarrassing to fumble or to get the wrong one.

When you're the center referee you supply the two flags for the ARs to use. These are made for soccer, and the cheap ones seem to work as well as the fancy ones.

An easy-to-read watch with a stopwatch timer is a good start, but you might move up to sports stopwatch. Prepared referees will wear two in case one goes out, even though it looks a little funny.

Selecting a whistle is pretty trivial, but there are two things to keep in mind: first, if you are next to another field, you might need a different sounding whistle to avoid confusing the players. Second, a whistle with a pea in it can jam after lots of (salivating) use. There are things more embarrassing than having your whistle wimper, but a pea-less whistle doesn't jam. If you're like me, you'll start with one whistle and eventually work up a collection.

If you're not used to blowing a whistle, you probably won't blow it hard enough. Practice once with a friend someplace outside.

There are whistles with neck lanyards, wrist lanyards, and fingerclips. I've tried all three (the neck for only half a game), but currently just hold the whistle in my hand. That allows me to whistle and signal at the same time if needed. I actually attach one of my watches to the whistle, to get a better grip and an easy view of the time. I also keep a spare whistle in my back pocket.

Get a pen with a clip, not a cap. I keep mine clipped inside my front right pants pocket; some refs like theirs in their shirt pocket. Keep a backup pen in a different place.

For the coin toss at the beginning of the game the center referee is supposed to bring the coin. Some referees pride themselves in their choice of coin, but a quarter works well and is easily replaced.

Check your Procedures

Different playing leagues have different procedures, and if you don't already know how it works in your league, ask someone beforehand:

How long are the halves in the games? Usually between 25 and 45 minutes, depending on age.
What is the maximum/minimum number of players on the field? Usually each team fields 11 players and the game can't be started or continued with fewer than 7.
When can players be substituted? FIFA allow substitution at any stop in the game, but in some leagues it can happen on at certain times (like half time, goals, Goal Kicks, own team's Throw-In, and injury).
Who brings the game card? Usually the home team coach.
What makes a player legitimate? Usually a player pass; sometimes the roster; sometimes both.
Who gets the game card? Sometimes the winning team, sometimes the home team, and sometimes you have to mail it in.
Can the game end in a tie? Some competitions require extra periods or kicks from the penalty mark to determine a winner.
How do you handle Red Cards? Most every league has a "24 hour sendoff form" and a well-documented procedure to follow.
Any other funky rules? Like no slide tackling, or U10's get two chances to get a Throw-In right, etc.


Like cops and the mafia, referees stand by each other. Don't diss another referee, especially while he's on the field officiating. In fact, eventually you'll find that the only people who want to hear about refereeing are other referees. Different referees have different styles, levels of tolerance and enforcement, and behind that different degrees of experience and plain ability. If people solicit comments from you on another referee, just remember: we'll have perfect referees when we have perfect players.

When you aren't actually officiating a game, go incognito. If you have to wear your uniform around, at least cover up the shirt, especially if you are standing around the field watching a game or waiting to officiate the next. Strictly speaking, a referee's authority begins when he arrives at the field and ends when he leaves, but he is only really on the hook when he's in uniform. You don't want to get into the sticky situation of having the authority over your game's players while not actually paying attention to them.

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What a Soccer Field Looks Like

Laws and Mechanics

In this section I describe a soccer field: not so much that you can design one, but enough to recognize it when you find one.

A soccer field is a rectangle. The lines at the side are called "touch lines." The lines at the end are called "goal lines." This may be confusing because the ball going over the goal line isn't enough to score a goal -- it has to go in the goal.

The goals are centered on the goal lines. They have uprights 8 ft high and a crossbar 8 yards wide. They usually have a net (and some structure) behind the goal line, but the uprights and crossbar are all that really counts. The words "completely over the goal line between the uprights and under the crossbar" are often used to describe precisely "into the goal."

Extending from the goal lines into the field is a box called the "goal area", and it is bounded by the "goal area lines." It starts 6 yards to either side of the uprights and extend 6 yards from the goal line. The most important thing about the goal area is that "Goal Kicks" happen from within here.

Also extending from the goal lines into the field, outside of the goal area, is a bigger box called the "penalty area", and it is bounded by the "penalty area lines." It starts 18 yards to either side of the uprights and extends 18 yards from the goal line. The penalty area line that's parallel to the goal line is called "the 18." The most important thing about the penalty area is that the goalkeeper can handle (i.e. use hands on) the ball there. Outside of the penalty area, the goalkeeper is just another player.

Halfway between the goal area line and the penalty area line is a spot called the "penalty mark." That would be 12 yards out from the goal line. It is used only for the Penalty Kick.

Just outside the top of the penalty area is an arc whose center is the penalty mark and whose radius 10 yards. That's to ensure that other players are 10 yards away during the taking of a Penalty Kick.

Across the narrow middle of the whole field is the halfway line. Around the very middle is the center circle 10 yards in radius. That is there only to ensure opponents are 10 yards away during the Kick Off. In the middle of the center circle is the center mark, for the Kick Off.

In each corner is a flag at least 5 feet tall, called the "corner flag," and a arc extending into the field 1 yard, centered at the corner. "Corner Kicks" are taken within this arc. There can be a mark outside the goal line 11 yards from the corner flag. That's to ensure defenders are 10 yards from the arc during Corner Kicks.

In soccer, "lines belong to the areas of which they are boundaries." So the goal area goes all the way to the outside edge of the goal area lines; same with the penalty area; same with the whole field. It is always a matter of judging whether the ball or a person went completely over the line if leaving an area (like the field, the goal area, the penalty area), or touched the line if entering an area. Curiously, the halfway line is thus in both halves of the field.

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The Arrival

Practical Procedures

After you arrive at the field, but prior to the start of the game, you have a ritual to go through. It takes about 20 minutes.

Meet the other referees

Assuming you have ARs, introduce yourself and verify that you're the center referee.

This is a good time to discuss the level of play you are expecting as well as the level of play you all are accustomed to. There's a good chance your ARs know a lot more or a lot less than you do, and your job as the center referee may change to match. While most ARs can deal with the ball going over the line, a novice AR may be nervous about calling offside properly, and a seasoned AR can help call fouls in their quadrant.

A lot of refs are subject to 2nd half dislexia: pointing the flag in the wrong direction just after the teams change ends. It's good to get them to admit this so you know to double check when your calls don't agree.

This document includes some advice for compensating for lesser ARs.

Deliver your pre-game instructions

Some mechanics for the ARs, especially how they interact with the CR, are left up to the CR to spell out in "pre-game instructions." If you want your ARs to behave as I say they should in this document, talk about these things:

  • Orchestrating substitutions (see "Substitutions").
  • Eye contact before signalling restarts (see "The Stare-Down for Restarts").
  • Eye contact when signalling anything else.
  • Penalty Kick positioning (see "Penalty Kick").

Your pre-game instructions will get more specific once you've developed a style of your own.

Gauge your players

Take a look at your players as they warm up. Are they what you were expecting?

Some of your officiating has to be modified for the level of play. For this document, I'll describe play as low level, medium level, and high level. The following is a starter:

Low level: U10-U12 non-competitive
Mid level: U12-U14 non-competitive, U10-U12 competitive
High level: U16+ non-competitive, U13+ competitive

Boys generally play at a higher level of play than girls at the same age, and there are cultural differences galore. But never adopt an attitude that girls or anyone else will always be civil and fair, or you'll find yourself unprepared in the middle of a very physical game. To get the best assessment, take a look at your players warming up.

The jog

Next plan on jogging around the perimeter of the field, inspecting at least the four corner flags and two goals. For the goals the important parts are that they are securely anchored, that don't have gaps in the nets, and that the back of the uprights align with the outside edge of the goal line.

Also look at the field itself: if you later trip in a hole or soft spot, you have only yourself to blame. More importantly, by continuing with the game you are judging the field to be a safe place to play.

It's not your job to correct the goals or the fields: coaches can patch holes in the nets and cover holes or soft spots in the fields with cones.

Now's a good time to stretch.

Practice Your Aplomb

It's almost time to start talking to coaches and players, but before you do remember that the next 5 minutes will leave an impression that may take the whole game to shake. So practice your aplomb: be easy and brief. No one respects a jerk, nor do they respect a pushover. If you are easygoing, you can avoid being a jerk. If you are brief, they can't peg you for a pushover.

Resist the temptation to lecture the coaches or players about anything. Reminding them of any rules at best suggests that you'll be oblivious to other rules and at worst insults their intelligence. Any education they are to get from you is from the only clean way: by your officiating.

Meet the coaches

With aplomb in mind, trot out and introduce yourself to the home team coach. A good, firm handshake will reinforce that you are good, firm referee.

Make sure the home coach has given the game card to the visiting coach by now. You have to verify the player names on the game card, so it has to be filled in by both teams.

If you are unsure of the duration of the halves, since it varies among the age groups, verify it now. Ideally you've studied this and other parameters of the match beforehand, but better to find out now than when on the field. It avoids one common mistake.

Then go meet the visiting coach, collect the game card (ensuring it at least has the player names from both teams written on it), and tell the visiting coach it is time to check in.

If you are without ARs, you're going to need to recruit linesmen from the teams. If you need only one, ask the visiting team. If you need two, get one from each team. Give the coach a flag and ask him to give it to his selected linesman. You'll brief him just before the game starts.

Player Check-In

If you have ARs, have them join you for the check-in.

Blow your whistle briefly if you need attention, and ask the players to line up for check-in. If they've been practicing near the goal, having them line up on "the 18" -- the penalty area line. Otherwise, you can just point to any nearby line and hope they fall into formation.

Get the player passes from the coach.

Now comes equipment inspection. There are a few things to check, and I do it in this order:

Shin guards. I just look down the line at each player's shins as it is pretty easy to tell if they've got them or not. Most referees make them knock them with their knuckles, and players may automatically do this anyhow. If anyone has socks slipping below the tops of the guards, ask them to pull them up and remind them that socks must always completely cover the guards.

Jewelry. Look down the row, checking fingers, wrists, ears, necks, and hair for any jewelry. Technically none is ever allowed, but little girls who just got their ears pierced will tape over the studs. Your league may allow that for low-level play, but it doesn't fly beyond that. The players are usually accustomed to handing any contraband over to the coach.

Shoes. Again look down the row and everyone should be wearing what are obviously soccer shoes. If they aren't, you need to verify that the shoes are safe: hard soled street shoes and shoes with cleats at the tips are out, and if anyone has metal studs you probably want to feel them to make sure they haven't been sharpened by walking on pavement. Soccer shoes aren't actually required: they can play in sneakers.

Roll call. Tell the players that when you call their name, they should turn around, showing you their jersey number, and then stand to the side of the group still standing on the line. (Jersey numbers are often marginalized at low-level play.) Step through the player passes, calling their names, and verify their numbers on the game card. If a player is absent, ask if the player is likely to show up later. Strike out names of any players not planning on showing, and note names of players who may be late. If you have an AR helping you, this is a good job for him.

If multiple players have the same jersey number, it is up to you to decide whether you can (or need to) keep them straight, should discipline become a problem. This is generally not a problem at low-level play.

Players left on the line -- those without player passes -- don't generally get to play, but that depends on the state of your league's paperwork and their policy thereof.

Thank the players, wish them well, and head over to the home team to check them in. Put all the player passes in your bag -- you don't want to run around with them in your pockets.

The Game Ball

After checking in the home team players ask the home coach for the game ball. If it is high-level play, or there is nothing at the edge of the field to keep the game ball from rolling forever, ask for three balls.

A properly inflated ball is actually quite hard. Except for any padding, it shouldn't deflect much at all when you press it with your fingers. You can get by with a softer ball on a hard surface, but an under-inflated ball on tall or wet grass makes for a dull game. To make sure the ball isn't out of round, spin it in the air and look for a noticable wobble. Coaches aren't too bent out of shape when you ask for another ball, so don't be shy.

If you got three balls, give one to each AR to put behind the goals at either end. Put the game ball in the center of the center circle.

Note that there are different sizes of balls (3, 4, and 5) for different ages. Make sure you've got the right balls.

Brief the Linesmen

If you are the CR without a proper pair of ARs, you'll need to advise the linesmen your coaches have chosen for you. Jog over to the guy holding your flag, introduce yourself, and ask him:

a) Is he a referee?
b) Has he done this before?

In the answer to these two questions, you'll start to be able to determine whether you've got good linesmen or lame ones. You won't know for sure until the game starts. Assuming you've got a rank beginner, explain these things:

a) He can't coach (or talk to players on the field at all) while he holds the flag.

b) He should stay outside the touch line, between the halfway line and the goal line at one end (see the discussion on the diagonal system of control, below).

c) The ball is only out of bounds if it goes entirely over the line. Many parents and coaches are not facile with this subtlety of soccer.

d) If the ball goes out of bounds, he should hold the flag straight up.

Once you get your wheels and move to higher level games, you can stop here. While you're still shaky you can enlist a little more help:

e) He can signal direction by pointing the flag at a 45 degree angle in the favoring team's direction. If he knows how to signal for a Goal Kick or Corner Kick, do so. If he is in doubt, he can hold the flag up with a blank stare.

f) If he's a uniformed, licensed referee that you feel you should trust, he can signal for offside as well, but you will only be considering, not following his signals. Do this at your own peril.

The Coin Toss

Gather your team captains for the coin toss. You can just go to the center circle, whistle, and yell "Team Captains!" but it's better to send your ARs (or yourself) over to invite them out. In most cases, this is the only duty of the captains. Teams can offer more than one captain.

With your ARs neatly beside (or across from) you, introduce yourself and invite the captains to do the same (to each other).

Ask which player from the visiting team will be calling the coin toss. Show him both sides of the coin, and ask him to call it in the air. If you are coordinated you can catch it; otherwise just let it fall to the ground.

Whoever wins the coin toss decides whether to take the Kick Off or to choose which direction to attack. Ask them what they want ("the ball or direction"). The other team gets the other choice. Remind them who gets what, and that you'll be starting shortly (usually a minute or two). Write on the game card who gets the Kick Off.

Bid your ARs farewell. If you hold your hand out with your fingers curled, and your ARs have done this before, you might find yourself doing the mysterious 3-way handshake.


Go stand on the halfway line outside the center circle. If players aren't assembling after the coin toss, blow your whistle. If they still don't assemble, they might need a personal invite. Normally teams field 11 players a side, but you can't even start or continue with fewer than 7.

Once you have the 11 players on the field from either end, and the goalies appear to be in position, note the start time on the game card and put it in your pocket. Set and start your stopwatch(es).

You may notice some referees ask the goalies if they are ready. You should not do this. Just look.

Look to your ARs, which should have positioned themselves along the touch lines for the Kick Off. They should have their flags unfurled and acknowledge your nod.

Point your arm up in the direction of the kick and blow your whistle. Assuming they don't bungle the kick (see The Kick Off, below) your game is underway!

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With Your Mind

Some Important Distinctions

Background Information

Before I go on to how you handle yourself on the field, I need to make a few important distinctions that you'll need throughout the rest of the book.

Facts vs Rules

As the referee, you are the sole judge of facts, but still at the mercy of the rules.

So if you say that a defender grew an extra arm out of his head to deflect the ball away from the goal, your league will stand behind you (though possibly not very close in this case). But if you then award a Throw-In for handling the ball, you've broken the rules and your decision can be contested, especially if it affects the outcome of the game.

Safety is an important fact for you to judge: you alone determine whether equipment, clothing, the ball, the field, the goals, the flags, the weather, etc. are sufficiently safe for play.

What You Saw vs What Happened

Call what you see -- what you didn't see didn't happen. (You can use your ears if you are close enough.)

It is better to skip a call because you didn't actually see it happen than it is to make the call based on circumstantial or 3rd party evidence.

For example, a player may fall to the ground for any number of reasons. If you didn't see the offending action that brought him down, don't call it a foul. If you do, players will notice your willingness to judge by effect alone, and they will put on all sorts of effects for you.

Many fouls are obscured by other players or happen just as you look away. Don't sweat it and just enforce what you do see: it should be enough to discourage the players from relying on fouling.

You can admit that you only call what you see, as players will tell you about fouls you didn't see. Thank them professionally and, weighing their biases, try to make use of their information on future fouls.

Selling it vs Buying it

Often enough you can't tell exactly what happened, and the players will no doubt attempt to assist you in your decision making. A simple case is the ball going out of bounds: who kicked it out? As it turns out, selling your answer is more important than always getting it right.

Let's look at four cases:

  • You're sure, and the players got it right or they follow your direction: no problem.
  • You're sure, but the players get it wrong: stop them with the whistle (quick beeps ... "but but but") and set them straight by signaling and telling.
  • You're not sure, but the players seem convinced, and you want to go with the flow: signal to reflect their decision (to make it look like your own). If you're subtle, this is an excellent technique.
  • You're not sure, and the players look to you for direction: make up something, quick, and sell it. Some refs like to give it to the defense.

Any of these is better than no signal at all or changing it after you've made up your mind. If you can sell your decision, even when you are dead wrong, it tells the players that you're not a pushover. But be careful: insisting when you know you are wrong is bad Zen.

Act vs Decision vs Whistle

As the referee, you choose when your decision is effective (and play stops). Ideally the act, the decision upon the act, and the whistle happen simultaneously. But in real life you have a few seconds of retroactive power to make your decision and a moment to bumble for your whistle.

For example: if your AR puts up his flag for an offside violation, and you only notice the flag after the offside player scores, you blow your whistle and unwind back to the offside violation.

Another example: if an attacker pushes a defender and you decide to award a free kick for the defender, but then the defender trips the attacker, it is still a free kick for the defender. This is because when you decided to award the kick, the play stopped, and a foul can only happen when the ball is in play (see below). You do have the option of punishing the defender for misconduct (see below).

There are two reasons for the delay of your decision: sometimes it takes a moment to realize what you have seen, and sometimes stopping for a defender's foul might hurt an attacker's good play. In this latter case, called "applying advantage" (discussed below), you wait a good two seconds or so to judge the aftermath of the foul.

The Bigger Foul vs the First Foul

When two fouls happen simultaneously (i.e. committed by the same player or by two players against each other), your job is to punish the bigger of the two.

But when they happen sequentially, and you have decided after the first that you are going to punish the foul, you have to stick to punishing that first foul. At that point play has stopped and the second act can only be misconduct.

Once play is stopped for any reason, there can be no more fouls, and any misconduct cannot change the restart.

Location of Infringement vs Infringer vs Ball

When a foul occurs, its location is that of the infringement itself, not necessarily where the infringer or ball are. For example, if a player strikes another player by throwing his shinguard at him, the foul is where the struck player is. The location of infringement is important because it determines the location of the restart, and because a Penalty Kick is awarded for fouls inside the defender's penalty area.

Deliberate vs Intentional

Often judgement over fouls involves the distinction between "deliberate" actions and "intentional" ones. What's the difference? "Deliberate" meant the action was under the player's cognitive control, while "intentional" means he had a particular outcome in mind. For example, he might have deliberately put his foot out in the way of the opponent, but did he intentionally trip his opponent or was he intending to play the ball?

Fortunately, for the most part you only have to witness the outcome (that the player tripped his opponent), not guess what was in his heart at the time.

There are a few cases where "deliberate" and "intentional" come into play: handling of the ball must sometimes be "deliberate" and "intent" to cause injury is a sending off offense. These are discussed later.

Control vs Contact

There are a number of calls you'll have to make that hang on whether a defender controls the ball or merely made contact with it. You have to watch soccer to know the difference, but essentially control means the player is directing the ball (successfully or not), while contact does not imply control -- usually just a deflection.

I'll describe these situations later, but for completeness they are listed here:

Control required:

To be guilty of a passing the ball back to the goalkeeper, a defender must first control the ball with his feet.

For the ball to be in the keeper's possession, it must be controlled by his hands or arms. (Note that for the keeper's safety in some youth leagues, mere contact renders the ball unplayable.)

An offside attacker can be exonerated if a defender controls the ball.

Contact sufficient:

For an Indirect Free Kick to score, the ball merely requires contact with another player.

The player who takes a free kick, Goal Kick, Corner Kick, Penalty Kick, or Throw-In may only play the ball again after it contacts another player.

Players are judged to be in an offside or onside position each time their teammates contact the ball.

Kicked vs Played

Similarly, some calls depend on whether the ball was kicked or played. Playing the ball involves any part of the body. Kicking is playing with the foot or leg.

All those Kicks

There are six situations where a player gets to kick the ball unhampered by opponents:

Kick Off
Goal Kick (GK)
Corner Kick (CK)
Penalty Kick (PK)
Direct Free Kick (DFK)
Indirect Free Kick (IFK)

The last two are often called the "free kicks." But all of them are "free" in the same sense: free from the presence of opponents.

I'll actually explain the kicks in the Starts, Restarts, and Stops section.

Warning vs "Caution" vs "Send-Off" vs "Expulsion"

When players or coaches are misbehaving -- either misconduct or excessive fouling -- you have three degrees of communicating your disapproval. It is important that you use the right terminology.

  • A "warning" is informal and without prescribed consequences. You can literally say "I'm warning you" or leave it as a critical comment, like "Watch those hands!"

  • A "Caution" is a formal act. When you caution a player, substitute, or coach you show the Yellow Card (described below) and say why he is being cautioned.

  • A "Send-Off" is a formal expulsion. When you send off a player, substitute, or coach you show the Red Card and say why he is being sent off. You must record this on the game card, and often post-game paperwork is required.

Coaches' misbehavior is almost always dissent.

My Opinion vs Your Opinion

Many of the LOTG mention "in the opinion of the referee" (ITOOTR). You should recognize my opinions in this document and be prepared to substitute you own once your experience permits. In the "Direct Free Kick Fouls" section, I've labelled the opinion piece clearly.

Referee vs Player

You are an oak. Do not officiate in anger. You have no interest in the game, and should not be affronted by players' actions even if they are directed at you. The precision of your officiating is your sharpest tool.

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With Your Body

The Big Run

Practical Procedures

In this section I talk about the event-less mechanics of refereeing a soccer game: the things you'll do without ever having to blow a whistle.

"The Diagonal System of Control"

As the center referee, you'll be using the diagonal system of control. That means as you move up and down field to stay close to the action of the ball, you also move diagonally across the field, so that your overall movement goes from one corner flag to its diagonal opposite.

Meanwhile, your ARs are also staying close to the action by moving up and down the touch line between the halfway line and the corner flag across from your corner. The ARs' positioning is to judge offside, which puts him level with or forward of all the action, save for the goalkeeper.

Together this allows you to sandwich the play between you and the ARs, and if you stuck to this exact positioning no play would ever be more distant from a referee than 1/2 the width of the field. The fact that a kicked ball moves faster than you can run will leave you striving for, but never exactly achieving, this positioning.

You'll never actually run just the diagonal. Instead, you'll stretch it constantly to get close to the action or to stay out of its way. If you are trekking down the field chasing play, try to move early behind and to the left of the ball. This will keep the action between you and the (downfield) AR. This oval pattern will also keep you out of the center circle, a common spot for getting beaned by the ball.

Most all games are managed with the referee going towards the corner to the left of each goal, with the ARs running along the touch line to the right of each goal.

Lead, Don't Follow

Your view is better if you can position yourself where the ball is going to be, rather than chasing after it.

Of course, it wouldn't be much of a game if the future was foreseeable but, with experience, you can predict the likely outcome of some plays. For example, a long shot to a decent goalkeeper is likely to come back.

Players are in the same business of predicting play. Try following them (as a whole) instead of the ball.

Predicting play gives you a chance to rest while the ball is being volleyed back and forth. This is rest that you will surely need when your planning goes awry and you find yourself sprinting to the far end.

Mind Your Distance

You want to be neither too close nor too far from the action: 10 yards is a good rule of thumb. If your players are getting too physical, moving even closer assures them that they're under scrutiny. Outside of 20 and you should be moving closer.

Proximity affords more than just better sight: you can hear better as well. Many fouls, including handling the ball, are subtle enough that you'll need both your eyes and ears to judge.

But get too close and you may become part of the action. There is nothing illegal about players tangling up in your feet but too much suggests that your officiating is interfering with the game. And if you get hit by the ball with any great effect you must stop and do a Dropped Ball.

The other extreme, hanging around the center circle and trying to make calls from there, is about as effective as watching the game on television and making calls from there.

You can stay both close to and out of the action by hiding behind a defender if the play comes your way. Defenders tend to move towards the ball, unlike attackers who might back over you trying to make space.

Watch the Action, Not Just the Ball

The biggest tendency of new referees is to watch the ball. For very young players, that is probably sufficient, but much fouling -- pulling, pushing, charging -- occurs above the waist.

Try to observe the game as you would if you were a spectator (that happens to be very close): unfocus on the ball and look at the whole of the action. With a lot of concentration, but none of it directed at any one place, you can sense whether play is fair.

Never watch a ball kicked high in the air. No fouls happen there. Instead, focus on the players where the ball is going to land.

Linger a Moment

Many fouls occur just after the ball is passed, and new referees miss a lot following the ball. Linger a moment after the play to ensure that nothing untoward happens in the aftermath. Many fouls are committed by players arriving late.

The technique of lingering at one play while anticipating the next is very important for higher level play.

Be Snappy

It's hard to describe more succintly: your actions should be snappy. Not hard and fast, not muddled and slow: a pace that never leaves the players waiting for your direction yet still gives you time to make your due deliberations.

Once you make a decision, carry it out as cleanly and clearly as you can. Over time, your convictions should catch up to your mechanics, but while you're getting started a good clean delivery carries a lot of weight.

For cleanest delivery, stop before signaling, like the football referees do. Waving your arms while running has an air of desperation.

You needn't grandstand. Your motions should be sufficient to make the signal, and little more. It's not you that the spectators came to see.

Check Your ARs

Ideally, the play is sandwiched between you and your nearer AR: you and your AR should be looking over the ball at each other. When that's not the case, as is usually the case, you should take every opportunity to spot your ARs.

You should make eye contact with your ARs at every stop in play: first the near one who will share your signaling, and then the far one to ensure nothing has gone awry. This is important.

The Stare-Down for Restarts

Without some planning, you and your AR are likely to signal opposing restarts, which slowly erodes your credence. Most referees ask their ARs to "make eye contact before signalling," but it's really more like a brief stare-down.

Before signaling direction you and your AR should make eye contact. If you're sure of the direction, go ahead and signal. If you're uncertain, hesistate just a little for his signal. If he then hesistates, go with your best guess. ARs can help by holding the flag in the hand of the intended direction. Some subtly point as well. At the end of this stare-down, you two will be signaling the same way.

In rare cases you'll signal without regard for your AR. If you're going to surprise him and the players, blow your whistle to call attention to yourself so everyone sees your signal. If your AR is already signalling the other way, some referees will make a "brush off" signal with their hands, to indicate that the ball slightly brushed off a player before going out of bounds. They'll do this regardless of whether there was a subtle brush off or the AR just has it all wrong.

If your AR sees the ball go out of play and come back in, he should raise his flag vertically to call your attention. You then go into the same stare-down procedure for direction.

For the sake of snappiness, you must glance frequently at the AR when the ball is near the lines. Once you get a feel for each other's timing it'll look as beautiful as synchronized swimming.

Seasoned ARs are used to this, but it is still a good topic for your pre-game instructions.

The Watch

As the referee you are the sole keeper of time in the game of soccer, and your watch is the only one that matters.

The clock never stops in soccer, but you can add "extra time" for certain situations: injury, slow substitutions and deliberate delays (usually by the winning team). You don't add time for normal play: ball out of bounds, goals, etc.

Because you add extra time rather than stopping it, and because sometimes you need to record when (in what minute) something happens, you should have your stopwatch count up rather than down.

Between keeping the clock, adding extra time, and being the sole judge of the fact of time, you have total control over the length of the game. But you don't control the rules, so your facts better add up: if you end a 45 minute half at 48 minutes, you should be able to convince yourself that 45 minutes of regular time and 3 minutes of added time have passed.

At the end of regular time you should announce how much time you'll be adding. After you do this, you must add at least that much. At other times, if players or coaches ask about the remaining, you should answer loudly and approximately. Answers like "about 10" or "less than 5" are enough for their planning.

Your ARs should back you up on timekeeping in case your watch fails. A closed fist from an AR means he thinks time is up.

The Whistle

A whistle is not a guitar, but you can make it speak. Here's what I do, and it seems pretty common:

  • Short or medium beep: to restart play. Think "go!"

  • Quick short beeps: to prevent a restart, like when a substitution is taking place, the Throw-In is from the wrong direction, or you need to talk to or discipline (caution or send off) a player. Think "but but but but but..."

  • Medium: to stop for a foul or injury; to bring players on the field at the start or after halftime. Think "stop."

  • Long: to start the game very ceremoniously. To stop for a serious foul. Think "stowwwwwwwwwwwwwwwp!"

  • Medium then long: half time. Think "half tiiiiiiime"

  • Twice medium then long: game over. Think "that's the gaaaaaaaaame!"

You have to use the whistle to stop play, but it is only required to start play in a few circumstances: at Kick Offs, at Penalty Kicks, after substitutions, and when you instruct a player to wait for your whistle during a free kick. Common sense suggests using the whistle after any protracted delay.

Signaling and Telling

In addition to whistling, you need to signal with your arms the type of restart and sometimes the location of the restart. This information will be repeated below with the individual starts, restarts, and stops, but for completeness I'll list them here as well.

Aside from whistling and signaling, you're not required to indicate anything: you don't have to talk (and sometimes it is best not to). But you can reinforce what you are signaling with words: suggestions are listed here, too.

Center Referee Signals
Signal Meaning Also can say
Arm up parallel to touch line
(Anywhere above level up to about 45 degrees.)
Throw-In "Blue throw"
Arm up parallel to touch line
(Anywhere above level up to about 45 degrees.)
Kick Off, Direct or Indirect Free Kick
Arm up 45 degree in direction of a corner Corner Kick "Corner Kick"
Arm level at goal area Goal Kick "Goal Kick"
Arm level at center circle Kick Off after a goal
Half time
Game over
"half time"
Arm pointing at penalty mark Penalty Kick "Penalty Kick"
Arm straight up Offside
Indirect Free Kick
Pointing at whistle Wait for whistle to restart "wait for the whistle"
Some Unofficial Center Referee Signals
Arm pointing to spot on field Location of free kick "Blue kick there"
Arm pointing to spot on touch line Location for Throw-In "Throw-In there"
Hand up at player with ball Don't restart yet (substitution, etc) "wait please"
Brushing one hand against the other Restart direction is not what you think "off Blue"

Some referees like to make a big deal of signaling a goal: I just do the point. Further, I always point with my whole hand - individual fingers look to delicate.

Basic AR Mechanics

The two main jobs of the AR are to judge in- and out-of-bounds for the ball and offside. To do so, you run along the touchline, between the halfway line and the goal line, keeping level with the 2nd-to-last-defender or the ball, whichever is closer to the goal line.

You only go up to the halfway line, which means if the ball is in the other half of the field, and all the defenders are lined on the halfway line waiting for the ball to come their way, you stay parked. This can be unpleasant with a one-sided game on a cold day.

If you're not moving, you should be standing square to the field.

As an AR, you don't have a whistle and you don't talk: you only signal with a flag given to you by the center referee. Most of these signals are to confirm what the center referee knows and indicate restart direction.

For the AR to initiate a call, you must first put the flag straight up and, upon the whistle of the center referee, make the proper signal. This is especially the case whenever the ball leaves play and returns, because as AR you are the best one to judge that.

So that the center referee can pick you out of the crowd on the touch line, you are supposed to hold the flag in the hand that is closer to him. Generally that's the left hand when standing still and the right when running upfield.

If you're not signaling, your flag should be pointing straight down. When you do signal, your rigid arms should sweep like the hands of a clock, either up the touchline or out in front of you.

Make every effort on Throw-Ins and fouls to bring the flag up in the direction of the restart. If you bring the flag up in the wrong hand, you have to bring it down to change hands - not over your head.

I'm told for televised games ARs are instructed to signal with the flag for three seconds. That's good unless you need to drop the flag after a quick restart.

Assistant Referee Signals
Signal Meaning
Flag up 45 degrees along touch line Throw-In, in direction of flag
Flag pointing at goal area Goal Kick
Flag down 45 degrees along touch line towards corner Corner Kick
Flag straight up Stop play - reason will come after CR's whistle
Flag straight up, after whistle signal for restart Ball went out of bounds and came back in
Flag straight up, after whistle flag across field down, level, or up Offside: near side, middle, or far side of field
Flag straight up with quick, small waves, after whistle flag up 45 degrees along touch line Foul: Direct Free Kick in direction of flag
Flag straight up with quick, small waves, after whistle holding the flag across the lower body Foul by defender in penalty area: Penalty Kick
Flag held horizontal across lower body Confirming that foul seen by CR was by defender in penalty area: Penalty Kick
Standing still after an apparent goal Foul committed by attackers not seen by CR
Sprinting up touch line towards halfway line Goal
Flag horizontal overhead in both hands Substitution requested

Back to Top

The Starts, Restarts, and Stops

Circumstances, Mechanics, and Aftermath

Laws and Mechanics

In this chapter I enumerate the starts, restarts, and stops during the game. It is all fairly mechanical, but some of the restarts (Direct and Indirect Free Kicks) are due to offsides, fouls, and misconduct -- tricky issues which have their own chapters.

For each event I describe the circumstances which lead to it, the mechanics for orchestrating it, and what is likely to happen thereafter.

The Starts

The Kick Off


At the beginning of the game, at the beginning of the 2nd half, and after a goal there is a Kick Off from the center circle.


Stand outside the center circle on the halfway line. Ensure that:

a) All players are in their respective halves of the field.

b) All defenders are outside the center circle (10 yards away).

c) All players look more or less ready.

d) The ARs acknowledge your eye contact.

Point your arm up in the direction of the kick and blow your whistle.

The ball is in play when it is kicked and clearly moves.

Mechanics for the ARs

The ARs position themselves to judge offside, level to the 2nd-to-last defender. If this is the beginning of a half, they are supposed to unfurl their flags and make eye contact with the center referee to indicate their readiness.

What's Next

If players aren't in their halves of the field or defenders move into the center circle before the kick, then the kick is retaken.

If the kicker plays the ball a second time before anyone contacts the ball, the other team gets an Indirect Free Kick, described below.

A team can score directly from a Kick Off, in case you are wondering.

The Restarts

The Throw-In


If one team sends the ball wholly over the touch line, you're going to award a "Throw-In" to their opponents.

You get to judge which side last touched the ball. This is the call most often blown, but it doesn't matter all that much in the grand scheme. The main purpose is to put the ball back into play, so all you have to do is sell your decision. Since the Throw-In is one of the most common restarts, it is one of the easiest ways to earn or lose your authority.


Often it is the AR that judges the ball to be out of bounds, so frequent glances at the AR are important when the ball is at the edge of the field. But either you or the AR can make the determination. Eye contact with the AR is important when signaling, to settle any doubt and make sure you are in agreement over who gets the throw.

Stop running, stand still facing the touch line the ball passed over, and point your rigid arm up in the direction the opponents are going. Use the appropriate arm. You can also call out the color of the team that gets the ball.

If you and the AR disagree, you can negotiate with glances or words, but you have the final vote, and both of you should point in the same direction by the time the Throw-In takes place.

Position yourself for the action likely to result from the Throw-In.

Mechanics for the AR

To signal a Throw-In the AR stops running, changes arms if needed, and points the flag up at a 45 degree angle in the proper direction.

If the ball went out of bounds and came back in, then the AR first holds the flag straight up (in the appropriate arm) until the center referee whistles, and then signals for the Throw-In. It is important to practice this flag-up first on Throw-Ins because it is the same for other, subtler calls (like Corner Kicks and goals).

For the Throw-In the AR resumes position to judge offside. Sometimes this means backing up off the touch line to make room for the thrower.

What's Next


If the thrown ball never comes into play (i.e. never touches the vertical plane at the outside edge of the touch line), the throw is retaken.

Throw for other team:

A Throw-In is supposed to happen within one yard of where the ball went out, but it almost never does. If they are gaining some advantage you can whistle them back and point to the proper location. If it is clear they are working the system give the other team the throw.

A legal Throw-In has both of the thrower's feet on the ground, with any part of the feet touching or outside the touch lines, until the ball leaves his hands. He has to throw with both hands starting from behind the head and going over the head.

The most common mistake is to lift the back foot up before the ball is out of the hands. Younger players will sometimes jump up with both feet. Good players will drag their back foot up as they throw, which is legal.

Rarely players will start the throw from over the line; sometimes they'll end up over it: throw for other team.

Sometimes players will start the throw from overhead (rather than behind), bring it around the side, or stop and start throwing several times. Unless it is a complete throw from behind and over the head, the other team will get the throw.

If the ball comes into play but then curves back out, the other team gets the throw.

Indirect Free Kick:

No 2nd touch or keeper handling: if the thrower is the first to play the ball, or the player's keeper is the first and he picks it up, the other team gets an Indirect Free Kick.

Goal Kick, Corner Kick:

No scoring from Throw-In: if the ball goes directly in the goal it's either a Corner Kick (it went in the throwing team's goal) or a Goal Kick (it went in the opponents' goal).

Yellow Card:

Opponents must retreat two yards from the thrower so as not to impede the throw. Being a nuisance in this regard falls under Unsporting Behavior, a cautionable offense. If the Throw-In was taken it's an Indirect Free Kick for the throwing team, not a re-throw.

The Goal Kick


If the attackers send the ball wholly over the goal line (but not into the goal), you're going to award a "Goal Kick" to the defenders. That's where they place the ball somewhere inside the goal area lines (usually on the goal area line, to get as far from the goal as possible) and kick it clear of the penalty area.


As with Throw-Ins, often it is the AR that judges the ball to be out of bounds, so frequent glances at the AR and eye contact when signaling are important.

Point your arm flat or a slight angle down into the middle of the goal area. You can call "Goal Kick."

Position yourself downfield in anticipation of the kick. This is a good time to run backwards (being careful not to back over small players).

Mechanics for the AR

To signal a Goal Kick the AR points the flag flat across the field towards the middle of the goal area. Because the AR should be following the ball to the goal, his signal should from near the goal line.

If the ball went out of bounds and came back in, then the AR first holds the flag straight up until the center referee whistles, and then signals for the Goal Kick.

For the kick the AR positions himself in the position to judge offside.

What's Next


A legal Goal Kick starts with the ball stationary within the goal area with all opponents outside the penalty area or moving that way. If the kick is taken outside the goal area or the ball is moving, the kick is retaken. If there are opponents in the penalty area, the kicker doesn't have to wait for them to leave.

The ball is in play when it is kicked and clearly moved.

Indirect Free Kick:

No 2nd touch or keeper handling: if the kicker is the first to play the ball or the player's keeper is the first and he picks it up, the other team gets an Indirect Free Kick.

Corner Kick:

If the ball is kicked backwards across the goal line, even if into the goal, it's an Corner Kick for the other team. You can't score against yourself on a Goal Kick.

Goal, Goal Kick, Throw-In:

The ball is in play once it is kicked and clearly moves, so if it goes out of bounds a normal restart occurs. You can score on an opponent from a Goal Kick.

The Corner Kick


If the defenders send the ball wholly over the goal line (but not into the goal), you're going to award a "Corner Kick" to the attackers. That's where they place the ball in the corner arc of the nearer corner and kick it. The ball is in play once it is kicked and clearly moves.


As with Throw-Ins, often it is the AR that judges the ball to be out of bounds, so frequent glances at the AR and eye contact when signaling are important.

Point your arm up 45 degrees at the corner where the kick is to be taken (the one closest to where the ball went over the goal ine). You can call "Corner Kick."

Position yourself somewhere around the corner of the penalty area. It's more important to watch the players receiving the kick than the one taking the kick, as the players may foul each other vying for that important ball. If you choose a different vantage point each time, you can discourage "set" fouls.

Mechanics for the AR

To signal a Corner Kick the AR points the flag down 45 degrees along the touch line in the direction of the corner. Because the AR should be following the ball to the goal, he should be standing next to the flag by this time.

If the ball went out of bounds and came back in, then the AR first holds the flag straight up until the center referee whistles, and then signals for the Corner Kick.

For the kick the AR positions himself to judge out of bounds: in line with the goal line behind the flag and kicker.

What's Next


A legal Corner Kick starts with the ball in the corner arc, standing still, and with all opponents at least 10 yards away from the arc until the kick. If any of these are wrong, the kick is retaken. The 10 yard rule can be waived if the kick scores.

Indirect Free Kick:

No 2nd touch or keeper handling: if the kicker is the first to play the ball, or the player's keeper is somehow the first (all the way at the other end of the field) and he picks it up, the other team gets an Indirect Free Kick.


You can score from a Corner Kick.

Direct and Indirect Free Kick


If a player commits a Direct Free Kick (DFK) foul outside of his own penalty area, you are going to award a Direct Free Kick to the other team. If a player commits an Indirect Free Kick (IFK) foul, or is penalized for being offside, you are going to award an Indirect Free Kick to the other team.

In both cases, the kicking team is given an opportunity, "free" from defensive interference, to kick the ball from a standstill. The only difference between the direct and Indirect Free Kicks is that a goal can't be scored directly from an Indirect Free Kick -- it must touch another player first.

Anyone can take the kick, not just the player fouled against.

Calling Direct Free Kick fouls, Indirect Free Kick fouls, and offside is discussed in their own sections. Here I'll just cite the mechanics for the kick itself.


Depending on the severity of the foul, blow your whistle either one medium or long blast.

To signal for a Direct Free Kick, point one hand up in the direction of the kick. For an Indirect Free Kick, do the same but then hold your arm straight up to indicate a goal cannot be scored directly. For offside calls, you can usually just go from the whistle to the straight up arm, since everyone knows who's at fault.

The restart takes place where the infringement occurred, not necessarily where the infringer or ball were. You can either point to the location with your free hand, or you can move to the location and stand there until the ball arrives, or you can just let the players take care of it. Exact positioning becomes more important as the restart gets closer to the defenders' goal.

A free kick inside the kicker's goal area can be taken anywhere inside the goal area, just as with a Goal Kick. An Indirect Free Kick against the defense inside the their goal area gets moved to the nearest spot on the goal area line parallel to the goal line. This is important.

There are two varieties of free kicks: quick and ceremonial.

Most kicks are quick: the kick can be made as soon as you signal with your arm, which should be right after your whistle. This discourages fouls that provide time for the fouling team to assemble its defenses.

A quick kick can turn into a ceremonial kick if the kicker asks you for "10 yards." That means he wants the defenders to retreat. Tell the kicker to wait for your whistle, and point to the whistle so that everyone sees. Before you restart, wait for the defenders to move 10 yards away from the ball -- in all directions, actually, but most people worry most about the direction of the kick.

A quick kick can turn ceremonial if you want to stop play to warn, caution or send off a player. You'll often blow the whistle a second time to make this clear. You can then tend to business before positioning yourself for the restart. If the quick kick happens before you're able to stop it you are allowed to delay discipline until the next stoppage.

For a cefermonial kick, position yourself down in the direction of the kick. You'll start again with a whistle.

For an Indirect Free Kick, you need to hold your arm straight up to indicate that a goal cannot be scored directly from the kick. You can lower it while positioning yourself for the kick. After the kick you lower your arm once the ball touches another player, goes out of bounds, or if it isn't kicked towards either goal .

More Mechanics -- Managing the Wall

For the taking of a free kick near the goal defenders may line up 10 yards away in a "wall".

If more than three defensive players form a wall, any attackers must be at least one yard away. Since the wall often determines the offside position, the attackers will likely be to the side or next to the wall.

For the kick position yourself so you can pay attention to the wall. If there are no attackers near the wall, you can instead head towards the goal to watch the excitement there.

Mechanics for the AR

The AR does not signal for fouls handled by the center referee in distant parts of the field.

The AR does signal for fouls that are nearer to him than to the center referee -- generally any foul in the corner of the field the AR tends. For fouls seen by the center referee, the AR's signal is there to reinforce the center's. The AR also signals for serious fouls in other parts of the field that are unseen by the center referee.

To signal a foul the AR holds his flag straight up. Once the center referee notices, the AR makes quick, small waves with the flag, then signals the direction of the kick by pointing the flag up 45 degrees along the touchline in the direction of the kick. There's no official way for an AR to indicate an Indirect Free Kick, though some do so by holding the free arm up halfway or by simply saying "indirect."

At the taking of a free kick, the AR assumes the position to judge offside.

What's Next


A legal free kick starts with the ball standing still at (about) the point you indicate. If any of these are wrong, the kick is retaken.

Indirect Free Kick:

No 2nd touch or keeper handling: if the kicker is the first to play the ball, or the player's keeper is the first and he picks it up, the other team gets an Indirect Kick.

Note that many teams practice a maneuver for Indirect Kicks where one player steps on the ball to make first contact and then a second player kicks it. The first contact must clearly move the ball for it put the ball in play, otherwise it is the subsequent kick that does so.


You can score from a Direct Free Kick.

Goal Kick:

You can't score directly from an Indirect Free Kick, so if the ball goes directly into the opponent's goal, it is a Goal Kick for them.

Corner Kick:

You can't score directly against yourself on either a Direct or Indirect Free Kick, so if the ball goes directly into the kicker's goal, it's a Corner Kick.

Yellow Card

Whether it is a quick kick or a ceremonial one, defenders are supposed to retreat 10 yards in all directions. Failing to do so is its own cautionable offense, as I discuss in the "Misconduct" section below.

Penalty Kick


If a player commits a Direct Free Kick foul inside of his own penalty area, you are going to award a Penalty Kick to the other team. This is a highly ritualized punishment involving only the kicker and the goal keeper, with something like a 90% chance of scoring.

Anyone can take the kick, not just the player fouled against.

Calling Direct Free Kick fouls is discussed in its own section. Here I'll just cite the mechanics for the kick itself.


As with a Direct Free Kick, blow your whistle.

Point with your finger distinctly towards the penalty mark, halfway between the goal area line and the penalty area line. You don't want to be mistaken on this. Prepare for both groans and cheers from the sideline.

Stand at the penalty mark until the kicker places the ball there, or if you prefer collect the ball and hand it to the kicker. Instruct the kicker to wait for your signal.

Ensure that all players other than the kicker and the keeper are

(a) outside of the penalty area,
(b) behind the penalty mark (farther from the goal line), and
(c) outside of the penalty arc and thus 10 yards from the kicker.

Ensure the keeper is on the goal line between the goal posts, facing the field. He will need to keep at least one foot on the line until the ball is kicked.

Move off to the side of the kicker, about 10 yards, and blow your whistle. Play can get very active at this point.

Special Mechanics for Extra Time

If time expires (or will expire) before the Penalty Kick is taken, you need to announce that the kick will be in extra time. Players may retreat since there is nothing they can do. The ball is out of play if the keeper successfully stops or deflects the ball. The kicker may not play it again, even if it rebounds.

Mechanics for the AR

The AR signals for a Penalty Kick if a defender commits a foul in the penalty area that the AR notices. For fouls seen by the center referee, the AR can signal to confirm that the foul was committed in the penalty area.

To signal a Penalty Kick the AR holds his flag straight up. Once the center referee notices, the AR makes quick, small waves with the flag and then goes to stand in front of the corner flag on the goal line to indicate a Penalty Kick.

To confirm that a foul seen by the CR was inside the penalty area, if the CR seems to be in doubt, the AR holds the flag horizontally across his waist.

At the taking of a Penalty Kick, the AR's mechanics are left up to the CR. Here's a common approach: the AR stands on the goal line at the penalty area line, so as to judge the goal, keeper encroachment, and later offside. To indicate keeper encroachment or other problems, the AR holds the flag horizontally across his waist. Goals are indicated as described below in the "Stops" section. If play is to continue, the AR hustles back to the touch line, cutting the corner if needed.

The CR and ARs should verify Penalty Kick mechanics at pre-game.

What's Next


A legal Penalty Kick happens only on your signal that you are ready. Use the whistle.

The keeper must keep at least one foot on the goal line and all other players must not encroach until the kick happens.

The kick is retaken if (a) the ball doesn't enter the goal defending team encroached or (b) the ball enters the goal and the attacking team (or both teams) encroached. i.e. cheaters never prosper.

If it's the keeper's encroachment that causes the retake, he is also cautioned for Unsporting Behavior.

Indirect Free Kick:

No 2nd touch: if the kicker is the first to play the ball the other team gets an Indirect Free Kick. This includes if the ball bounces off the goalpost back to the kicker.

Attacker encroachment: if the attacking team encroaches and the ball doesn't go in the goal, it's an Indirect Kick at the penalty mark. (Retake if it does go in.)

Attacker infringement: the attacking team can occassionally bungle the Penalty Kick in numerous ways that give the defending team an Indirect Free Kick at the point of infringement. By the kicker kicking the ball backwards, by the kicker illegally feinting (fully stopping during the run-up to the kick), and by someone other than the designated kicker taking the kick.

Both illegal feinting and the wrong kicker taking the kick warrant a caution for Unsporting Behavior.

Goal, Goal Kick, Corner Kick, Throw-In:

The ball is in play once it is kicked forward and so if it goes out of bounds a normal restart occurs. You can score from a Penalty Kick.

The Dropped Ball


If you need to restart play and none of the other restarts apply, you'll do a Dropped Ball. This is the only time you need touch the ball during play. The most likely causes are:

a) Stop for an injury
b) Stop for interference
c) Stop to control the sidelines
d) Stop when the ball hits the referee and it changes play too dramatically, by creating a promising attack or clearly changing possession.

Note that you don't do a Dropped Ball when you can't decide who kicked the ball out of bounds: for that, you just have to make a choice.


Announce that you're doing a Dropped Ball.

If the ball was in the penalty area or last touched in the penalty area, you'll do a Dropped Ball for the defending keeper in the penalty area. Otherwise, you'll do a Dropped Ball for a player of the team that last touched it where it was last touched.

Ensure no other players are within 4 yards (meters actually). Drop (don't throw) the ball in front of the player.

The ball is in play when it hits the ground. Unlike all other restarts, the first player to touch the ball is free to touch it again, but like an Indirect Free Kick a goal cannot be scored on the first touch.

Mechanics for the AR

The AR does nothing special for a Dropped Ball.

What's Next


If the ball is played before it hits the ground, or it rolls out of bounds or into the goal without a player touching it, you'll retake the Dropped Ball.

Goal Kick:

If the ball is kicked directly by a player into the opponents' goal from a Dropped Ball, you restart with a Goal Kick. As soon as anyone touches the ball again, it's fair game.

The Stops



If the whole of the ball goes over the goal line, between the goal posts and below the crossbar, and neither you nor the AR consider play to have stopped before it does, it's a goal. (Remember: you can decide after the fact that play had stopped, like when you notice the AR signaling offside only after the ball goes in the goal.)


If you see the ball go in the goal, or think it might have, look at your AR. He indicates or confirms a goal by, after making eye contact, sprinting towards the halfway line.

Point your arm level at the center circle -- the location of the next kick -- and move to the position for the next Kick Off. If the players are likely to complain about the goal, move quickly. If the players are likely to start a melee over the goal, run backwards towards the halfway line so that you can watch activity around the goal.

While waiting for the players to reassemble, take out the game card and note the goal -- either with a simple strike or (if you have your own note paper) with the player and time as well.

Mechanics for the AR

If the center referee sees the ball go in the goal, he looks to the AR for confirmation, which the AR then provides by sprinting up the touch line towards the halfway line -- enough of a sprint to be obvious -- and then positioning himself for the Kick Off.

If what the center referee saw wasn't in fact a goal, the AR can either be signaling something else -- such as a corner/Goal Kick, offside, or a foul -- or do nothing, indicating that the ball, while close to the goal, didn't go in. The AR might also shake his head "no." The AR then goes about his usual business.

If the center referee appears not to see the goal (usually because the ball went in and back out of the goal), the AR will signal by raising the flag and, after the center referee whistles, sprinting towards the halfway line.

Half Time/Game


At the end of the first half, or the end of the game, you stop play.

Most referees won't stop unless the ball is in "neutral" play. Neutral means different things to different referees, but if the ball is sailing towards the net and you blow your whistle, be prepared to run for the parking lot.


Watch your watch as you get down to the last few minutes, and possibly count the last few seconds.

Blow your whistle (medium then long for half time, twice medium then long for game) and point your arm towards the center circle. You can say "half time" or "game."

Walk to the center circle to meet your ARs, and ensure the game ball makes it back there as well. If it is halftime, you want to take the game ball with you so it doesn't get lost during the break.


Youth soccer generally permits unlimited substitutions, which means players can be swapped in and out many times during the course of the game. This can only happen with your approval (which should not be unreasonably withheld), and generally only at the following times:

1. A Kick Off
2. A Goal Kick
3. A Throw-In (sometimes only for the throwing team)
4. An injury: if play is stopped the injured player and anyone else can be substituted.

Your competition may allow substitutions at other times, such as any stoppage.

When a coach wants to substitute players, he's supposed to line them up at the halfway line. Your ARs are then supposed to signal the substitution at the next appropriate stoppage by holding the flag horizontal above their heads (with one AR mirroring the other if needed), until you see it. If you don't have decent ARs you need to look to the halfway line at each substitution opportunity to see if players are waiting. For low-level play, where substitutions are numerous and players and coaches undisciplined, you may just have to wait for the cry of "sub! ref! sub!" from the coach.

Once the request is made, you need to ensure that play does not restart, and then you signal for the substitution. That usually involves a whistle, a hand up at the player about to make the restart, and some indication to the coach to proceed with substituting. When the substitution is complete, you must restart with the whistle.

Orchestrating clean substitutions will make your life easier and earn you a modicum of respect. They are especially important for mid- and high-level play. Two simple ingredients make them clean: that players enter from the halfway line and that the leaving happens before the entering. "Call them off" and "From the midline" are the two instructions coaches seem to understand.

I usually optimize somewhat: as long as I can count the leaving and entering players in the same view, I don't hold up the entering players; and as soon as the entering players are moving I let the restart begin. This keeps things moving.

Players are supposed to leave at the nearest boundary, which you might want to enforce to prevent a long, slow walk by a player from the winning team.

Decent ARs can help you with substitutions. If you expect this, tell them so at pre-game.

Goalkeeper substitions work like any other, but be careful to note any goalkeepr substitution at halftime. Coaches may or may not point this out to you but you'll want ot keep track of number changes. A goalkeeper and player can swap positions at any stoppage but only with your permission (which shouldn't be unreasonbly withheld). If they do it without your knowledge, they each get a caution for Unsporting Behavior. But importantly: the player in the goalkeeper jersey is the effective goalkeeper, whether they told you or not.


Referees are supposed to deal with major injury immediately, and minor injury at the next normal stop in play. If play drags on, you can stop play as soon as the ball is in somewhat neutral territory. Don't stop an attacker's drive unless it is truly necessary.

Seriousness of injury varies with age: with starting players, I consider it serious enough if the player is either on the ground, crying, or stunned and standing still. For intermediate players, on the ground is my rule. For competitive players, I really need to see the pain to stop play.

Do not tend or touch injured players! Run to them, find out if the injury is serious and whether they wish to continue to play. If it is serious, call out the coach and back off -- don't let the coach harangue you.

If you stopped play to assess the injury, the injured player and anyone else can be substituted. If you called the coach out, the injured player must leave the field, unless the injury was caused by a foul that warranted a caution or sendoff, or if the injured player is about to take a penalty kick, in which case the player can be tended to on the field. In matches with unlimited substitutions, an injured player leaving the field will most likely be substituted.

If you stopped play just to deal with an injury, restart with a Dropped Ball.

If a team is playing short due to an injured player having left the field without being substituted, the recovered player can, with your permission, enter the field during the run of play.

Bleeding and Equipment Problems

A player bleeding or with blood on his clothes must leave the field and may not return until the problem is corrected. If you have to, you can stop play to ensure the player leaves, but you can also just tell him on the fly. In theory, a bleeding player needs your permission to leave and may not summarily walk off, but once you realize what's going on your permission should be implicit.

Similarly if a player has an equipment problem, such as a broken shin guard or torn shirt, you can also send them off to deal with their problems. This also applies to jewelery mysteriously appearing after the initial checkin, for which you can be pretty unforgiving.

In all these cases, the player may only come back with your permission after you or your AR verify the problem has been corrected. You can wave him on during the run of play, but he must enter along the touch line and not the goal line.


Occasionally, there will be some outside entity that enters the field and interferes with play: either by touching the ball, getting the in way of players, or just in general being a distraction on the field. Common examples are dogs, birds, spectators, or a ball from a neighboring field.

There are a number of things that aren't interference: goal posts, corner flags, referees (including assistants, if they are on the field), or anything that was on the field at the beginning of play. So if the ball bounces off a water bottle on the field, play continues, unless the water bottle was thrown there after the start of the game.

Special case: if the ball bursts during play, treat it exactly as interference at that point.

To handle interference, blow your whistle to stop play and once the interference has been addressed restart with a Dropped Ball.

If the interference occurs during the scoring of a goal, but neither caused the goal nor prevented it, you can award the goal.

Interference from Coaches, Substitutes, or Red Carded Players

Coaches, substitutes, and Red Carded players who come on the field to interfere with play aren't treated as outside interference. They're treated as if they were players committing a foul.

The restart is a Direct Free Kick, or Penalty Kick if the interference occurred in the defender's penalty area. Additionally, you would send off a coach or caution a substitute for entering the field illegally. Not much you can do to an already sent off player other than ask him to leave again.

If the interference occurs during the scoring of a goal for the opponents, but neither caused the goal nor prevented it, you can award the goal. You can still punish the perpetrator.

Yellow Card/Red Card


Bad fouls and misconduct often warrant cautions or send offs, where you show the player the Yellow Card or Red Card.

I discuss the causes for cards in the "Misconduct" section. Here I just describe the mechanics.


For fouls, stop play for the foul. For misconduct, you have to decide whether it warrants stopping play or delaying until the next normal stop to handle the misconduct. You run the danger of things escalating if play continues for a while. If it is serious enough to stop play, it warrants a good loud whistle.

Remembering carefully in which pocket you have which card pull the appropriate one out and stand about 5 feet from the player, facing him. For the player's benefit you say, "You are being cautioned for ..." or "You are being sent off for ...". For the benefit of everyone else you hold the card with your arm stretched overhead (not thrusting in the player's face). Be sure you get a look at the player's number before he wanders off.

If a player receives a second Yellow Card he also gets shown the Red Card and sent off. You do the two in succession, not both in one hand.

You need to write on the game card the time, the player's team and number, whether it was a Yellow Card or Red Card, and the reason. Be sure you use one of the reasons enumerated by the LOTG as discussed in the "Misconduct" section.

A player sent off is required to leave the immediate area. To enforce this you shouldn't restart play until you are convinced he is gone. This may not be practical in youth games if there's no one to tend to the ejected player.

The restart after issuing a Yellow Card or Red Card is most likely a Direct Free Kick or Penalty Kick, but there is actually a laundry list of possibilities listed in the "Misconduct" section.

Red Cards are serious business, and it is likely the sent off player will be suspended for more than one game. To that end, your league should have some set ritual for you to follow within the next 24 hours to complete the paperwork. Follow that procedure!

Terminating the Match

Your ultimate control over the game is the ability to terminate the match. That's where you say, "I'm terminating the match" and walk off with the game card. You might do so because you are unsure or unsatisified with your ability to control the players, coaches, or spectators. A perfect example of this is when an sent off coach refuses to leave or when a team can no longer field at least 7 players.

You can also abandon a match, sometimes to be played later, because the condition of the field, light, or weather has deteriorated to the point that play is no longer safe. Lightning is a great reason to stop.

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Laws and Mechanics


Offside is roughly a rule against attackers loitering near the goal waiting for cheap shots. Unfortunately, it is a tricky rule, and it pays to know the details as intuition doesn't necessarily help.

There are four ingredients to a player being penalized for offside:

1. Being in an offside position.
2. The ball being touched by a teammate.
3. Taking advantage of it.
4. Nothing nullifying the offside.

The problem is that the first two are determined at once, while the latter two can take several seconds to unfold. That means your attention has to span time, rather than just observe the instant as with most other calls.

Being in an offside position is the simple combination of the following:

a. Being in the attacking half of the field. (Actually outside the defensive half: a player on the halfway line is never offside.)
b. Being ahead of the ball.
c. Being ahead of all or all but one defender, usually the keeper. Being "ahead" means part of the attacker's body (excluding arms) is closer than the defender's (excluding arms) to the goal line.

Suspicion mounts when the ball is passed by a teammate. To be precise, the offside position is judged when the attackers make any contact with the ball - a forward pass, a deflection, or even a nick off a teammate. The offside position is reevaluated at each attacker contact.

Note that the first teammate to touch the ball from a Throw-In, Goal Kick, or Corner Kick is exempted from the offside offense. There is no exemption on Direct or Indirect Free Kicks.

It is very important to note the offside position of the player(s) each time the ball is touched. A lot of running around can happen once the ball is in motion, and you have to remember who was onside and who was offside as of the last contact.

Next the offside player must get involved in the play by

a. touching the ball or
b. tangling up with an opponent who is trying to do the same.

But there's an oddball case called:

c. "gaining an advantage." This always means the ball bounces off the keeper or goalpost and the offside player does (a) or (b) above.

It can take a moment before it is clear the player is going for the ball, and in the meantime other factors can nullify his being offside:

a. The ball goes out of bounds.
b. A defender controls the ball. You alone judge contact versus control.
c. A defender deliberately plays the ball when it wasn't a shot on goal. (If it was a shot on goal, the defender has to control the ball before the ball is playable by an offside attacker.)
d. Another attacker touches the ball.

In the last case, a new opportunity to judge offside begins.

A player who knows he's in an offside position but doesn't want to ruin his teammates' play will sometimes make a deliberate move to indicate he is not involved in the play: standing still, or even stepping over the touch or goal line.


Calling offside falls on the shoulders of the AR. It is his most difficult and most important job (up there with watching the ball roll over the line). You'll need to take over some or all of his job if you have no AR, have one who's inexperienced, or just have a club linesman. I'll handle that in a moment.

On any forward kick, especially long ones, and generally periodically, and certainly after a goal has been apparently scored, look over to the AR in the defending end. If he is standing there with his flag straight up, he's signaling offside, and the defenders are awarded an Indirect Free Kick.

Blow your whistle and put your arm straight up to reflect the AR's call. Now note that the AR points his flag across the field either up 30 degrees, level, or down 30 degrees to indicate whether the offside player was on the far, middle, or near side of the field.

If the players are unsure, point with one hand to the spot where the kick should take place. This is level with the AR and on either the far, middle, or near side. Once you're convinced players know what's up, prepare for the Indirect Free Kick (described above).

Mechanics for the AR

As the AR you run along the touchline, between the halfway line and the goal line, keeping level with the 2nd-to-last-defender or the ball, whichever is closer to the goal line.

You need to share your attention between the defender and the actual play, which is very challenging. If there is a large separation between the 2nd-to-last-defender and the attackers, your job is easy. But when they are close you need to be snappy -- shuffling sideways, walking, and sprinting as needed to stay exactly level.

Timing is critical. The instant before a pass is made you should be looking at the play. The instant of the pass you should be looking at the defender and listening for the pass. That is when you judge who (if anyone) is in an offside position.

Now comes the hard part, because you have to wait a few seconds to see if your offside candidate(s) get involved, yet still be prepared to judge a new offside situation should a non-offside attacker touch the ball. That means sprinting down the line to stay level with the ball while still watching the play.

If your offside candidate gets involved you stop, stand still, put the flag straight up, and wait for the center referee to notice you. When he blows the whistle you point the flag across the field either up 30 degress, level, or down 30 degress, to indicate whether the offending player was on the far side, middle, or close side of the field.

The restart takes place where the offside player got involved, which is where along the touch line you should be standing. But if the player had returned to his own half of the field to play the ball, you have to signal at the halfway line.

There is a lot of advice on judging offside player "involvement". Here's mine: you should wait until any possibility of fair play has been eliminated before raising your flag.

There are two cases where your call doesn't count, and don't get too worried about either:

a. The center referee waves your flag down, usually to indicate he believes he has a case for lack of involvement by the offending player.

b. The center referee doesn't notice you, and the defenders gain clear possession of the ball. This falls under the heading "all's well that ends well."

Otherwise, as long as the attackers still have the ball, and especially if they score, you just stand there with your flag up until the center referee notices. Don't worry -- the sidelines will be screaming "offside!" at the center referee by this time.

Mechanics if you have a weak AR

If your AR is weak, or a club linesman, or non-existent, you have a lot of running to do to follow the play and call offside. Don't worry -- it is impossible to do a good job, so just hope you get the most egregious plays.

For the long kicks that move the ball towards the 2nd-to-last defender, your only hope is that the offside player is very offside, and you can call it with confidence. If you're in doubt -- don't call it.

By the time play tightens up around the attacking line, you need to be there: run like hell and position yourself level with the 2nd-to-last defender, on the outside edge of the field (stretching your diagonal), so that all action is in front of you.

The main problem is that another long kick in the other direction leaves you far in the wrong end of the field, and you have lots more running to do.

A special circumstance is Corner Kicks: rather than stand in the penalty area where you might normally, you probably want to position yourself next to the goal, slightly off the field. This allows you to judge the very tricky situations right in front of the goal.

Common Offside Scenarios

Lazy return.

After a failed attack, attackers make a slow return towards the halfway line -- slower than the defenders. Next comes the turnabout and the ball comes sailing over the defenders to the offside players. Unless they clearly indicate their lack of involvement, call offside.

Lined up at the halfway line.

While play is deep in one end, the idle forwards hang around the halfway line, often meandering around the defenders. Call offside if they are offside at the pass.

Free kick within shooting distance of the goal.

Similar to the halfway line scenario: defenders and attackers all in a line, attackers waiting for the kick before rushing past the defenders. Call offside if they rush early and get involved in the play.

Corner Kick.

A player receiving the ball from a Corner Kick is always onside, but if he passes it back to the kicker still near the corner, there's a good chance it's offside. Usually there are a bunch of defenders loitering at the goal for the kick, but they may pull out towards the ball leaving attackers offside. This is a very tricky, yet satisfying, call to make.

Lone drive.

One or more players are offside, but the player with the ball makes a lone drive towards the goal. No call.


While play is deep in one end, idle forwards and defenders mill around each other. Just when the defenders think the ball is likely to come their way, they take a step to leave the attackers offside. Call it if their timing is right. If you look for it, you'll figure out quickly if a team is using this tactic. If so, they have confidence you can do your job!

Off the keeper.

A solo drive (or hard kick emerging from a tangle in front of the goal) can result in the ball bouncing off the keeper or the post right to an opportunistic, offside attacker. Call it.

In the air.

A long, high ball gives an offside attacker time to move back onside, but if he is the first to play the ball, call it.

A long ball can also give an onside attacker time to put serious distance between him and the defenders, prompting the sidelines to scream "offside." Don't believe them.

Incidental contact after attacker's control

The keeper punts a long ball and a teammate moves offside to receive it, but before he receives it another teammate touches the ball. Offside. The offside position is reevaluated with every attacker contact.

Similarly, a Throw-In goes to an offside teammate, but first nicks another teammate. Offside because of the contact.

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Indirect Free Kick Fouls

And Other Reasons for Indirect Free Kicks

Laws and Mechanics

There is a long list of sins that result in an indirect kick for the victim. An Indirect Free Kick is one which cannot score a goal without first touching some other player. This is a lesser penalty than the Direct Free Kick, and it is intended to set things right without overly burdening the offending team.

Most Indirect Free Kicks are due to offside calls, but there is also a list of "Indirect Free Kick fouls", all violations of the laws that don't involve contact with an opponent. These are distinguished from the "Direct Free Kick fouls," most of which involve contact, that result in Direct Free Kicks or Penalty Kicks.

Indirect Free Kick fouls

1. Dangerous play. A player does something that makes it dangerous for an opponent to play the ball. It isn't the act that is dangerous: it is that it makes subsequent play dangerous. It is a foul only if the opponents blanch and consequently refrain from play. A demonstrative example is squatting on the ball: squatting isn't dangerous, but it renders playing the ball dangerous.

Commonly cited examples are high kicks, playing on the ground, and low headers. A high kick may endanger opponents if they must first approach the raised foot; playing on the ground and low headers may endanger the player if opponents attempt to play the ball at the same time. But these acts are "dangerous play" only if the apparent danger results in a lost opportunity for the opponents.

2. Impeding. Moving to block an opponent's progress when neither the player nor the opponent are within playing distance of the ball. "Playing distance" means the player is on the ball or close enough to be a likely contender. Impeding is without contact. If there's contact then it's considered an unfair charge, a Direct Free Kick foul.

3. Preventing goalkeeper from releasing ball into play. Hard to say an Indirect Free Kick is better than a punt, but the keeper will get his 10 yards and the perpetrator a Yellow Card.

Indirect Free Kick fouls -- goalkeeper blunders:

4. Keeper fails to put the ball back in play within six seconds of picking it up. You're not supposed to count or be too precise about this: just make sure he's not holding it to waste time.

5. Keeper handles the ball twice. Strictly speaking, it means controlling the ball with his hands, then releasing it from his hands (either dribbling it or putting it on the ground to do so), and then using his hands again. A keeper is allowed to bounce the ball or toss it in the air, assuming he maintains control with his hands. A parry (blocking a shot with the hands) is not considered "control".

6. Keeper handles the ball when it is deliberately kicked to him by a teammate. Odd rule: a teammate may pass the ball to the keeper by other means, but not if the ball is passed with his feet. If the keeper genuinely whiffs playing the ball, he can pick it up.

7. Keeper handles the ball from a teammate's free kick, Penalty Kick, Goal Kick, Corner Kick, or Throw-In.

Four other reasons:

1. Offside. See the section about Offside.

2. If play is stopped solely to caution or dismiss a player (i.e. for misconduct; a foul would warrant a Direct Free Kick). This specifically includes cautioning a substitute who enters without your permission.

3. 2nd touch: player plays ball immediately after his own Kick Off, free kick, Penalty Kick, Goal Kick, Corner Kick, or Throw-In.

4. On a Penalty Kick, if the kicker cheats or his teammate encroaches before the kick and the ball doesn't enter the goal, the defenders get an Indirect Free Kick.

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Direct Free Kick Fouls

Direct Free Kicks, Penalty Kicks, Yellow Cards and Red Cards

Laws and Mechanics

Far beyond the complexity of restarts, offside, and the Indirect Free Kick fouls lie the Direct Free Kick fouls. Most everything else in the game is a matter of fact: if you see it, you call it. But Direct Free Kick fouls require judgement to sort fair play from foul. This section gives you a grounding in that judgement.

A foul is an ugly act with four ingredients:

1. by a player
2. against an opponent
3. on the field of play
4. while the ball is in play

Fouls are committed by players currently involved in the game, not by non-playing substitutes or anyone else, and are directed at an opponent. You can't foul a teammate.

Fouls only happen on the field of play, not in the stands or behind the goal. Note that the field stretches to accommodate play, which means it encompasses bodies over the touch or goal lines as long as they are vying for the ball.

The ball has to be in play for a foul. An important note here is that if you decide to stop play -- for an offside call, say -- there can be no foul after that decision, because the ball is no longer in play. This is still the case even if the players believe the ball to be in play because it took you a second to make your decision and find your whistle.

If the ball goes out of play before the effect of a foul is felt, you can assert that the precipitating act was the foul. For example, if a player drives the ball out of bounds but plows though the opponent, it is still a foul even if the opponent goes down after the ball goes over the line.

Nasty things can happen outside these parameters, but they are called "Misconduct," which I'll describe below.

Degrees of Fouls

Fouls sometimes involve the offending player doing something that is strictly prohibited, but more often it is something that passes a threshold for fair play in the mind of the referee. The LOTG describes the four degrees of fouls using the words "trifling (not to be called), careless, reckless, or involving excessive force."

I have my own thresholds, which I map to those of the LOTG:

a. Trifling: Fair Play -- no foul.
b. Careless: Overstepping Fair Play -- foul, Direct Free Kick.
c. Reckless: Cheating -- Direct Free Kick + Yellow Card.
d. Excessive Force: Cheating hard -- Direct Free Kick + Red Card.

The first step is fair play, even if it is physical: players are playing the ball, and not being particularly violent about it. Note that players can fall all over the place without a foul being committed. The LOTG would call these fouls "trifling or doubtful" -- and not a foul at all.

The next step is where players are being overzealous, either playing for the ball at the expense of their opponent's body, or not distinguishing between ball and body. The LOTG calls this being "careless." For this you'll award a Direct Free Kick or Penalty Kick, which I described above.

Things get ugly when players deliberately cheat: they play the opponent's body, with premeditated intention, or apparently don't care what happens to the opponent as they go for the ball. The LOTG calls this "reckless." Such acts are easily recognized as being well beyond fair play. For this the offender gets a formal caution -- shown the "Yellow Card," described above -- and the victims get a Direct Free Kick or Penalty Kick.

The final stop is when players cheat hard: a blatant disregard for the game and the opponent. The LOTG mentions "excessive force." These are the kind of acts that make onlookers cringe. For this the offender gets sent off -- shown the "Red Card," described above -- and the victims get a Direct Free Kick or Penalty Kick.

Ten Fouls

First I'll enumerate the fouls, and then go through scenarios for each foul describing my opinions on fair play, careless fouls, reckless fouls, and excessive force fouls.

Note that the LOTG in the past didn't enumerate all the fouls but instead relied on the more intuitive notion "gentlemanly behavior." That they are now enumerated doesn't necessarily mean that all fouls will fall into these categories. But it's a start.

Direct Free Kick Fouls

The first seven the LOTG says are only fouls if they are "careless, reckless, or using excessive force":

1. Kicking or attempting to kick.
2. Tripping or attempting to trip.
3. Jumping at.
4. Charging (pushing with the body).
5. Striking or attempting to strike (with hands or an object in the hands).
6. Pushing (with hands).
7. Tackling (with feet).

The last three the LOTG says are fouls if they happen at all:

8. Holding.
9. Spitting at.
10. "Deliberately" handling the ball - "handball."

My Opinion on Judging Fouls

The LOTG end here on describing the fouls. To get beyond that you need experience, and here I lend you mine. Note that these words cannot fully describe the variety and severity of fouling you'll need to discern, but it's a start:

  1. Kicking.

    A player kicking the ball will frequently find his foot in contact, in some way, with his opponent. Assuming the contact doesn't affect the opponent, it's fair play.

    But when a kicking player misses the ball -- or swings forcefully through the ball and gets his opponent along the way -- it's a foul.

    If the player is taking violent swings with his foot in an attempt not only to play the ball but also to displace the opponent, and he succeeds on the latter, it's a Yellow Card.

    If the player simply kicks the other player, with little intent to play the ball, or clearly is using the ball as the guise for his kicking his opponent, it's a Red Card.

    Note: Kicking, tripping, and striking are also fouls for merely attempting them. They should be obvious attempts, since you are trying to gauge deliberateness.

  2. Tripping.

    Players fall all the time on the soccer field, often at the feet of another player. A good half the time this is due to the player falling over the ball or running over the leg of an opponent fairly vying for the ball. If it is the player's choice to fall, it is fair play.

    Tripping becomes a foul when the offender moves his leg (or any part of his body) in such a way that the player has little or no ability to avoid a fall.

    A trip where the player never even sees the offender is a Yellow Card.

    A trip from behind, which brings down the player hard enough to put him in danger of getting hurt, is a Red Card. Hard tripping resembles kicking.

    See note under "Kicking" about attempting to trip.

  3. Jumping at.

    Players jump a lot, particularly when hitting the ball with their head. If they jump straight up and down, or in a direction where there is no opponent, it is fair play.

    When a player, trying to head the ball, jumps in the direction of an opponent and as a consequence collides with the opponent, it is a foul.

    If a player jumps at an opponent in an otherwise fair charge for the ball, it is a foul.

    If a player tackles for the ball by jumping in with both feet, it is a foul.

    A player jumping at opponent, solely to dispose the opponent of his prime position for playing the ball, is a Yellow Card.

  4. Charging.

    While all sorts of inconsequential contact is natural and fair play, the shoulder charge is the only permissable contact with any force that has a legal purpose: to drive the other play off the ball. As long as it is an approximately shoulder to shoulder drive, it is fair play.

    A charge to any other part of the body (like the back or the front) is a foul, as is a charge that begins with impact, or a charge that continues after the ball is passed on.

    Hard charging resembles "jumping at."

  5. Striking.

    When vying for the ball, players will naturally use their arms to sense each other's position and conversely make the others aware of their presence. So contact by hand is fair play and even necessary.

    When the contact has enough impact to affect the opponent, it is a foul. Deliberating throwing the ball at an opponent is considered "striking."

    It's hard to imagine a deliberate strike that isn't at least a Yellow Card, as striking, unlike pushing and holding, can hardly be construed as going for the ball.

    A deliberate strike with a closed fist is a Red Card -- a fast one, unless you want an all-out fight. Same goes for any deliberate, non-trifling strike with the arm to the head when not contending for the ball. For example: a slap in the face, clearly inflammatory beahavior.

    See note under "Kicking" about attempting to strike.

  6. Pushing.

    As mentioned in "Striking", contact by hand is fair play.

    Using hands against an opponent to better one's balance or position, but transferring weight to the opponent, especially when the opponent falls, is a foul. A push after the ball is gone can indicate the player was careless in his approach, which is also a foul.

    Deliberately pushing a player out of the way to get to the ball could be a Yellow Card, as could a deliberate push after the ball is gone.

    Pushing a player down to the ground with little intent to play the ball is a Red Card.

  7. Tackling.

    Tackling for the ball -- using the feet to extract the ball from another player -- leads to lots of body contact. Incidental contact with the opponent before or after getting the ball is generally considered trifling.

    Failing to touch the ball but making contact with the opponent is a foul, as is non-incidental contact with the opponent that enables the player to get the ball.

    Getting the ball does not exonerate the player from fouls that result from the tackle. Aside from non-trifling contact from the tackle itself, it is still a foul if the act results in kicking or tripping, as discussed above.

    A tackle which injures or could have injured an opponent is a Red Card. Look for the attacker's exposed cleats or his leg over the ball.

  8. Holding.

    As mentioned in "Striking", contact by hand is fair play.

    Once a player starts using his hand or arm to restrain the movement of another, it's a foul.

    Wrapping fingers around any part of an opponent, especially his clothing, is unquestionably deliberate and could be a Yellow Card.

    Grabbing an opponent and pulling him down is a Red Card.

  9. Spitting at.

    There's not too much grey area here: spitting on the ground is no problem (nothing like the sound of a 10 year old girl hacking up a big one).

    But deliberately spitting at an opponent is a sending off offense.

  10. Deliberately handling the ball - "handball."

    With the ball flying around at high speeds, it is bound to bounce against all parts of a player's body. When it hits a player's hand or arm (not including the top of the shoulder), it is a foul if:

    1. It was an attacker and the short term result is a goal-scoring opportunity or a goal.
    2. It was deliberate: when a player knowingly moves his hand into the path of the ball.
    3. If was avoidable: when a player fails to take reasonable effort to move his hand out of the way of the ball. If the ball is played from a short distance (by that player or another), it may be unavoidable.
    4. It was because the player held his hands out to make kimself bigger or had his arms over his head, even if the contact was then unavoidable.

    In the cases where you have to decide if contact was deliberate or avoidable, it helps to watch the player's eyes.

    Girls and boys alike may protect sensitive areas before the taking of a free kick, but during normal play the only fair action, if not caught by true surprise, is to get out of the way. Don't worry about sensitivity.

    If a player deliberately and obviously strikes the ball with his hand, or strikes the ball to score a goal, it's a Yellow Card.

    If a player deliberately handles the ball to prevent a goal from being scored, it's a Red Card. If he tries and fails (i.e. the goal is scored anyhow), it's just a Yellow Card.

p.s. "Advantage"

Just to confound your calling of fouls, there is the notion of "applying advantage:" delaying or suppressing the call if stopping for a defender's foul hurts an attacker's good play.

To apply advantage, you recognize at the time of the foul that stopping play would hurt more than help the team fouled against, and you watch for a short period (generally not more than two seconds) to verify this. An example is if an attacker is driving into the clear towards the goal and a defender attempts to trip him but fails: it's to the attacker's advantage to keep play going.

Once you've recognized that advantage has developed, you are supposed to say either "advantage" or "play on", or both, and thrust your arms out in front of you as a signal. This lets players know you saw the foul but are clever enough not to stop play. If the advantage didn't materialize, you blow your whistle and rewind back to the point of the foul. You don't want to signal advantage and subsequently call the foul: if you gave them advantage but then the play went south, it's their tough luck.

Generally, advantage should only be applied (a) in the fouling defender's half of the field and (b) outside the defender's penalty area. A Direct Free Kick is usually better than any ongoing play in the attacker's own half of the field, and a Penalty Kick on the defenders is the best.

If you apply advantage for a foul that warrants a caution or send off, you'll need to wait until the next stoppage to do the card. This can potentially take some time. If the foul warranted a send off and the player gets involved in play again before the next stoppage, you have to stop then and there, send him off, and restart with an Indirect Free Kick.

Note that advantage only applies to Direct Free Kick and Indirect Free Kick fouls. It is not applied to offside, though you can just let play continue if the keeper collects the ball.

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Learning to Recognize Fouls

A Vocabulary for Foul Recognition

Background Information

This chapter was written three years after the rest of the Watch and the Whistle. It took so long because not only does foul recognition come with time, describing how to learn to recognize fouls was elusive.

To learn to recognize fouls, it turns out, you have to watch games. Tens of games, then hundreds, then thousands of games. Not only that, you have to analyze the plays in the game -- either as the referee or as if you were the referee.

For that analysis, it helps to have a vocabulary with more than one word for 'foul'. The LOTG give you the foul acts: kick, trip, charge, push, strike, hold, etc. And the LOTG give you the buckets into which the acts should be finally categorized: trifling, careless, reckless, and with excessive force.

But additionally, experienced referees have names for certain elements that crop up repeatedly in fouls. Here is a list of elements that I see the most. You can use it if you have no list of your own.

Note that those elements are not guaranteed indicators of a foul, but when something untoward happens, words like those may help you describe why it isn't just bad luck.

  1. "Late (for the play)"

    Being late for a play -- making contact after the ball is gone -- is a very common source of trouble. Much late contact is incidental and trifling, but when it isn't tempers rise quickly. Foul trips and charges are often due to being late.

  2. "Never touched the ball"

    Similar to being late for the play, being on time but never actually touching the ball leaves a player looking pretty guilty when somethings goes wrong.

    Unlike football or basketball, soccer players don't ever "possess" the ball (except the keeper). But a player on the ball usually continues to play the ball, and it is pretty obvious if he decides to turn his attention to fouling his opponent instead. So if a foul occurs, there is a natural suspicion of the opponent who never played the ball.

  3. "Cleats up"

    Exposed cleats are dangerous, and everyone knows it. The mere presence of cleats in the air borders on dangerous play, and contact between cleats and anything but the ball and the ground is hard to excuse. Cleats-up slide tackles, cleats-first stabs at the ball, cleats planted on someone else's foot, and cleats waved near anyone's face are all ingredients for a play gone foul.

  4. "In the air"

    A player who jumps in the air is committing to a plan, and a poor plan here can easily lead to trouble. Sailing into traffic with both feet off the ground, especially with feet together or side or back first, only serves to intimidate and dislodge opponents. (During fair charges, both players have at least one foot on the ground.)

    Horizontal jumps while heading the ball are sometimes the hardest plays to sort out, as players can end up in a heap. If you don't like the results, an airborne charge may have been the unfair ingredient.

    Note that an opponent who takes advantage of an airborne player to bring him down is upping the ante from careless to reckless.

  5. "On the ground"

    Contrary to oft-voiced opinion, there is nothing unfair about playing on the ground. That said, kicking the ball is about the only fair activity. A player on the ground is unable to make a shoulder-to-shoulder charge, so any attempt while on the ground to play another player is suspect.

  6. "From behind"

    Players expect play to be around the ball, and that is usually in front or to the side of them. There are fancy tricks that involve playing the ball behind you and talented players can cleanly poke a foot between the legs of an opponent to tackle the ball. But for the most part, a player on the ball can expect to be unmolested from behind.

    Bumps from behind, especially just before the ball arrives, are pretty easy to see. A player being pressed forward against his will is a little more difficult, though it can turn obvious if he suddenly stumbles over the ball. It gets difficult to sort out when the victim himself is leaning back into his aggressor.

    Tackles from behind used to be singled out as particularly evil, but that language was removed from the LOTG when it was realized that players could be equally evil tackling from other directions. Still, a tackle from behind is unlikely to get the ball first, and you shouldn't be surprised if it results in a foul. A late, cleats-up, on-the-ground slide tackle from behind is pretty much the royal flush of fouls -- an easy candidate for serious foul play.

  7. "Swimming"

    It's hard to play soccer with your arms neatly at your side. So a bit of waving the arms for balance and touching with the arms for buffering are tolerated. But at the other end of the spectrum is when a player appears to be swimming through his opponents with his arms -- and his elbows -- up in the air and everywhere.

    Even if you can't put your finger on the foul, you might be able to put your finger on the arms if they seem to be flailing at the opponents.

  8. "More than necessary force"

    One oft-cited standard for a foul is when the player uses (substantially) more than the necessary force to make a play. The simplest example is the otherwise legal shoulder-to-shoulder charge that not only moves the opponent off the ball, but into the next field. If from a play one player emerges victorious but another player damaged, you might ask yourself if someone used more than the necessary force.

  9. "Got the player, too"

    A common response to a whistle is that the fouler "got the ball first." The question becomes: but did he get the player, too?

    Getting the ball first only fully excuses one kind of contact that might otherwise be a foul: a clean trip. This is where the player, now stationary after touching the ball, is planted in the path of the opponent's legs. Actually the player can even be moving, as long as it is perpendicular to or away from the opponent.

    But contact resulting from any movement towards the opponent isn't a clean trip: it may be kicking, striking, holding, or unfair charging. Such contact doesn't come free, and you must determine if it, like any contact, is trifling, careless, reckless, or with excessive force.

    So if someone gets the ball first, but the play still looks like a foul, it might be because he got the player, too.

  10. "Ugly"

    Sometimes, when all else fails, you might just have to blame a foul on ugly soccer. That is where players are showing such disregard for the beauty of the game that it's hard to recognize it as soccer. That is often the case when a game is getting superheated, and play seems out of control but without any simply identifiable fouls near at hand. That is a really a time when you have to be focused on the whole scene and not any one piece of it.

    Unfortunately, if both sides are playing ugly, you may have a hard time picking a direction when you call a foul. Some refs make a point by calling everything with alternating directions until the players realize they have to settle down.

In the End

When you're on the pitch with your whistle, you probably won't have to analyze each play. Instead, you'll just keep asking yourself: was that fair? If it wasn't fair, having the vocabulary to describe the foul becomes useful, as verbalizing the decision reinforces what you learn making each call. Further, when you have the time to analyze play, either after a game or in front of the television, a vocabulary for foul recognition helps you share your experience and learn from others.

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Game Control

Let Them Play vs Let Them Fight

Background Information

Between fouls and misconduct is a good time to talk about game control. I view this as managing the "temperature" of the game. This applies mostly to mid- and high-level play, and only to the calling of fouls -- there is no wiggling on in-and-out of bounds and offside.

I have some rules of thumb, but first I must relate all the trails and tidbits that lead to them.

Let Them Play vs Let Them Fight

You'll hear some referees describe themselves as "let them play" refs. In theory this means they allow a higher level of physical play, and in practice means they are either very good referees, or very bad ones. As players get more physical, aggressive play can escalate rapidly and turn into outright hostility. It takes a talented referee to run a game hot without letting it boil over. A not-so-talented referee who "lets them play" is inviting a fight.


A simple extreme is to call every foul that fits the strict definition of a foul. This is perfect for low level play, but will no doubt earn you criticism for being too "tight" in higher games. The sidelines will be crying "let them play."


Another extreme is to make players endure and "play through" fouls, and only call the most egregious. One standard I heard was "dispossession" -- that it was a foul if the player consequently lost the ball.

To have success doing this, you also have to track the temperament of the players, because you are letting them set the standard for play. You have to heed their complaints about fouling without being overtly manipulated (and you must be able to ignore 3rd party complaints from the sidelines). It is playing with fire to call a game loose without player feedback.

Middle Ground -- The Minimum "Necessary"

There is advice often quoted from previous editions of the LOTG: use the minimum of officiating necessary. The quote goes on to say that constant whistling for doubtful or trifling fouls spoils the pleasure of the players and spectators. Of course, this merely begs the question as to what is trifling and what is necessary.

Hot and Cold

Another bit of advice is to set the tone by calling games tight at the beginning of each half. This is especially important for the second half of hotly contested games.

While this seems to make sense, the implication is that you're going to loosen up after that, at which point of course things could spiral out of control. Instead, it's best to continually read the game and adjust as necessary. Someday you (and I) will be able to keep a game on that exact edge of play that is both fair and highly competitive.

My Three Rules of Thumb

If this seems like too much to sort out, I have three rules of thumb my modest experience has brought me. You can mutter them to yourself as you watch the clashes:

  • Foul means overstepping fair play. Find a component of the player's actions that is clearly beyond fair play before calling a foul. It isn't sufficient that something unfortunate happened.

  • Make calls that make a difference. If calling a foul would have negligible impact on the game or the temperament of the players, skip it. Note that the higher the level of play, the more tolerant the players and the greater their ability to render fouls against them "trifling."

  • No cheating. I can't contemplate any reason to make players endure cheating, and cannot understand referees who don't caution for behavior that clearly has nothing to do with playing the game.

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Yellow Cards and Red Cards

Laws and Mechanics

Misconduct is cheating: players clearly (should) know better but choose to subvert the rules. Ordinary misconduct warrants a caution -- a Yellow Card. More serious misconduct warrants a send off -- a Red Card. The mechanics for these are discussed above.

"Misconduct" is used in two ways. First it can indicate the extra seriousness of a foul -- either "reckless" or "using excessive force." Second, it can describe actions that aren't fouls -- because they aren't committed by a player against an opponent on the field while the ball is in play -- but which are still nasty. Unlike a foul, misconduct can involve any player, substitute, or the coach, on the field or on the sidelines.

There are seven cautionable offenses and seven sending off offenses.

Note the restart for misconduct, usually at the location of the misconduct:

If play was ... ...the restart is ... ...where...
already stopped when the misconduct occurred for the reason play was stopped where it already was.
stopped for a foul a Direct Free Kick, Penalty Kick, or Indirect Free Kick, per the foul where the foul occurred.
stopped for physical misconduct on the field by a player, substitute, or coach against anyone involved in the game (opponent, teammate, coach, or referee) a Direct Free Kick or Penalty Kick where the misconduct occurred.
stopped for physical misconduct off the field by a player, substitute, or coach against anyone involved in the game. Note again that a player just off the field but still involved in play hasn't left the field. an Indirect Free Kick at the nearest point on the boundary line.
stopped for non-physical (verbal) misconduct on the field by a player, substitute, or coach against anyone involved in the game an Indirect Free Kick where the offense occurred.
stopped for non-physical (verbal) misconduct off the field by a player, substitute, or coach against anyone involved in the game an Indirect Free Kick at the nearest point on the boundary line.
stopped because a substitute or coach entered the field and interfered with play a Direct Free Kick or Penalty Kick where the interference occurred.
stopped for misconduct by anyone against anyone not involved in the game (an outside agent) a Dropped Ball where the ball was when play was stopped.

Cautionable -- Yellow Card -- Offenses

1. Unsporting behavior (UB)

This can apply to both fouls and non-fouls, players, substitutes and coaches.

This has two meanings. Any foul that the LOTG describes as "reckless" also called "Unsporting Behavior" and warrants a Yellow Card.

The second meaning is a catch-all for anything that you think is wrong, but can't otherwise put a name on. You probably won't use this early in your career, because you may not recognize things as unsporting.

There is an ever-growing list of specific cases that are part of this catch-all:

  • A substitute or coach enters the field.

  • A player prevents the goalkeeper from releasing the ball.

  • A goalkeeper and field player swap positions without your consent (both cautioned).

  • A player other than the identified kicker takes the Penalty Kick.

  • The kicker in a Penalty Kick illegally feints by fulling stopping in his run up to the ball.

  • Different players take turns fouling the same opponent.

  • A player blocks an opponent's Throw-In by jumping in front of him.

  • A player attempts to score a goal by handling the ball.

  • A player attempts but fails to deny an obvious goal-scoring opportunity by handling the ball.

  • A player denies an obvious goal-scoring opportunity inside the penalty area by committing a careless tackle.

  • A player dives (fakes being fouled) or fakes injury.

  • A player fouls his opponent deliberately to break up promising attack (a "tactical" or "professional" foul).

2. Dissent (D)

This does not involve fouls. It can apply to players, substitutes, and coaches.

Players don't get to argue with the referee. Showing dissent, by word or action (sometimes by not doing what they're told to do), gets a Yellow Card.

It's best to start with deaf ears, and limit your conversation to things you want to say, but if dissent starts escalating you really need to get it in check quickly. Basically, if the chatter is getting on your nerves and affecting your ability to run the game, start cautioning.

Frequently it is the coach that provides the most dissent.

3. Persistent infringement (PI)

This involves fouls, and thus applies to players only.

Persistent infringement works two ways. First, a single player may foul persistently, even after having multiple calls made against him. You can, if you choose, warn him along the way, but the Yellow Card is the best warning.

Second, sometimes a team will target a player for elimination, and will take turns fouling that player so that no one member of the team gets hits with a persistent infringement warning. When you realize this is going on you get the next guy, but you do so for Unsporting Behavior.

4. Delay of restart (DR)

This does not involve fouls, and applies to players, substitutes, and coaches.

The team that is ahead often has an interest in slowing down play, since the clock always runs. To that end, they'll kick the ball way out of play, kick, throw or grab it when it is already out of play, take a long time getting ready for a kick or Throw-In, etc.

If you notice this tactic, you can caution the next guy who tries it.

Note that player substitutions, which can take time when carefully orchestrated, are not considered the offense of delay. You can compensate somewhat by restarting play as soon as the player is on the field, ready or not, and the LOTG allow you to add time for lengthy substitutions.

5. Failure to Respect Distance (FRD)

This does not involve fouls, and applies only to players.

On any Direct or Indirect Free Kick, the opponents are required to retreat 10 yards in any direction. Attackers have the option of making a "quick kick" before opponents have actually retreated, but a compliant opponent will be moving away, not towards, the kicker. If the kicker stops to wait for a ceremonial kick, any opponent within 10 yards should be moving away.

This is a very common infraction, for two reasons: many players are coached to believe the kicker must ask for their 10 yards before he gets it (which is no more true than a goalkeeper having to ask opponents to let him release the ball). Second, hovering close directly in line of the kick is a very easy way for the fouling team to show their frustration over the call. Tying a shoe in front of the ball is a common trick.

Because blocking a free kick is such a flagrant challenge to the referee, this is one of the easiest cards to issue. It doesn't require too much judgement or memory on your part: you see it, you caution. If you are otherwise timid about exerting your authority, this is a surefire caution for the mid- and hi-level players.

If players are retreating only 8 or 9 yards, it is sometimes worthwhile measuring it out once for them before you start carding. But once you do measure it, they better take you seriously.

A similar two yard rule applies to Throw-Ins, but that isn't violated nearly as often.

6 + 7. Entering and Leaving the field without permission (E and L)

This applies to players. Substitutes who enter the field outside of the substitution process are cautioned for Unsporting Behavior.

The referee needs to know which players are on the field playing the game and which players are off the field attending to injury, bleeding, or faulty equipment, or just taking a break.

If you send a player off the field to attend to any of these, he obviously has your permission. But if the player leaves the field of his own accord without your permission he can be cautioned for doing so. Note that your mere notification implies permission.

A player off the field, either by your direction or by his own accord, cannot re-enter the field until you or your assistant verifies whatever problem has been corrected and you indicate he can enter. This can happen at a stoppage or during the the run of play, but the player must enter along the touch line and not the goal line.

A defender stepping off the field to put an attacker offside is cautionable.

Note that the field stretches to accommodate play: a player running outside the touch or goal line or even entering the goal to play the ball isn't considered leaving the field. Nor is a player who chases an out of bounds ball to retrieve it.

Send Off -- Red Card -- Offenses

1. Serious foul play (SFP)

This applies to fouls, and thus to players only.

Any foul that the LOTG describes as "with excessive force" is called "serious foul play" and warrants a Red Card.

USSF has this handy acronym for distinguishing Red Card fouls from others: SIAPOA.

  1. Speed of play and the tackle
  2. Intent
  3. Aggressive Nature
  4. Position of the tackler (how high are his legs)
  5. Opportunity to play the ball
  6. Atmosphere of the game

2. Violent conduct (VC)

This does not apply to fouls. It can apply to players, substitutes, and coaches.

Any violent actions that cannot be considered fouls, because they aren't committed against an opponent by a player vying for the ball on the field, are considered "violent conduct" and warrant a Red Card.

The most obvious example is a fight, or any action that leads up to one.

As with the kicking, tripping, and striking fouls, a player can be punished for even attempting violent conduct. It should be an obvious attempt.

3. Spits (S)

This can apply to players, substitutes and coaches.

This is the misconduct version of the "spitting at" foul. If someone deliberately spits at someone else, it's a Red Card.

4 + 5. Denies OGSO by Handling and Fouls (DGH and DGF)

This applies to fouls, and thus to players only.

"Denying an obvious goal scoring opportunity" (DOGSO) by committing a foul or deliberately handling the ball (which is a foul) warrants a Red Card. This large penalty is to counter the large benefit from stopping a goal.

An OGSO is generally when there is only the keeper, or one single defender, left to prevent the goal. If the keeper or another defender seizes the opportunity to foul the attacker and thus thwart the goal, it's a Red Card.

Since fouls at the goal happen all the time, it is good to memorize the 4 "D"s for OGSO: number of defenders (not more than one), distance to goal (close), distance to the ball (keeping or gaining control), direction (towards the goal).

DOGSO by committing a foul is downgraded to just a caution for Unsporting Behavior if it (a) happens in the penalty area (and thus the attacking team gets a Penalty Kick) and (b) is a legitimate attempt to tackle for the ball that is a careless foul.

6. Abusive language (AL)

This does not involve fouls. It can apply to players, substitutes, and coaches.

Foul language, like spitting, warrants a Red Card when directed at anyone. Foul language that seems to be a private affair is not a problem, but if you hear it there is a chance others are hearing it, and a warning may be worthwhile.

7. 2nd Yellow Card (2YC)

This may or may not involve fouls. It can apply to players, substitutes, and coaches.

If anyone gets a second Yellow Card during the game, they get treated to a Red Card.

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Tie Breaking

Laws and Mechanics

Soccer games may end in a tie. Some competitions require there to be a winner, and the rules of the competition spell out the procedures. But two are likely: extra periods and kicks from the penalty marks.

Extra Periods

The first tie-breaking measure is usually two extra periods. You run it like a mini-game: bring the team captains out, the visitor calls the coin toss, and the winner chooses either to take the Kick Off or which direction to attack.

On rare occasions you'll have extra time with a "sudden death" or "golden goal": the first to score wins. The LOTG don't provide for this, but some tournaments might still try it.

Kicks from the Penalty Mark (KFTPM)

Uck. This final method of tie-breaking involves a series of alternating kicks from the penalty mark (just like a penalty kick). The procedure is documented well in the LOTG, but here are the important bits:

  • Only the players at the end of the game (or extra period) participate. This include players who just happen to be off the field for injury or equipment problems.

  • If one team has more players than the other (due to injury, Red Cards, not having enough to begin with), the team captain must reduce his team size to match. He must also reduce if the other team loses players during the kicks.

  • It all happens at one goal. You toss a coin to determine which one.

  • The winner of a second coin toss chooses to kick first or second.

  • A set of five kickers from each team take alternating turns. If one team scores enough that the other team can't catch up, you stop. If there is a tie after the first five, then pairs of kickers (one from each team) take alternating turns until one team scores and the other doesn't.

  • If the tie continues, everyone must take their first kick before anyone takes a second kick, and then everyone must take their second kick before anyone takes a third, etc. Otherwise, order is not important.

  • Keepers kick, too.

  • The keepers alternate for each kick. The waiting keeper stands out of the way on the goal line behind the AR.

  • The kick is like a Penalty Kick in extra time: the kicker cannot play the ball again.

  • All other players wait in the center circle.

  • The keeper can be swapped for another player on the field.

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You Blew it

Practical Procedures

In all likelihood you'll make mistakes. This section talks about the mistakes you know you made, as opposed to all those that someone else thinks you made (ignore those).

Here are the most common:

1. Wrong direction: the ball went out, or you stopped for a foul, and you called it for one team when you meant another. No problem: you have until the restart to change your mind. As with all of your decisions, it is effective when you make the decision, even if the wrong restart happens before you have a chance to announce it. If you do reverse, give the players a chance to get into the new position.

2. Forgot the AR: you just now noticed that the AR is signaling offside for an apparent goal, that the ball went out of bounds but is still being played, or anything else that he thinks is important enough not to be ignored. Only a slight problem: it's embarrassing (since you're supposed to make frequent eye contact with your ARs), but you can still change your mind up until the next restart. Watch out -- you can't back up once you've ended the game. If you manage to ignore your AR through the next restart, shame on you. Usually ARs will give up after a few moments of play have rendered their call moot, but if they insist and you don't know why, stop play and find out what's on their mind.

3. Premature stop: if you accidentally stop the half or game early, you need to call the players back onto the field and restart with a Dropped Ball. Note again the difference between facts and rules: you can keep the time, however arbitrarily, but what you say must add up to a legal half.

4. Late stop: if you accidentally let the half or game go over time, and a goal was scored in that over time, you have to abandon the match. Ugly. Most referees fib and say they added all that time, but you still need to be right about the regulation length of the half.

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The Departure

Practical Procedures

You've blown the final whistle and your ARs have run to meet you in the center circle. You have just a few minutes left.

Collect your flags from the ARs. You can chat for a minute or two before the players line up for the handshake.

Your job now is to oversee the handshakes, ensuring that no misconduct occurs. Until the players leave the field, you can still caution them or send them off for misconduct. Once they are off the field, all you can do is report any incident after the fact. Usually players and coaches will come by to shake your hand as well.

Resist the temptation to lecture the coaches on anything, and resist their attempts to lecture you. If you can't avoid them, or feel it would be too rude to cut them off, just make sure you don't actually start conversing, or you'll find yourself defending every call. Instead, just listen to their complaints and, if necessary, apologise for their dissatisfaction.

Finish filling out the game card -- usually just the total score -- and sign it as needed. If you're supposed to, give the game card to the appropriate coach and give back the player passes. If you sent off any players, you may need to extract their passes before returning them, and you'll probably also need to hold onto the game card.

If you didn't have a Perfect Game, you can invite your ARs to join you for a quiet, private postmortem. I always get fairly frank responses to the question, "What went wrong?"

Once all that is done, leave, as quickly as you can.

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Appendix: My Sources

Background Information
The Laws of the Game 2019
The definitive laws around the world, extensively rewritten in 2019.

IFAB's page on the laws
IFAB, the International Football Association Board, world soccer's governing body, has a page to help nagivate the laws.

Main USSF page for referees
USSF is the United States Soccer Federation, the definitive source for soccer in the USA. This site has lots of well-organized, definitive information.

Socref-L Mailing List Archives
An active discussion group for referees, many of whom provided great feedback for this documents.
A time honored forum of "trails and tidbits."

Rafal Wlazlo's somewhat more advanced referee site, including a handy test-of-the-week to sharpen your knowledge.

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$Date: 2019/09/07 $