Semantics and Soccer Officiating

By: Georges-Frantz Louis, National Referee Emeritus, Instructor, Assessor, and Assignor


The intent of this article is to raise a level of concern for Referees who allow too many reckless contacts in their games, and eventually lose control of their matches. One little story tells it all. Imagine the referee crew as having four members (4): Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody. During a match, a player struck an opponent away from the Referee’s view. Everybody was sure that Somebody would have taken care of the incident. Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did nothing. Somebody got angry because it was Everybody’s job. Everybody believed that Anybody would do it. Then, Nobody realized that Everybody would not do anything about it. As a result, Everybody blamed Somebody, when Nobody did what Anybody could have done. The morale of the story is: when facing a critical issue, many referees often say: “That’s not my job!” So, I suggest that nothing would be done at all if we waited until we could do it so well that no one could find any fault with it.

The Challenge of Advantage

The two governing sports authorities for school soccer, the Soccer Rules Committees of the NCAA and NFHS, meet to decide what modifications shall be made to the rules. The NCAA meets biannually, while the NFHS meets annually. One important aspect of the rules for both the game and the Referee is the Advantage Clause. This special provision is stated in Rule 5 of both sets of soccer rules, which discuss the Powers, authority, and responsibilities of a Referee.

The Challenge of Advantage

When discussing the circumstances of Rule 8, we focus on start and restarts of play, based on a stoppage. As far as advantage is concerned, we focus on the commission of a foul (Rule 12) overshadowed by the decision of a Referee (Rule 5-Advantage clause) to extend play, provided that the team that had been fouled against benefits from such play extension. One interesting phase of the advantage clause is that the original foul may be called and penalized if the advantage did not materialize. Therefore, invoking the advantage is a very special circumstance, and the Referee’s opinion absolutely matters.

In general, by taking advantage of a situation or someone, you clearly put someone else at a disadvantage. During a soccer match, the use of advantage allows the team that was placed at a disadvantage because of a rules violation by the opposition to realize an advantage by not penalizing the violation at that time. Subsequently, should the allowed advantage fail to materialize, the Referee has the authority to stop play and assess the appropriate punishment for the original foul. A Referee must be in total control through this process in order to maintain a proper level of game control above all. The Referee must avoid any confrontations with coaches, players, and spectators. Having Rabbit Ears and engaging in lengthy conversation with participants will put the referee at a disadvantage.

Fair Play and Control

It’s important to address the topic of penal fouls that are called, or that are not called, by a Referee. Why? Soccer is considered a game of finesse, of limited contact, and a talent driven sport. When officiating a soccer game, contact is acceptable if it is reasonable.

Remember that penal fouls are almost exclusively fouls of contact including handling (i.e., handball) and spitting. The questions are: did the Referee see the foul? Did the Referee decide to ignore the foul? That leads us to the favorite words used by Referees when attempting to articulate or to justify their actions based on theories: (1) I allow some contacts; or (2) the players accept these fouls. In the officiating system, words are more powerful than the actions of the players. Figure the odds, when what is accepted among the players, is more than what is allowed by the Referee; the chance of losing control of the match is imminent. The Referee has two options toward balancing the odds: “Verbal Judo” (i.e., Psychology), or the use of disciplinary cards (Y/R) with the hope to de-escalate the conflict. On the other hand, when what is allowed by the Referee is more than what is accepted among the players, it strengthens the opinion of the Referee, thus, making game management easier for the Referee Team. To clarify this issue, remember that when a referee sets the officiating bar (i.e., the allowed standard of conduct) too low, it jeopardizes game control.

Setting the Standard of Conduct

The bottom line is that the Referee must determine and enforce the level of contact in terms of dangerous, careless/reasonable, reckless, flagrant, deliberate, excessive, or serious/violent. One word stands alone: reckless. A reckless foul is regarded as misconduct. Misconduct is detrimental to the spirit of fair play. A reckless foul is an imprudent action by an aggressive participant, which may result in injury to either the aggressor or to the opponent, or in injury to both players. Therefore a caution is required. A careless/reasonable contact or non-contact foul may or may not be called by the Referee, based on its severity. In the meantime, a serious/violent contact is an abominable form of misconduct by a participant. Such misconduct may endanger the safety of an opponent, or may cause serious injury to an opponent. Therefore, it must be sanctioned by ejection (NCAA) or disqualification (NFHS) of the offender (s).

“Agree to disagree” is a principle adopted by most Referees in critical situations. Why? In my opinion, it’s the easiest way out from a debate when a call appears to be questionable. In officiating soccer, the opinion of the Referee cannot and shall not be judged. An administrative complaint may be filed requesting either the NCAA or NFHS interpretation about Referee’s misapplication of a rule, but not about a Referee’s discretionary decision.

The Challenge of Technical Offenses

Another critical aspect of officiating soccer deals with the sanctioning of technical offenses or most non-contact fouls. The most misinterpreted technical fouls are: fair charge away from the ball (without the ball being within playing distance), impeding the progress of an opponent (AKA obstruction), playing in a dangerous manner (AKA dangerous play), and others specified in the NCAA or NFHS Soccer Rules Book.

A fair charge is a means of legally getting an opponent off-balance by nudging him with a “shoulder to shoulder charge” in order to gain control of the ball, provided that the ball is within playing distance of both players. One or both feet may be on the ground.

Impeding the progress of an opponent (i.e., obstruction) can and may be easily misinterpreted by Referees, especially, when managing a fast break where the 4 D’s are present: (1) distance to the goal, (2) defenders with opportunity to claim possession of the ball, (3) direction of play, and (4) distance to the ball).

Example: Attacker dribbles away from the goalkeeper inside the penalty area, leaving him with an open goal. A fast left fullback runs toward the attacker and suddenly stops in front the attacker, between the attacker and the ball, thus denying the attacker a clear goal/goal scoring opportunity. The attacker was unable to avoid contact with the Defender, but the ball continues to roll into the goal. The Referee has 3 options: (1) stop play, eject (NCAA) or disqualify (NFHS) the defender, and restart play with an Indirect Free Kick where the foul occurred; (2) stop play, eject or disqualify the defender, and restart play with a penalty kick; or (3) allow the goal the goal, then caution the defender. Answer (3) is the most practical and reasonable.

Playing in a dangerous manner (i.e. dangerous play) requires a Referee to be cool, calm, and collected while analyzing the “Totality of Circumstance”. Such a foul may: entail a certain degree of danger, threaten the physical integrity of an opponent (e.g., high kick above an opponent’s waist and near the head, or a non-contact slide tackle with 2 feet and the toes pointing skyward), or attempting to block an opponent’s kick at knee level. Referees most of the time misinterpret this technical foul. Here lies the difference between what is allowed and what is acceptable.

The most critical of the technical offenses is Offside. This offense involves the words “directly from.” Should the ball be touched by (played by) a defender during a throw-in, corner kick, goal kick, or simultaneously by two opposing players, before an attacker who was in an Offside position gets it, does the contact with defender eliminate the words “directly from?” Can the attacker be called offside? No! As an Assistant Referee, do you raise the flag? No! You don’t! Or, do you go with flow? Yes! You go with the flow! This does not involve a deflection from a pass between two attackers, where one is in an offside position.

Let’s briefly talk about the most notorious and troublesome misconduct that affects game flow: “delaying the restart of play.” The most seen and heard words in the Officiating Cycle are: Instructor, Referee, Assignor, and Assessor. Their most used sentence is: “That’s not my game!” Of course, it’s not their game. It’s the Referee Team’s game. In fact, all four have something to do with that particular game.

An Instructor taught the referees the rules and the associated Mechanics for match control. The Referee attended referee certification courses to prepare to manage a given assignment. The Assignor entrusts the Referee Team with a competitive game in the hope that all will end well. The Assessor seldom praises the Referee Team for their outstanding performance; while often pressuring the Referee Team to improve specific aspects of their officiating methods. Picture the Assessor as an “Athletic Compliance Officer”. The Assessor is responsible for evaluating officiating fitness, program, and issues. The Assessor also oversees the implementation, assimilation, and application of officiating tactics and techniques by the officials, in an effort toward continuous improvement by the Referees.

Functioning as Referee

American Author James Thurber (1960) wrote: “A word to the wise is not sufficient if it does not make sense, as we must communicate with clarity and precision”. To support such an assertion, French Writer Emile Salomon (Alias Andre Maurois, 1940) wrote: “The value of the average conversation could be enormously improved by the constant use of our simple words:  I don’t know!” I strongly agree! Let’s refer to conversation as a mean of communication between referees. Imagine that you (the Referee) feel overwhelmed by the high intensity of a match or by the sophisticated tactics employed by the teams in a game. You feel like one man, not an island. Led by tunnel vision, you rely on reaction instead of pro-activity as instinct takes over rational thinking. You are asking yourself: Am I going to survive this stressful situation? That’s a losing situation.

Well! Take a deep breath and regroup your trend of thought. Spanish Author Miguel de Cervantes (1605) wrote in his novel “Don Quixote” that “when a door shuts, another one opens”. Feeling contained is a useless feeling that leads us to briefly believe here is no accessible avenue to the path of survival. Why accept such a state of mind? Trying to do everything without assistance is like fighting a 20-foot giant. One remedy to prevent being in such situation is to use your common sense and patience. As English Psychologist Norman Mackworth (1978) put it in his book “Abstract,” “it’s time to be creative by seeing the unforeseen situation as a joy, not as a curse”. Agree to disagree. Creativity is a higher level of pro-activity. Of course, displaying the ability to de-escalate a critical situation through the use of interpersonal skills is an essential social tool. That’s when the optimum force called intuition comes into effect. The latter is more powerful than any weapon when used as a reaction to the element of surprise. So, when a Referee and an Assistant Referee, working together, call an Offside, think of officiating as going through a series of revolving doors. No matter what the decision, you can either enter or exit anytime without any repercussion.

One key to success is to develop a sense of effectiveness and consistency. Again, Referees must be flexible, patient, and creative. In addition, communication and concentration work hand-in-hand to help secure and maintain an adequate level of control. In the meantime, should a Referee suffer of any type of ailment, (e.g. ADHD-Attention Deficit Disorder, Cerebral Palsy etc.), the level of concentration would considerably be affected, as responsibility and authority also become serious issues. Most people believe that knowledge is power, as long as you use it to make the right decision and the right choice for the right reason. Inherent in this managerial process are the concepts of sportsmanship and gamesmanship. True sportsmanship derives from knowledge, talent, love for the game, fairness, and equality. Gamesmanship is the art of gaining an unfair advantage, by deliberately “bending” the rules. The “know-when, the know-how, and the know-why” play an important role when displaying gamesmanship. Be prepared to identify and to distinguish gamesmanship from total misconduct.

Three characteristics of a good Referee are energy, maturity, and confidence. These translate into being cool, calm, and collected. For example, one technical aspect of strategy is when the overlapping system is misread, it weakens a Referee’s ability to adjust his method of patrol (Diagonal). Through gamesmanship, players often take advantage of such weakness. Of course, your choice of words may and will help you justify your decisions. Above all, your approach to interpersonal communication must be conducive to bondage and reciprocity with total unselfishness. Integrity and loyalty are instrumental toward fairness and equality. They are strong stepping- stones toward developing a bond with everybody involved in a match, as no one Referee alone can ever do it very well. Therefore, establishing rapport with the coaches and their players is paramount. I support the theory that “a picture can paint a thousand words.” However, one word can describe a thousand situations provided that the “letter (i.e., meaning and intent) of the rules” are rationally applied, and the spirit of fair play is adequately preserved. During a game, it is recommended that: (a) the center Referee tries hard to avoid being in line with his Lead AR; (b) the Referee place himself at angle where he can see the ball, the challengers, and the Lead AR in case the Referee needs immediate assistance (especially, during a punt from Goalkeeper’s hands or during a counter-attack). Eye to eye contact is paramount should you want to reach a level of total game control.

Nowadays, officiating a soccer game is like directing a movie in which the players are the actors, and the drama-kings. Consider these well-known names: Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Del Piero, KhaKa, Adebayor, Ronaldinho, Leonel Messi, Tierry Henry, Kim-Kuk-Jin, Leee Dong-Gook, Ahn-Jung-Hwan, Rooney, Ballack, Alves, Beckham, Essien, Cole, Drogba, Terry, Lampard, Crouch, London Donovan, Dempsey, Altidore, Adu, and so on. Among them, you find talented athletes, daredevils, the astute, the deceptive, and many smooth operators.

In today’s Soccer, a series of “delaying the restart” tactics have been developed and are being used by coaches and players. To a certain extent, it appears that players want to make a travesty of the game as they try to play by their own rules. Referees are recommended to enforce the rules as appropriate, to ensure that they preserve the Spirit of the Laws.

This leads us to discuss one technique, why the Referee should go to the point of infraction. I emphasize that a Referee should go to the point of infraction when it is absolutely necessary to ensure that the ball is stationary at the location of the infraction, and defensive players retire 10 yards away (or as appropriate) from the ball, thus protecting the opportunity for a quick free kick to be taken; Of course, the Referee should remain alert to prevent encroachment or any other delaying tactics, mass confrontation, retaliation, by diffusing a situation, or absolutely to caution or eject/disqualify. (I also appreciate the Mexican Soccer Federation’s decision to use some type of dry-erase spray on the field to assure that defensive players respect the required distance during free kicks.)


To ensure a safe, and enjoyable athletic event, a Referee must fairly apply the rules with self-control and total confidence. To me, success in officiating is all about education and experience. I have tried hard enough to educate others about officiating. Sometimes, I wonder do they listen? Do they try to understand the script? I sense they do both, but they interpret what they read to the best of their ability.

Henry Ford (1863 – 1947) the founder of Ford Motor Company once said:  “If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to grasp other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own”. In the officiating profession, a Referee simultaneously identifies a player’s actions, and determines the intended result. The ladder may be careless, reckless, or endangering safety of an opponent by the use of excessive force. Imagine a Referee as a businessman. In each match, the Referee faces the reality of success or failure. The element of surprise (i.e., the moment of truth) can make the Referee better or suddenly break him. That’s a scary thought! Isn’t it?

So, knowing this, do you still want to be a Referee? If your answer is yes, these are the challenges. Be prepared to take responsible risks.

Love and Peace!