Being a Referee or an Assistant Referee; Who Would You Rather Be?

By Georges-Frantz Louis, NISOA National Assessor, North Carolina and Arkansas

The great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said: “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or as Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say: here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.” Such is the case of a Referee or Assistant Referee who should enforce the Intercollegiate and Interscholastic Soccer Rules, whichever applies, even as Justice O’Connor interpreted the Constitution, based on the totality of circumstance.

In the meantime, I believe there is nothing more gratifying in life than the feeling of being in control of the self, to better say: “the feeling of being in charge of people and situations.” It is obvious that Referees and Assistant Referees on the Referee Team are in charge of a soccer match being played between two groups of human participants. So! You have the choice of being the Referee or an Assistant Referee. Who would you rather be?

The answer to that question lies in the world between Myth and Fact, Technicality and Reality, Pope and Cardinal, President and Ministers. The truth of the matter is a Top Level Referee usually does not perform that well when serving in the capacity of Assistant Referee.” The same observation has been made about a Top Level Assistant Referee serving in the capacity of Referee.

Referees in general require adequate mental faculties to guide their physical abilities through the display of patience and wisdom, what we call common sense or good judgment.  Moreover, Referees must be able to: (1) identify intelligent players’ techniques (i.e., skills level), (2) read sophisticated team tactics, (3) and, of course, (3) analyze the totality of circumstance based on the game’s level of intensity (i.e., whether low, medium, or high).

On the other hand, Assistant Referees must totally concentrate on the technical aspects of the game, especially in dealing with Offside. Although, their level of concentration, their method of patrol, and their method of rules application may differ; it is to better say that the Referees’ mechanics and those of the Assistant Referees are obviously different. Together they carry the same effective end result. There lies the thin gray area between being realistic and being technical.

A Referee has in his/her favor time and space that allow him/her to sometimes interpret and apply the rules “for the good of the game”, with the twin purpose of preserving the flow of the game and to score more goals. Therefore, when analyzing a challenge or a situation, it’s not what the players accept that counts toward a stoppage of play or the application of the Advantage Clause. It’s also what the Referee allows the players to do in the game that influences each decision that the Referee makes.

For example, some referees go to the point of infraction each time they blow the whistle. Is this courage, confidence, or consistency? Or is this the result of inexperience, or of a bad habit developed through inexperience or ignorance?

In 1991, while I lived in Arkansas, a National Assessor named Larry Tompkins asked me this question: “why does a Referee go to the point of an infraction?” Taken by surprise, I tap-danced my way out of that pressurized labyrinth. In addition, Mr. Tompkins asked me: 1. “Can you add time for your action?”, 2. “Are you making the game look more difficult than it is?”, and 3. “Can you verbally admonish the offender without a caution?”. I replied: “Of course, sir! I can add time for my action; provided that both teams benefit from the time consumed to admonish, caution, or to eject a perpetrator.”

Usually, a Referee walks to the point of infraction to politely but firmly interface with the offender. At times, the Referee also does so in order to recover from extreme, or a series of, sprints to manage counterattacks.

Though, a Referee runs to the point of a violation and exhibits courage, confidence, and consistency in order to prevent escalation of hostility or to diffuse a situation, he/she also goes to the point of infraction:(1) prevent retaliation, (2) to caution or to eject the offender, (3) when an injury is perceived to be serious, and (4) in an absolute attempt to convince players, coaches, and spectators that the action is correct and needed.

In addition, there are four additional critical aspects of the game on which both Referee and Assistant Referees must concentrate.

(1) Both Referee and Lead AR should be moving toward the goal mouth during any shot on goal from anywhere outside the penalty area, so as to observe and analyze the “Totality of Circumstance,” and by doing so prevent a contested goal.

2. The Referee should momentarily stop when the Lead AR signals for a foul on the attacker who commits the act before scoring a goal.

3. The Referee should come to a brief stop when Offside has been signaled by the Assistant Referee and honored (i.e., whistled) by the Referee.

4. A Lead AR should stop moving to signal for an Offside, maintain the flag straight up if the Referee fails to see the Offside signal, and the attacking team keeps possession of the ball. That AR may, of course, lower the flag when:  (a) the referee decides not to honor the Offside call by showing him a “thumbs up”, (b) when the defensive team completely clears the ball away or the Goalkeeper completely gains control of the ball, (c) when the ball goes out of play for a Goal Kick or Throw-in in favor of the defense.

With regards to fouls, all violations are recorded as fouls whether a Penal Foul, a Technical Offense, Violent Conduct, Serious Foul Play, etc. The Assistant Referees action is to stop moving and hold a flag signal to indicate that an infraction has occurred and should be penalized accordingly.

As far as the referee is concerned, when a flag signal is honored, he is to whistle to stop play. Exceptions occur in a number of cases. (1) The Referee may decide to invoke the “Advantage Clause” which allows the team that has been fouled on to benefit from play continuation by shouting Play-On! If the Advantage does not materialize, the Referee can stop play and penalize the original foul within 3 to 4 seconds. (2) As mentioned above, in the case of an Offside infraction, the Referee may choose to over-rule the Assistant Referee.  Usually the Referee signals a thumb-up so he the AR can lower the flag and go on to the normal position. This should be discussed in the Referee Team Pre-game Briefing. Bear in mind, that the Advantage Clause is not used to over-rule an offside signal. Therefore, when offside is signaled, the Referee usually returns to the other half of the field anticipating an area where the kicking team might play that ball next, based on their strategy. The Referee, for the Indirect Free Kick restart, must keep one arm extended above his head until the ball is touched by any player other than the one who took the Indirect Free-Kick.  The same mechanic is used for all other Indirect Free Kicks. In the meantime, only the Lead AR moves to take a position at a point perpendicular to the place where the attacker was when offside was called.

Nowadays, an Assistant Referees is allowed to enter the field of play when necessary to better assist the Referee by establishing the required distance of a defensive wall during a free kick near goal. That new mechanic also helps to decrease delay at restarts. Traditionally, the Referee rarely leaves the field of play during an on-going soccer game. That leads me to emphasize that the Referee may go anywhere on the field of play knowing where the game needs him/her at each particular play development. Although, the Assistant Referees of course, normally moves along and outside of the touch line, between the goal line to the halfway line.

During the game the Referee focuses mainly on the movement of the ball, the level of challenge exhibited by players, and the intelligent display of tactics. Also the Referee creates and applies a standard of team and participant conduct and behavior fitting to uniformly and consistently apply in that game. The Totality of Circumstance is unique.

While the Referee is concerned with these primary responsibilities, the Assistant Referees mainly focus on defensive and offensive tactics.. Nevertheless, the Referee’s function is absolutely realistic compared to the technicality involved in the Assistant Referee’s function.

Allow me to clarify my belief about the Referee and Assistant Referee. I strongly believe that the Referee focuses about 50% on Safety and about 50 % on team strategies. On the other hand, the Assistant Referees focus about 50% on Safety, about 40 % on defensive tactics, and about 10% on offensive strategies.

I believe that most game officials would agree with this assertion. Safety is certainly paramount in every aspect of officiating. The focus and responsibilities may slightly differ, but in the end they accomplish the same objective.

Benjamin Franklin said: “It’s easier to suppress the first desire than to satisfy all that follow it.” Bear in mind, some fortunate Referees perform well in either capacity, as Referee or Assistant Referee. A strong personality plays a key role in being successful at either position. Try not to follow anyone else’s path rigorously. Look, listen, learn, then fairly, pacifically, and effectively, mold your own trail. Stop, think, and act. Who knows? You may some day find that you have neared, or reached, the level of excellence that you have set as you career goal. I certainly wish you well!