The Moment of Truth

by Mike Oliver, NISOA National Referee, Illinois

Anyone who has been a member of a referee crew that has worked soccer games at any level knows that in most games a critical incident occurs that tends to have a direct effect on the outcome of the match.  Typically, the referee and/or the other members of the crew will have to make a ruling on the incident and, therefore, be directly involved in the outcome of the game.  Because of the importance of the referee decision, an incident of this nature is referred to as the “Moment of Truth” (MOT).

Although soccer referees will acknowledge that a MOT occurs because they have all experienced this challenging situation and are constantly faced with the probability that it will occur again, I have noticed that they have difficulty explaining what a MOT is because it is such a broad concept.  In this article, I will attempt to clarify what a MOT is by explaining types of MOT situations as well as providing examples.  Also, I will make some recommendations on how to prepare and be ready for a MOT so that you can achieve the best possible result.

Since the situations that can be considered as a MOT are too numerous to mention, the types of MOT incidents could be classified in the following ways:

1. Significant, dramatic occurrences and

2. Subtle, inconspicuous events.

The “significant, dramatic occurrences” tend to be very apparent violations of the rules of the game that typically are serious foul play and violent conduct situations that should result in the ejection of the offender.  Examples of these MOT situations include:

  • Denying a goal scoring opportunity foul by a defender.
  • Foul by a defender in the penalty area that will result in a penalty kick.
  • Deliberate striking of an opponent.
  • A tackle from behind the opponent that is very dangerous and liable to cause an injury to that opponent.

In each of these instances, the offense would be of a blatant nature that should be witnessed by the referee or one of the assistant referees.

The “subtle or inconspicuous event” could be a single situation or series of events that tend to be tactical in nature and generally a cautionable offense.  Examples of these MOT situations would be:

  • An intimidating “hard” tackle against a key opponent.
  • A foul in the midfield against the opposing team with numbers in their favor as an attack is developing.
  • Delay tactics such as holding the ball after a stoppage of play, switching players on throw-ins, “standing on the ball” prior to restarts, etc. that are intended to slow down the game against an opponent that prefers a high-paced, faster game.
  • Gamesmanship by bench personnel that generally involves comments and reactions to decisions made by the referee with the intention of getting the referee to make future calls in their favor.

These situations are more difficult to consider as a MOT event because they are not as obvious but may have as much or even a greater impact on the game as the significant, dramatic occurrences.  Actually, it is my contention that if the subtle MOT’s are not detected and managed effectively by the referee crew, they will result in a “significant, dramatic occurrence” or create other problems throughout the remainder of the game.

Another very important consideration regarding MOT events is when they tend to occur during the match.  Unfortunately, an MOT situation can occur at any time during the game and some would suggest that it can even happen before the game begins.  But some of the principles of time management and game control come into play and should be utilized in being alert for an MOT event such as:

  • The first and last five minutes of each half, even more so during the second half in a closely contested game.
  • After a goal is scored.
  • If a controversial play occurs during the game (close offsides, foul by defending side close to their penalty area).  In these instances, the team being penalized may be distracted and susceptible to a quick restart by the attacking team that could result in a goal scoring opportunity.
  • If the referee team suspects that they did not see a significant event which tends to happen off the ball because players and/or coaches are voicing their displeasure about the implications of this unseen situation, there is a very good chance that some sort of retaliation will be rendered at later in the match.

To a certain extent, I believe that the referee team can control for, and in some instances prevent, MOT events.  For that to happen, I believe that these guidelines should be followed:

1.  Each member of the referee team must know the rules thoroughly with all of the interpretations and nuances associated with those rules.  If a MOT event occurs that requires the referee to make a decision, he or she only has a few seconds to make the call.  Referee teammates may have to consult with each other on certain critical plays, but a brief interaction is recommended to determine the action to be taken.  Regardless, time is not available to thoroughly analyze the play and discuss how to apply the relevant rule.  By knowing the rules “inside out”, expedient rulings can be made.

2.  Each member of the referee team must be physically fit so that they can be in position to make the required ruling for a play.  All of the situations described previously in this article require the referee to be present to see what happened, make the correct ruling and “sell the call” to the players and the coaches.

3.  Pre-game instructions from the referee to the assistant referees and the alternate official if utilized are critical.  Of course, use of proper mechanics should be reviewed.  But specific instructions should be given on how the referee wants the entire playing area, particularly off the ball coverage, and the benches, to be watched by the referee team.  Review of critical time periods and what is required for specific situations should be reviewed.

4.  Do your homework.  It is important to know if there is any history between the teams and/or specific players on the opposing teams.  Conference games tend to have bitter rivalries, and seedings for conference tournaments become more important as the season progresses.  Also, competition between ranked teams takes on more significance particularly if the game has implications for a team to be invited to a post-season tournament.

In conclusion, I believe that the recommendations listed below will help a referee to be ready for MOT situations:

  1. Be a student of the game. Spend at least a few minutes after each match with the referee team to review key events, particularly any situation that might be considered the MOT event of that game.  Consider if the MOT event had the best outcome possible and if there was anything that could have been done to prevent that situation from occurring.  Also, watch games preferably in person and review tapes of critical incidents.
  2. As mentioned earlier, be prepared for each game, which requires physical fitness, complete knowledge of the rules and awareness of any “history” between the teams competing in that match.
  3. Self evaluate.  At least conduct a mental review of each game you work as a referee, assistant referee and alternate official.  Try to come up with at least one area of your performance that could be improved in the next game you work.
  4. Expect the unexpected. Occasionally, a situation that you have never experienced will occur and you need to be ready to respond.

You may be involved in games when an MOT event does not happen, but you need to prepared and able to take action that results in the best possible outcome when it does.