Fair, Foul, Reckless Or Serious Foul Play

Published on January 18, 2016


By:  John Van de Vaarst – National Clinician

The monthly “NISOA Referee Nuts and Bolts” column is written primarily for the college and high school soccer referee. However, any soccer referee who wishes to improve personal performance may also find that this series is helpful.

All articles address those BASIC techniques, procedures, practice alternatives, and skills that are sometimes forgotten or overlooked while going through the experiences of soccer refereeing. The short discussions and accompanying practical tips stress important advice for competent performance. This month’s article will focus on the difference between fair play, a foul, reckless play, and serious foul play.

All soccer officials must have a strong working knowledge of the difference between fair yet hard play vs. a foul, when a foul becomes reckless play and when a foul is serious foul play.  Each of these scenarios warrant a different penalty or no penalty at all by the referee.  Top soccer officials readily recognize the difference and use this knowledge to control the game.

A foul is defined as “a rule infraction by a player on the field of play during play for which a free kick is awarded to the player’s opponent.”  Reckless play is defined as “a player has acted with disregard of the danger to, or consequences for, the opponent.  A player who displays reckless play shall be cautioned.”  These two definitions are from the NFHS Soccer Rule Book.  Serious foul play “must be against an opponent, between players competing for the ball, committed on the field of play, and a direct free kick foul.”  This definition is from the NCAA Rule Book, Rule

Many teams are trained and play a physical type game.  During the course of these types of games there is a lot of contact and hard challenges for the ball.  The referee must determine what is hard play and when does the player(s) involved cross the line and commit a foul.   For example, a player makes a hard sliding tackle and causes the opponent to loose possession of the ball.  As a result of the tackle the opponent goes to the ground because of the contact with the player who made the tackle.  This is a clean play provided that the player went for the ball and did not do anything else to cause the opponent to loose his/her balance and go to the ground.  The referee must recognize this as a clean play and allow the game to continue.

The slide tackle, as described above, becomes a foul if the player making the tackle raises a leg to cause the opponent to lose his/her balance and fall.  This is a tripping foul and the result is a direct free kick.  The player making the tackle no longer made a fair play.  The leg was deliberately lifted to cause a trip.

Taking the slide tackle one step further, the player making the tackle could be guilty of reckless play if he/she approaches the opponent from a position outside the peripheral vision and misses the ball and hits the opponents legs.  The player disregarded the safety of the opponent when committing the act and could have caused an injury.  This type of play clearly warrants a caution.

The slide tackle could be considered serious foul play if the player making the attempt at the tackle does so from behind.  This type of tackle can cause a very serious injury to the knees and legs and cannot be condoned by the referee.  The play could also be deemed serious foul play even if the player making the tackle makes contact with the ball first.  One example is if the player uses the other leg to “whip” behind the opponents leg and strike the Achilles tendon.  This can cause a very serious injury and possibly end a player’s career.  Another example of making contact with the ball first and yet must be deemed serious foul play is if the player making the tackle raises his/her leg straight up after the contact with the ball and strikes the opponent in the upper thigh or stomach with the leg.  The final example of serious foul play is if the player making the tackle approaches the opponent with his/her cleats pointing directly at the leg.  If contact is made the cleats can cause a serious cut or damage to the foot or leg of the opponent.  These are a few examples of when a foul becomes serious foul play.  In these instances the player committing the foul must be ejected.

In summary, the referee must constantly differentiate between fair play, fouls, reckless play, and serious foul play.  Also, the referee must be consistent in his/her decision making and ensure that any decision furthers game control and fair play.

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