Referee – Coach?

Ian, a youth coach, asks:

Can a Referee coach a team during the game?  If not, which rule does this breach?

Answer

One of the really great things about the Laws of the Game is that it has only a few (17) actual “rules” and is written in such general terms that these rules include a lot of flexibility.  This allows Referees to interpret them (within accepted guidelines) in pursuit of the long-accepted but never-included core objectives of the entire body of rules — safety (of the players), fairness (among the players and between the teams), and enjoyment (of the players and, to a lesser extent, of the spectators).  As soccer (or football, as it is otherwise widely known) grew to become the most popular sport in the world, the actual word count of these Laws has grown: they have gradually become relatively more detailed, more specific, and (while remaining organized in modern times into 17 sections), the Law writers have added definitions, interpretations, information about mechanics and procedures, and advice on such specific important concepts as advantage and offside.

Moreover, we believe the Laws of the Game has always been unique among all the major sports as regards its reliance on tradition.  Sometimes (particularly in the case of participants in the United States) this is frustrating precisely because not everything they need to know is actually in those Laws.  The sport assumes that you will know, understand, and appreciate this.  The question you are asking is one of these things.

There is nothing in the formal Laws — nor in any of the parallel rules governing such variations of the sport as envisioned by NFHS (high school) or NCAA (college) — which would prevent a coach or assistant coach from serving as the Referee or Assistant Referee in a match involving their team, but it just wouldn’t happen.   Oh, it might at a level involving very young players (many games at the U4 – U5 – U6 age level are “officiated” by a parent or coach), or involving such unofficial matches as scrimmages, or if the assigned official fails to arrive (though even here it is more likely that the coaches would identify, if possible, a parent who happened also to be a certified official and who would step in by temporary common agreement to  meet the emergency).

But this is expected to be rare exception to what lies at the heart of the officiating function; namely, that someone needs to be in charge of applying the rules and making decisions affecting what is happening on the field who does not care which team wins.  Everyone else cares — the players certainly, the coaches whose income might depend on the team’s record or who might have a son or daughter on the team, and the spectators who almost always either have a family connection with one or more players or who have paid money to see a favored team play.  The officiating team does not.  Its concern is how the game is played, not who wins, and “how the game is played” is defined by adherence to the Laws of the Game as understood and applied by them in accordance with their training and lack of favoritism.

So, could someone officiate a match involving a team of which they are a coach?  Yes, theoretically, but it would be an implicit violation of the core concept of “Referee neutrality” as to decision-making and outcome.  In fact, this is deemed such a fundamental restriction that it is almost always applied even where there is a degree of separation, as would be the case where the coach/Referee was officiating a game involving a team which that coach/Referee’s team might play some time in the future.

It is often not known or understood that soccer was played for a long time with no Referees at all.  The sport evolved at a time and in a culture where “sportsmanship” was deemed such an important, core, and assumed ingredient in the game that disputes about play were decided by the participants themselves.  Indeed, there were neither coaches nor Referees.  Gradually, this changed with persons being appointed to make decisions about the legality of some event on the field only if the issue could not be decided by the participants and only if the issue were “referred” to these persons (hence the title of that person as “Referee”).  Ultimately, the role of this person developed and solidified into the modern concept of the “Referee” as a neutral, professional, and trained person.  Yet, this development, while implicit in virtually every word in the Laws of the Game, was and remains unwritten.  The closest the sport has come to saying anything on this subject is to be found in the 2016/2017 version of the Laws, early in Law 5 (The Referee): “Decisions will be made to the best of the referee’s ability according to the Laws of the Game and the ‘spirit of the game’ and will be based on the opinion of the referee who has the discretion to take appropriate action within the framework of the Laws of the Game.”

Cards — Must versus Need

Esther, a youth level referee, asks:

Last week I was center Ref for a U12BR game. A Red player was dribbling along near the center circle.  An Orange player came up and did a sliding tackle with both feet from the front. He didn’t contact the player or the ball, but I believed the tackle to be careless given that it was with two feet and was very close to the other player. I whistled and called a DFK for the Red team. I was discussing this with another Ref today and he believes that I should have given a red card to the Orange player because he tackled with both feet. What should the call have been? Should I have given a card?

Answer

We don’t believe in “hard and fast” rules which don’t have a clear, firm basis in the Laws of the Game.  You decided that the tackle was careless and the reasons you offered are relevant.  Given this, a card of any color would have been inappropriate, if for no other reason than that an illegal tackle does not rise to a cautionable level until and unless it is deemed at least reckless.

Apparently, the conversation with “another Red” you related involved someone who thought there was some “hard and fast” rule involving having to give a red card for sliding tackles + both feet.  The common indicators of a cardable tackle do not include “sliding” — what they do include are such things as:

  • the direction of the tackle (because coming from behind or outside the peripheral vision of the player being tackled prevents the victim from being able to prepare for the challenge)
  • coming in at high speed (greater chance of injury)
  • both feet (because a two-footed slide is considered uncontrolled)
  • with cleats exposed (the danger there is obvious)
  • with one or both feet higher than ball height (because it suggests that there was not an attempt to play the ball, plus the inherently greater susceptibility to injury the higher up the leg you go)

The only one of the above criteria you specifically alluded to was the use of both feet and that element is one of the least likely to lead to a card.

But this leads us into another issue and that is the question of whether, all other things being equal, you must give a card under specified circumstances (which brings us back to the “hard and fast” rule business).  There are only six offenses listed in the 2016/2017 version of Law 12 which can draw a caution and seven offenses leading to a red card.  Some are very specific, some are couched in general terms.  Once you decide that what you have seen is, in your opinion, one of these thirteen offenses, a card is expected (not giving one would require a persuasive rationale) but the real decision is whether what you saw fit the offense.  It may or may not,  Or, even more commonly, it might fit … and if it only “might,” then what do you use to decide?  The answer is “does this behavior need a card?”  For the good of the player, the good of the other players, the good of this game (the one going on right now), or the good of the sport?  We know you don’t think you asked this particular question but, really, you did when you said “Should I have given a card?”

Goalkeepers and Their Lapses

Jeff, an adult/pro referee, asks:

Blue is attacking on goal. The Red keeper makes a save. The Blue attacker is on the bye line [goal line]. The Red keeper releases the ball to ground and prepares to pass the ball out to a teammate. The Blue attacker comes off the bye line and runs in front of the keeper, steals the ball and strikes the ball into the goal. Goal or no goal?

Answer

Goal.

We are uncomfortable stopping with one-word answers so here follows an explanation.  Answering this question is dependent on the issue of when the goalkeeper released the ball into play (i.e., gave up possession) because we know from Law 12 (p. 83 in the 2016/2017 version of the Laws of the Game) that “a goalkeeper cannot be challenged by an opponent when in control of the ball with the hands.”  Just above this summary statement is a list of factors to take into account in deciding when or if a goalkeeper is in possession of the ball.  By tradition and general consensus, a goalkeeper cannot be challenged not only while in possession but also while in the process of giving up possession.  The first is easily observed and accounted for but the issue of “process of giving up possession” is  usually defined as including the act of releasing the ball from the hands while preparing to kick it.  Placing the ball on the ground is giving up possession the moment the ball makes contact with the ground.  Tossing the ball forward in the air and kicking it is not giving up possession until the actual kick occurs (or the ball makes contact with the ground).

Does this mean an opponent can fine tune when to launch a challenge so that it occurs at the very moment the ball touches the ground or is kicked?  No, because there is a further provision in Law 12 that it is an indirect free kick offense if an opponent “prevents the goalkeeper from releasing the ball … or kicks or attempts to kick the ball when the goalkeeper is in the process of releasing it” (p. 82).   In practice, therefore, an opponent close enough to attempt contact with the ball at the moment a goalkeeper sets it on the ground or the moment the tossed ball is kicked while still in the air is also close enough to be considered as interfering with the goalkeeper’s release of the ball into play.  How close is too close?  This is in the opinion of the referee and must take into account, among other things, the age and experience level of the players.

From the scenario, it would appear that the opponent got behind the keeper in the normal course of play, the goalkeeper gained and then released the ball into play by placing it on the ground in preparation for a pass, and the goalkeeper was surely surprised when the hidden opponent legally challenged for and won the ball.  The subsequent goal must have been particularly galling.

Substitutes Misbehaving

Mick, an adult/pro referee, asks:

A substitute comes onto the field of play without the Ref’s permission and prevents a goal by kicking the ball out of the penalty area.  What is the decision of the Ref with the new interpretations of the laws?

Answer

For the very first time, the Laws of the Game provide for a direct free kick or a penalty kick if a person other than a player commits an offense.  In this case, we have a substitute illegally entering the field of play and interfering by kicking the ball away from a location within the penalty area.  Since no goal was scored, the remedy is found in Law 3, section 7 (if a goal had been scored, we would used the remedies provided in Section 9).  Summarizing the specified remedy, 12.7 requires that, since there had been interference, play must be stopped and resumed with a direct free kick or a penalty kick.  Since the interference was inside the penalty area, the restart would be a penalty kick for the opposing team (we are presuming that the invading substitute was from the defending team since it would make little sense for an attacking team substitute to have kicked the ball away).

We have the restart now but what about misconduct?  Let’s assume for the moment (though the specifically relevant elements of an OGSO scenario are completely missing from the question’s scenario) that we are, in fact, dealing with an OGSO.  Unfortunately, even so, things are a bit murky and what follows is an unofficial interpretation and recommendation until such time (if any) that the IFAB clarifies the matter.  We know that the invading substitute is subject to a caution (illegally entering the field) but is he or she subject to a red card for OGSO?  We would have to report that the answer is unclear.  Law 12 states that “a player, substitute or substituted player” who commits any of the following offenses is sent off and then lists 7 violations, the second one of which is “denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity” so one would think that the answer would be, yes, the substitute could be shown a red card for kicking the ball out of the penalty area.

There are two problems with this red card.  First, the OGSO card must arise from the commission of an offense punishable by a free kick “(unless as outlined below)” and what is “below” is a section of Law 12 which provides that an OGSO misconduct is not punished with a red card unless the offense is “holding, pulling or pushing” (which isn’t what happened) or the substitute “does not attempt to play the ball” (which he most assuredly does attempt, and succeeds) or the offense is one that would be “punishable by a red card wherever it occurs on the field” (it isn’t).  Exactly what offense did the substitute commit?  Only one — illegally entering the field.  Kicking the ball is not itself an offense … and certainly not one that would earn a red card if committed anywhere on the field.  Second, the section providing a more detailed explanation of an OGSO red card refers only to a player, not a substitute.  And, as noted, this might not even be an OGSO situation in the first place if it is decided that merely kicking the ball is not an offense and/or not against an opponent (as opposed to, say, tripping or holding an opponent).

Now we move to a bit of speculation.  Suppose the Referee decided that the substitute, while being on the field illegally, has committed unsporting behavior misconduct which is cautionable.  Would this be unreasonable?  What is included in “unsporting behavior”?  According to Law 12, one example of unsporting behavior is “shows a lack of respect for the game” which would seem to provide a great deal of flexibility and might well include merely kicking the ball.  If so, then the Referee could show the invading substitute a yellow card for illegally entering the field, a yellow card for unsporting behavior, a red card for having received a second yellow card … followed by a penalty kick restart.

As the French might say, “Voila!”

Abandoning a Match

A youth referee asks:

Can the Ref abandon the match and not tell the coaches? Had a situation where the Ref said that, in his eyes, the match was over after a parent and coach came on the pitch to stop two kids fighting then ended up fighting themselves. The Ref never blew for full time but said to the other coach it’s finished anyway. Now in his report he is saying he abandoned the game but did not tell anyone this. Can he do this?  I am a a Ref myself and don’t know.

Answer

Not wishing to be flippant but the obvious answer is, yes, he can do this … because he did it.  And we’re not sure how the Referee could do anything more to signal that the match has been terminated beyond leaving the field himself.

On a more serious note, the referee is given the authority to terminate a match due to what used to be called “grave disorder” — which means any events on or around the field which would cause the Referee to be concerned about the ongoing safety of the players or the officiating team based on actions by the players, substitutes, team officials, and/or spectators.  By the way, the Law no longer distinguishes between “abandoning” a match or “terminating” a match — the terms are used interchangeably.  There is no particular need to blow the whistle to announce this but, in practice, the whistle has usually already being blown (perhaps numerous times!) in response to the events which eventually resulted in the decision to terminate the game (in this case, the start of the players fighting).

Just based on the information provided, it would seem that termination would not be considered an incorrect response to (a) players fighting, (b) a coach and a parent entering the field illegally (which would be the case if the Referee didn’t explicitly give them permission to enter) and (c) then themselves fighting.  That would definitely be a “hostile environment” not conducive to trying to get the teams back onto the field after removing the fighters and expecting the teams to play peacefully.  It might have been useful to officially notify both teams that the match was being terminated with a simple statement that the decision was required based on a concern for everyone’s safety.  Neither is required.

Anytime the Referee ends a match via termination (or abandonment), full details must be included in the match report.  Further, most leagues, tournaments, referee coordinators, or assignors appreciate a quick telephone call or email message alerting them to the likelihood of further “discussion” about what happened.

Coach in Trouble

A Premier League coach from an Asian country asks:

[Revised and summarized]  I’m the Assistant Coach in a Premier League for one of the Asian countries. We had an eventful match last week. Around minute 65, an opposing player made a very harsh tackle against my team’s striker and created a very heated situation involving both teams. I felt the Referee did not control the situation and I ran onto the field to help him control things. The situation became more heated when the Referee only gave a yellow card for the tackle. After the game, I approached the Referee and said ” Hi Referee —  it should be a red card — come on Referee. I hope next time you can make a better decision.” I didn’t use any vulgar words. However, the Referee wrote in his match report that I pulled his hand and used vulgar words towards him. How can I defend myself when there was no video evidence showing either of these things? I was fined by my football federation. How can I defend myself?

Answer

We’re sorry that this occurred and that you feel the punishment you received was not justified.  Unfortunately, there is no way we can assist you either generally or in particular.  We cannot comment on what goes on in other countries, much less on what is essentially an internal administrative matter.  What punishments are assessed after a game is over are outside the scope of the Laws of the Game, particularly where it involves a coach.

What we can say, however, it that you should not have come onto the field “to help [the Referee] to control things” unless you were actually given permission by the Referee to do so.  This would be considered a violation of Law 3 if a player had done it and, if done by a team official (which, as an assistant coach, you are), could be the basis for a dismissal from the field for “irresponsible behavior.”  It is also the case that having any conversation with members of the officiating team after a match is over — particularly if the conversation goes beyond how nice the weather was — is not a good idea.  First, nothing you might say would likely educate the Referee.  Second, you might in fact be wrong.  Third, even if right, immediately following a difficult, heated match, is not a conducive time for “educating” anyone (I’m sure you would agree were the situations reversed and the Referee wanted to talk to you about your coaching strategy!).  We Referees have a saying, “if you don’t want the coach to referee, don’t try to coach the players” and it applies here as well.

Finally, coming onto the field as you did, with the conversation not being documented by film or sound recording, merely sets up a “he said/did, no I didn’t say/do” debate which, on balance, will usually be decided in favor of the Referee.  We cannot comment directly regarding your federation but our experience has been that there are almost always channels for filing complaints after the match using official forms and giving everyone a chance to cool down at least a bit.  Most such opportunities provide for responses and offers of proof or extenuating circumstances.

While we can’t help in your case, we hope that all team officials will take note of our advice here and respond to similar situations accordingly.

Cursing, Cards, and Communication

Caitlin, a youth referee, asks:

If I don’t overhear the cursing, but someone tells me about it, would that be a yellow, red or no card?

Answer

It depends.  First, who told you?  Second, what kind of “cursing” was alleged?

Let’s take them in order.  If a player, team official, or spectator told you, the answer is “no card” because these are not reliable sources of information generally, but particularly not if what is being alleged is misconduct involving a caution or send-off.  The only sources of information on which you can rely regarding behavior that might lead to any official punishment are the members of your officiating team — assistant referees, fourth official, etc.  Furthermore, when you are told (even if the information comes from, say, one of your ARs) is critical because that determines what you can do about it.  If the information comes before or at the next stoppage, you can indeed issue a card based solely on that information (see below about what color) but, if it comes later (say, at the midgame break), the best you can do is to warn the offending player and then respond swiftly should it happen again.

Now, as to card color (and assuming the information came from an official source, i.e., one of your ARs), there is cursing and there is CURSING.  “Cursing” is a rather generic term that would include simple expletives at the minor end of the range and rising from there to truly offensive, insulting, or abusive language at the major end of the range.  The problem, of course, is telling the difference between even the extreme ends of the range.  However, only offensive, insulting, or abusive words, phrases, or gestures warrant a red card (see the not terribly helpful definition on p. 165 of the 2016/2017 Laws of the Game — basically, it defines such language as the sort for which you would give a red card! — but it does add such clarifiers as “rude, hurtful, disrespectful”).  Useful advice on this matter from a USSF publication in 2014 states it this way:

  • 12.D.2 The referee should judge offensive, insulting, or abusive language according to its content, the extent to which the language can be heard by others beyond the immediate vicinity of the player, and whether the language is directed at officials, opponents, or teammates. In other words, the referee must watch for language that is provocative, public, and personal. In evaluating language as a send-off offense, the referee must take into account the particular circumstances in which the actions occurred and deal reasonably with language that was clearly the result of a momentary emotional outburst.

The above quotation ends with: “The referee’s primary focus must be on the effective management of the match and the players in the context of the overall feel for the Spirit of the Game.”

Improper language not rising to the level of a red card can be handled by a caution (unsporting behavior) or a stern warning.

All About Correct Decisions

Ben, a competitive youth coach, asks:

A ball is kicked into the penalty area on the ground.  A striker is the first to react and runs to the ball. The keeper is closer and runs to the ball to pick it up but misjudges the speed of the attacker. The attacker and goalkeeper are both running at the ball. The attacker reaches the ball about a yard before the keeper who has jumped at the ball when the attacker takes her touch. The touch goes into the goalkeeper as the keeper’s momentum takes her headfirst into the legs of the attacker and trips the attacker (the attacker had no chance after touching the ball to avoid being tripped).  What is the correct call?

Answer

You’re going to get tired of hearing this here but, “You have to be there!”  Equally important in understanding what follows is “There is no ‘the correct call’!”

No matter how detailed the description of the event, there is still a lot of potentially critical information missing here.  For example, had anything like this happened before in the match?  How did that turn out?  What do you know about the individual players who were involved?  What has been the temperature of the match so far?  What is the competitive skill level of the players (e.g., U19/D1 or U13/D5)?  Where were you — on the spot?  Trailing play?  At an angle to see space between the players or were you straight on?  We could go on and, at some point, you would probably get exasperated and start wondering if we are ever going to get to the point.  The problem is that this is the point.

OK, some answers.  So far (right on up to the final sentence which asks the question), everything described would be considered normal play in a competitive match between skilled, experienced players.  It starts to look a bit dicier if the players are young, coached by volunteers, and have low to moderate skills.  At these two ends of the spectrum, the answer to the question should probably be different without even getting into all the other pertinent factors listed above.  At both ends of the spectrum and for all points in between, the referee should be moving with play and bearing to the left to keep play between the referee and the lead AR instead of slowing down at the top of the penalty arc and having only a straight-on look.  Every sentence describing the build-up to this critical event screams “collision!”  The referee must be there in order to “sell” whatever decision has to be made.

Now, on to the other issue.  Is there any single one that can be called correct?  No.  At the skilled end of the spectrum, the likely “most correct” course of action is for the referee to be close and for the players involved to know that that the referee is close.  This course of action would likely include an understanding that each player (the striker and the goalkeeper) is doing what is expected of her.  Strikers kick balls.  Goalkeepers dive for balls.  Additionally, goalkeepers are more likely to put themselves into more dangerous positions.  Experienced players know these facts (strikers and goalkeepers better than most) and are willing to take risks.  We might hope that an aggressive striker, while pushing the envelop as regards her distance from the goalkeeper, would pull back and perhaps not attempt her usual explosive attempt to volley the ball.  We might hope that an otherwise fearless goalkeeper would, despite her being the last line of defense against being scored upon, be very careful in a diving save so as not to overturn the onrushing striker.  But then, weighed against safety, we must also recognize that our job includes enabling players to demonstrate their skills.  The wise referee at this end of the spectrum should judge the ensuing collision to be simply a part of the game and, though prepared to stop play quickly if there is an injury, be otherwise prepared to let play continue.

At the inexperienced, unskilled end of the spectrum, safety trumps all other concerns and we neither want nor expect such close judgments and risk-taking to be made by either player.  At this end of the spectrum, the wise referee will not only be close but perhaps even talking to the players as the play unfolds.  The wise referee will also recognize that, when the collisions occur (the ball being struck at the goalkeeper and the goalkeeper’s dive upending the striker), the burden of avoiding recklessness falls on the striker in this case.  A close evaluation must be made as to which player pushed the envelop too far first and, here, the answer is, on balance, the striker.  Depending on the force of the striker’s kick, the offense could be judged at least careless and perhaps reckless.  However, regardless of the striker’s burden, the goalkeeper might also be guilty of misconduct (even with the restart going to her team) if the referee judges that the particular manner of her lunge to the ground increased the danger to the striker (e.g., having feet up with cleats exposed).

In between these ends of the spectrum, the wise referee must judge how soon the goalkeeper made her play for the ball on the ground, how long the striker waited to make the final play on the ball before the goalkeeper made her inherently dangerous lunge toward the striker’s feet, and the extent to which either player attempted to avoid contact with the other.

The Handball Violation

An adult amateur coach from the Czech Republic asks:

[After describing several potential handball violations which depend on the position of the hand or arm and wondering which, if any, violate the Law, the question ends with the following request.] Maybe you can describe some model situations, which can help me. IFAB LOTG 16/17 does not explain it clearly.

Answer

The handball violation (and, yes, it is now permissible to use this phrase to describe the infraction rather than the traditional  “handling offense” so we will take off our grumpy hat and bow to common usage) is the quintessential foul that cannot be described — you have to be there.  Nevertheless, it is possible to offer some generalizations that may assist both new and experienced officials in properly evaluating all the facts and circumstances so that our understanding of it is better grounded.  What makes the handball such a contentious issue is its history as one of the most important reasons why and how the sport of soccer originated.  It is also useful to remember (particularly for Americans) that the sport in most parts of the world other than North America is called football.  Simplifying dangerously, soccer is soccer rather than rugby because the use of hands is forbidden to all participants except for one specially identified player for each team and only if he or she is in their own penalty area.

Law 12 uses just 17 words to define the offense: “involves a deliberate act of a player making contact with the ball with the hand or arm.”  The physical act itself is simple and very concrete (contact with the ball by the hand) which may be easy to see or it may be hidden from the referee but seen by others or it may be so brief that no one is entirely sure it even occurred.  What requires us to earn our money, however, hinges on one word — “deliberate.”  The act must be deliberate, and that is where we can supply some guidelines.

Law 12 (notably in the current edition of the Laws) itself offers several thoughts.  For example, the contact might be entirely reflexive or instinctive as when a player sees a hard object hurtling toward some part of the body which he or she is conditioned by nature to protect due to its importance or sensitivity.  The face, for example, but there are others, and while many may be assumed for male and female players, others could be entirely individual (as, for example, a player attempting to protect an area of the body which was previously injured and has not yet healed).  A reflexive or instinctive act is not deliberate.

What triggers an instinctive act?  One factor might be the speed of the object as in the case of a ball hard struck in a volley as opposed to rolling on the ground.  Another factor might be the lack of time to avoid contact using any other means as might be the case when the origin of the ball’s movement is close rather than distant.  A third factor might be the unexpected nature of the imminent contact, as when the ball coming from a peripheral direction is not noticed until bare moments before the inevitable collision.  These factors underlie, in part, the common aphorism that handball offenses usually involve the hand moving to the ball but rarely the ball moving to the hand.

The notion has been around for a long time that an important factor might be where the hand is at the time of contact, often verbalized as a “natural” versus “unnatural” position.  Given a player in motion, pumping legs, driving forward, trying to maintain balance, pivoting quickly, trying to get the attention of a teammate, and so forth, we are hard-pressed to conclude that there really is any such thing as a “natural position” for the hands unless we picture such extreme examples as a player standing still with a hand up in the air waving to someone in the crowd at the moment the hand is struck by a ball played in the air.  Furthermore, it has been argued that players may protect their balance while in motion by using their arms differently due to gender-based differences in body structure and/or how weight is carried on those structures.  This has frequently confused officials and has resulted in their making mistakes through not understanding gender and age differences in players.  The IFAB emphasized this concern when they stated in Law 12 that “the position of the hand does not necessarily mean that there is an infringement.”

We have heard of and have ourselves seen players running with arms pumping back and forth being whistled for handling because the ball, struck from behind the player, has hit the hand while it was in motion extending behind the player!  We have seen players whistled who have fallen and are in the process of lifting themselves off the ground when the ball rolls into the weight-bearing arm!

The bottom line is that, while extremes in hand positioning might be a factor in deciding whether ball contact should be treated as deliberate based on that fact alone, it is far more important to focus on the totality of the player’s situation and what led to the contact.  Moreover, referees must consider that contact which initially should be judged as not deliberate (for reasons noted above) may become deliberate (and therefore a violation) if the player then uses that contact to subsequently control or direct the ball.  Actually, truly “whistleable” handball offenses are surprisingly rare — most hand contacts with the ball are accidental and often a surprise to the player.  Many fall under the “doubtful or trifling” rubric and are not a justifiable reason for stopping play.

By the way, you may feel that, regarding the handball offense, the 2016/2017 Laws of the Game “does not explain it clearly,” but we would suggest instead that the current Law does a much better job in this regard than at any time in the past.

Recalcitrant Coaches

A HS/College Referee asks:

I was officiating a U15G game. Before the game even started, I and my ARs took our positions on the field. I blew my whistle to get the teams to take the field. The Home team came right out and took their side of the field. The Visiting Team stood on the sideline listening to their coach give last minute instructions. I proceeded to wait another 15-20 seconds (to let him complete his instruction) then I blew my whistle a second time … no response. I then waited another 15-20 seconds and whistled a third time and stated loudly and within 10 yards of the team “Coach, let’s get your team on the field” … still no response. I then stepped closer and said “Coach, let’s go,” but he stuck his head up and stated “What???” I said “Let’s go” … but he proceeded to keep coaching. I said “Coach, you have a warning.  Let’s get them on the field” but again only “What??” I gave him a yellow card for dissent.  Is this the correct procedure, or is this a delay of game?

Answer

First off, any answer to this has to depend on a critical issue — namely, who or what was the competition authority?  In other words, (a) what set of rules were you under and (b) did those rules involve any local exceptions?  We ask because, although none of the standard rule sets (IFAB, HFHS, NCAA) has an explicit rule or ruling pertaining to a team failing to take to the field when requested by the referee, each rule set provides different tools the referee can use in such a case.  Moreover, specifically with respect to IFAB’s Laws of the Game as practiced in the US, many local competitions (leagues, tournaments, etc.) have special rules which can and do provide recourse.  Indeed, we are not familiar with a single tournament in this country which does have some sort of unyielding mandate to start and stay on time.

For example, many youth and adult amateur leagues around the US require that a game must start on the scheduled time and that, if a team does not or cannot field at least the minimum number of players at the scheduled time (or within some certain number of minutes thereafter), the referee is authorized either to consider the match as forfeited then and there or to go ahead and start the clock (this would apply to any period of play, not just the starting period) until some point is reached after which the match is considered abandoned by the players.  This can cover not only situations in which a team doesn’t have enough players present to start and either knows no more will appear or is waiting to see if more will appear.  This would also cover the situation you describe where a team refuses to take the field when required (which can also happen at any stoppage — a coach might decide to withdraw his or her team due to disagreement with circumstances or some specific decision with which the coach vehemently disagrees).

So, we cannot answer the core question without knowing the rules applied to the game.  And, if there are such rules, our answer would have to be, first, know what they are ahead of taking the assignment and, second, simply and faithfully follow them.  You might even engage the coach of the team which is ready to play in an effort to advise the visiting team of these rules.  However, if there are no local or competition-specific rules pertaining the scenario, we suggest you look to common sense and what you would do if, at the scheduled time, there was only one team present.  How long would you wait?  What reasonably could you do to ascertain the circumstances for the absence?  If this involved the very beginning of the match, could you adjust the length of the periods of play to accommodate the delay?  Are there following games which would be adversely affected by the delay?  Is it late enough in the day that the delay could result in unsafe lighting?

There is another approach that might be considered.  Even though the opposing team in your scenario is there, technically they are not “there” because “there” is defined as “on the field of play” and, as long as they are not, they are in effect not there at all.  This means that they are subject to any requirement that a game start on time or at least within some specified grace period … and that might become the most potent item of information you could bring to the attention of the recalcitrant coach.  “Coach, the game must begin in [x] minutes.  At exactly that time, I will whistle to start play, note the absence of the minimum number of opposing team players on the field, terminate the match according to Law 3.1, and include full details in my report to [the competition authority].”  Nothing needs to, nor should be, added to this little speech.  Then follow through.  Period.

By the way, don’t even consider formally cautioning the coach in this scenario.  First, it is not permitted under the Laws of the Game.  Second, it will only step on the tail of the dragon.