Doubtful or Trifling

Michael, an adult/amateur fan, asks:

Have referees been instructed to be lenient with the foul throw rules?  The reason I ask the question is according to the official rules of the game, 75% of throw ins are foul throws standing on the field of play, lifting foot, walking with the ball away from the point the ball left the field of play.  It may sound petty but rules are rules .

Answer

Ever make a right turn on red with no one coming toward you?  Ever throw piece of trash out the car window?

The requirements for a throw-in are very clear – (1) throw the ball into the field where it left the field; (2) use both hands over the head; (3) face the field; (4) make the throw within 2 yards from the left, right, or back from where the ball left the field; and (5) have both feet on the field at the moment of the throw (this includes each foot being any combination of on the touchline or behind the touchline).   Compare this list of offenses with, say, that the goalkeeper can remain in control of the ball with his/her hands for no more than 6 seconds and that a restart after an offense must be taken from where the offense occurred (there are exceptions from this rule but they are generally rare).  All of these offenses are routinely ignored to some extent – even though there are 5 things to remember regarding throw-ins , one criterion for the goalkeeper’s time for holding the ball, and one criterion for where most restarts are supposed to be taken.

One of the first “rules” a referee learns about 2 seasons into officiating is that you call what matters.  What offenses make a difference?  What offenses give the offender or the offender’s team an unfair advantage?  One of the most fundamental rules at the core of the Laws of the Game is that an offense, all other things being equal, should generally not be called and play stopped if the offense is doubtful and/or trifling – “doubtful” means it may or may not occurred and you lack the facts to know for sure, “trifling” means that the offense occurred but didn’t affect either team one way or the other.  Both concepts have been at the core of soccer for more than 50 years (including the 35 years that we have been officiating, training referees, and evaluating referee performances).  Sometimes you call an offense which is doubtful or trifling early in the game to make clear that you understand what is happening.  Sometimes to make a point.  Sometimes to slow down the game at some particular moment.  Lots of reasons.  The “beautiful game” is action and motion, not constant stopping.

We pick and choose what needs to be called, and sometimes those needs are not clear to those off the field who almost always focusing on a certain team and/or a certain player and don’t see the rest of the field.  How often do you see or hear a spectator or fan yelling about the wrong behavior of the fan’s team or of one the fan’s relatives?  Practically never.

The Law says the ball is thrown in where it left the field but I have often allowed as much as several yards deviation if the thrower is a couple of yards from the “correct” throw-in point but otherwise prepared quickly to restart.  Why?  Because that much variance is less important the farther away it is from the goal that team is attacking.  The “lifted foot” is only an offense if it occurs at the exact moment of the release of the ball – easy to see if the thrower is standing or walking to the touch line but very difficult to determine if the thrower has grabbed the ball and is running toward the touchline.  And what does “facing the field” mean exactly?  There is no definition but, as a practical matter, most referees would agree that it is a lot easier to define it in the negative – i.e., what is illegal NOT facing the field.

We instruct referees to know what is and is not permitted behavior or actions, but we also advise them that constant whistling for every violation makes the game no fun for anyone.  By the way, we would strenuously dispute the allegation that 75% of throw-ins involve a violation of the Law.

 …

Walls and More Walls

Aaron, a High School and College referee, asks:

On a set play (free kick), if the defending team sets a wall five yards from the ball and the center official tells them to move back, but does not say “on my whistle,” the attacking team takes a quick kick straight into goal, should the referee allow the goal?  The center said, “Move back, the law states ten yards. Come on, move back.”

Answer

A referee intending to talk to the opponents about their positioning vis-a-vis the ball on a restart against them should first state “wait for my whistle” and then take care of the problem.  It is unfair to both sides for the referee to be talking without ensuring that the restart will not occur because both sides are having their attention turned toward the referee and the attacking team could take advantage of this by kicking the ball.  Unfortunately, many referees are not aware of this.  Referees talking to players should not occur in these circumstances – if something is wrong enough that you plan on ordering players to adhere to the Law, then you have the obligation to visibly and audibly hold up the restart.  After all, this is one of the reasons why you have a whistle.

In doing anything like this even with the best of intentions, you are still interfering with the game.

Keep the following in mind:

  1. It’s the players’ game, not yours.
  2. Except for very young kids, allow each team to make mistakes … and then apply whatever the Law demands for the mistake.  They’ll learn not to make the mistake.
  3. Read the teams – is the attacker nearest the ball clearly ready, willing, and able to restart, even though one or more opponents might be within the 10 yards minimum distance?  Let the kick proceed – remember (1) above.  If the kicker sends the ball to an opponent nearer than 10 yards with that opponent, at the moment, in the process of backing away, keep quiet and let the play happen as the attacking team wanted it even if they ultimately messed up.
  4. Step in immediately, including the use of your whistle, if one or more opponents are so obviously close to the restart location and are making no meaningful effort to back away (including such tricks as walking across the probable path of the probable kick direction).  This changes their offense from “failing to respect the required distance” to “delaying the restart of play” … and show a yellow card to the opponent.
  5. Insert yourself, after clearly stating “Wait for my whistle,” and then proceed if the attacking team clearly requests enforcing the minimum distance but if and only if there is one or more opponents within that minimum distance.  Whistle play to restart immediately if, in your opinion, the opponents are already at least 10 yards back: don’t engage in backing opponents away if they are far enough back.
  6. An opposing team has no right to set “a wall five yards from the ball” nor does the referee have the right to be caught in this trap of wasting time (which helps the opposing team) – 7 or 8 yards maybe, but not 5!

The International Board has now made the referee’s life more difficult (as of 2019-2020) by allowing the appearance of a second “wall” consisting of one or more attackers.  Law 15 now provides that one or more attackers are permitted to set themselves at least one yard away from the defending team’s “wall” if that wall consists of 3 or more opponents.  If only one or two opponents are defending against the restart, there is no restriction against an attacker joining the party.  However, if there is a three-defender wall, any attacker nearer than one yard at the moment of the kick (e.g., by lunging closer in the last moment), the result is a whistle and the award of an indirect free kick for the former opponents, now having become the attackers!

Although all this may sound interesting, there are several hidden dangers here about which, as yet, the International Board has not provided advice.  For example, suppose at a ceremonial restart, the whistle has been sounded for the commencement of the restart and only two defenders plus an attacker are constituting “the wall” (all perfectly legal).  But, before the kick actually occurs, another defender suddenly joins the wall, thus making the once legally ensconced attacker now illegally in a wall of three defenders.  Then we have the issue of what constitutes a “wall” in the first place.  How close do three or more defenders have to be to be considered a “wall”?  Arms linked?  Shoulders touching? Standing with no body contact but objectively being within, say, five inches?  Six inches?  By the way, the International Board has yet to define “a wall,” apparently assuming  that everyone knows what it is.

Also by the way, the above two paragraphs apply, as of 2021, to NCAA (collegiate) matches as well.…

Trying to Slow Down a Restart

Gary, an adult amateur player, asks:

On a free kick can a defender stand in front of the ball till the offense player asks for 10 like a yard or two? Trying to see how to freeze the kick to set up a wall?

Answer

An apparently nice, simple question but one which touches the heart of the game.

Briefly, no.   A bit less brief,  the Laws of the Game state explicitly that opponents must retreat to a minimum of 10 yards … and they say it as though these opponents know that this is the requirement and that they are expected to perform this duty without needing to be reminded of it.  Of course, we all know better.  Unless the players are young (say, roughly, below the age of 14) and have had little training or experience, referees do not step in to enforce the 10 yard requirement because the attacking team may well prefer to take a quick kick even with one or more opponents closer than the minimum distance.  In general, the only time we step in to enforce the distance is if (a) there is an opponent obnoxiously close to the restart point and is aching to receive a caution, (b) we are expressly asked to enforce the distance, or (c) it is apparent that neither team is aware of  its responsibility to retreat.

When the referee has to step in, of course, things become a bit more complex and, though this appears to be an opportunity for the defenders to set up “the wall,” it can come with a price and that is what situation (a) is all about.  Except for ignorance (or lack of experience), the mere need to stop the taking of the kick could be the basis for a card.

By the way, there is a difference between a card for delaying the restart of play and a card for failing to respect the required distance – it’s not a huge difference (they are both yellow cards) and delaying the restart of play can be used for other purposes.  An opponent who is delaying the restart of play is usually either standing right next to the ball to actually block the restart or in the way for the attacker who is going to take the kick.  It’s a fine distinction.  Noting your own terminology, however, any “trying to see how to freeze the kick to set up a wall” can be cautioned – defenders on a free kick have no authority under the Law to try to interfere with or delay the restart for any purpose.  Only the referee can hold up a restart and, even then, only for such reasons as a player being injured or giving a card for an act of misconduct whether associated with the stoppage of play or not.

We should add that our approach to the attackers is rather similar regarding the placement of the ball for the restart.  The farther the restart point is from the goal being attacked, the less we care about being specific about where the restart should occur.…

Ball Contacts the Referee (Law 8)

Russ, a U13 – U19 referee, asks:

The Law change and/or clarification dealing with the ball deflecting off the Referee or AR specifically applies to the ball remaining on the field…
My question is what is the restart if the ball, after making contact with the Referee, goes out of play?
Blue defender attempts a clearing pass which strikes the Ref and goes off the field across the touch line.  Is the restart a throw in for Red team or a drop ball for the Blue defender where he or she last touched the ball.  I’m told there is a clarification to Law 8 on this subject that was published separately.

Answer

The answer is that play restarts with a throw-in for the Red team and, yes, there was a Circular from the International Board that explained what the referee is supposed to do if the scenario you described should happen.  The explanation was needed because Law 8 simply says that the restart in such a case follows the usual requirement.

This is where “askasoccerreferee.com” can be useful because we understand British soccer language.  If the ball makes contact with the referee (or another game official at least partly within the field) and stays on the field, play is restarted with a dropped ball.  The Circular answers the question about what happens if the ball instead leaves the field and it makes the perfectly reasonable position that, in such a case, the restart is what it would have been if the ball had not made contact with the official.

This clarification means that the referee must remember which team last made contact with the ball prior to the ball contacting the referee and which line did the ball cross while leaving the field?  The restart would follow the usual rules — in this case, a throw-in for Red because the ball crossed the touch line last played by Blue.…

Dropped Ball Issues

Rob, a U13 – U19 referee, asks:

Law 8 The Start and Restart of Play (2020)
Just want to make sure, that a drop ball restart can be directly kicked into goal.
Assume Red player A1 awarded drop ball outside Blue penalty area (after some incident), Blue team creates defensively wall, everybody ready, referee drops ball, ball lands softly, player A1 kicks directly into goal. Goal counts and restart is kickoff.
Similarly, Blue defensive wall players can immediately rush the Red player A1 as soon as ball touches ground because ball is in play, right?

Answer

As for your first scenario, no, it cannot (well, actually, it “can” enter the goal but the goal cannot be counted).  Law 8 lays all this out clearly.

Regarding any dropped ball restart, a goal can only be counted if and only if the ball, once dropped and touches the ground, has been contacted by at least the foot/feet of the player to whom the ball was dropped and then be contacted a second time by any lawful contact (i.e., any body part other than the hand or arm – unless this second contact was the goalkeeper within his/her own penalty area) with a second player.

Here are some scenarios that may help to clarify this.  Ball is dropped, hits the ground, and

  1. Is kicked by A5 to his/her teammate A12 who then kicks the ball into Team B’s goal.  Goal scored.
  2. B23 plays the ball with his/her foot and continues dribbling toward Team B’s goal, at which point B23 makes a shot on goal and the ball enters the net.  No goal, goal kick coming out.
  3. B17 makes a successful direct shot on Team A’s goal.  No goal, goal kick coming out.
  4. A10 attempts a pass to his/her own goalkeeper from the left outside Team A’s penalty area.  A1, the goalkeeper, grabs for the ball but it slides off his/her hands and goes into Team A’s goal.  Goal scored.
  5. A10 attempts a pass to his/her own goalkeeper from the left outside Team A’s penalty area.  The ball goes over the goalkeeper’s head and then into the goal.  No goal, corner kick restart.
  6. B11 plays the ball but inadvertently kicks from the side of his/her foot to an open area. B11 quickly runs to the ball and kicks it again.  The ball goes to B17 who dribbles toward Team A’s goal, shoots, and scores.  Goal scored.   Note that (as in scenario 2 above), unlike every other restart, the “second touch” rule doesn’t apply to dropped ball restarts.

As for your second scenario involving the requirement for all opponents to withdraw 4 ½ yards from the dropped ball restart location, this is handled exactly the same as with any other “required distance” restart.  Opponents required to be any certain distance from the restart location, may not approach closer than the minimum distance until the ball is in play (i.e., when the dropped ball hits the ground in this case).  Failure to do so is a cautionable offense.  Similarly, the failure to get back to the minimum distance is also cautionable … and, if requested by the attacking team, the referee can, if needed (as would also be the case in a free kick), to step in to enforce the minimum distance but, in this case, no whistle is required since it is the referee who initiates play by dropping the ball.…

Crowd Control

David, a U12 and Under coach, asks

Can a referee threaten a coach with a yellow card because a spectator yelled out they were offsides you need to call dad or they’re playing physical against our team and you’re not calling it you need to call it both ways?

Answer

First of all, it is against both training and protocol for a referee to “threaten” a card, regardless of color, to anyone – player, coach, spectator, etc.  You either give it or you don’t.  At most, the referee could advise someone that his/her behavior was not acceptable, which should be taken by any ordinarily intelligent person as a warning.

Second, there are standard procedures for dealing with the behavior of spectators.  If any particular spectator or the spectators in general (and I am speaking here of situations that do not involve large arenas or spectators numbered in the thousands) are having an obvious adverse effect on the game – on players, coaches, bench personal, or the officials themselves – the standard procedure approved by US Soccer years ago is to stop play and advise either or both coaches that they must control their spectators.  A reasonable amount of time is given to do so (by by the coach or coaches calming the misbehaving  persons and/or by requiring them to leave the area of the field – often referred to as “out of sight, out of sound”), and then reporting back to the referee that the matter has been controlled.  If the issue has not been resolved within a reasonable period of time (in the opinion of the referee); or if, having been advised that the coach or coaches are unable to regain acceptable behavior by the misbehaving spectators, the problem cannot be solved; or if, having achieved enough improvement that play might be restarted, the problem recurs, the match is terminated and the match report by the referee must include the steps taken and results achieved (or not).

Often, the competition authority has persons representing the league, tournament, or association at the field and willing to assist the referee in restoring order.  The referee and the coaches should use them if that assistance is available.

The basic point in all this is that the officiating team is not responsible for the behavior of spectators nor does the referee have any direct authority over them nor can they interact directly with them at any time.  All problems regarding spectators must be handled by the coach/coaches, the site officials, and/or the sponsoring organization present at the field.  The only tool the referee has is to stop play, restart play after peace is achieved, or terminate the match if peace cannot be achieved or maintained.

As for being “harassed” by allegedly wrong offside decisions, or too much physicality in play, or by the ever-present “call it both ways” nonsense, none of these usually rise to the level of needing the “nuclear option” of stopping play, much less terminating the game.  Referees are routinely advised in training to ignore such stuff.  The defining moment justifying a stoppage is if the behavior becomes wide, broad, persistent, and is interfering with the ability of players and/or officials to handle their responsibilities on the field.  When that is the case, however, don’t hesitate to push the button and then deal with the fallout later.…

The Calling of Dangerous Plays

B A, an adult amateur player, asks:

We were playing a pickup game tonight. Let’s say I was the keeper. Ball is misplayed (high) into the penalty area. The young lady playing as one of my defenders is facing me from about 10 feet away while I am on the line protecting the goal. I am the closest person to and facing her. She sets up to make a high kick clearance and an opposing player comes running up behind her and jams his head in a downward motion while she is already in the process of kicking the ball and the opponent nearly gets kicked in the head. Some people were chattering about it being a dangerous play on her. From my perspective, it was a dangerous play on him. Playing in a dangerous manner is, to me, any action that, while trying to play the ball, threatens injury to someone. Despite the level of his head only being ducked to a shorter player’s chest height, I believe he endangered himself.

Answer

Close, but not entirely correct.  Historically, the rule of thumb for questions of safe play between two opponents requires balancing several criteria.  First, with what body part is each player (we’re simplifying all this into two players, each from a different team, and each of approximately equal size – height, girth, and strength – note the absence of gender as a criterion) using to challenge the opponent?  Second, where in the body area is the challenge occurring?  And third, what is the relative degree of competence and experience held by the opponents (again, we’re simplifying this in terms of the overall experience and degree of capability of the two teams collectively).  In other words, one of the two players engaged in the challenge may be clearly different as regards his or her opponent and/or the competence level of the players across the two teams, but how would the referee rate both teams as part of the larger competition, age, division level, etc.?

Now comes the “rule of thumb” applied to two teams or any two opposing players.  The traditional practical line is the middle of the body versus the location of the ball.  Assuming the opposing players are roughly comparable in overall competence, the game assumes that a ball higher than waist level is played with the head or upper body core (i.e., chest or shoulder or, as of 2020-2021, the upper arm above the bottom of the arm pit).  A ball below the waist level is played with the foot/feet, knee, and leg portions above or below the knee.  In such cases, and excluding clearly disparate levels in the use of strength, the challenge can be vigorous without being considered dangerous.

Change any element of what we described and play begins edging into being dangerous by this fact alone.  The obvious pictures should immediately come to mind – head-to head (not inherently dangerous), head to foot (inherently dangerous), foot to foot (not inherently dangerous), foot to head (inherently dangerous).  Now, there are various obvious holes here – even foot to foot can be dangerous (strength aside) if one player is kicking the ball and the other player is kicking the shin!  At the same time, the point is “inherent danger” and a player who tries to match his head against the opponent’s foot – whether this is above the waist or not, depending on the location of the ball – is committing an inherently dangerous act.  And here is where the third rule of thumb comes in (see the end of the first paragraph).  Let’s take age as a simple (perhaps even simplistic) stand-in for degree of experience.  The same combinations we described above, if undertaken by a pair of experienced players (e.g., say, u14 – u15 years and above) are inherently less dangerous than if the players were u10-u13s).  Similarly two teams of u16s, one at division 1 and the other at division 4, have clearly disparate experience levels and, in fact probably shouldn’t even be playing one another!   And while a team of U18 players opposed by a senior amateur team might be thought inherently disadvantaged, that might not be the case if the former was at the D-1 level and the senior amateur team, though older, may be considered disadvantaged if they were a recreational team.

So, a useful generalization (with all kinds of ifs, ands, and buts) is that attempting to play a ball below waist level is creating a dangerous play if the opponent is using his foot.  And so on.  Do you call it? Well, you should be prepared to call it while watching the whole thing closely and to make your decision based on such inherently dangerous elements as degree of distance above or below the waist, degree to which both players are actively attempting (or not attempting) to play the ball, etc.  You understand, of course, that the “waistline” is not a real line (think generally of “midsection” instead of “line”).  And you take into account the age/experience of the players.  We can confidently suggest the exact same “high kick” at a ball above an opponent’s shoulders that would likely be whistled immediately and vigorously (and likely with a card of some color) at a U14 game might be totally ignored (not even worthy of a finger-shaking in a World Cup game.

By the way, none of what is offered above is part of the Laws of the Game.  The Law simply refers to “dangerous play” in connection with play that could “threaten injury” to someone or “preventing a nearby opponent from playing the ball for fear of injury.“  The above discussion, however, is a core concept in training referees and has been around literally for many decades.

We have spent 4 lengthy paragraphs (and a short one) trying to lay out what an experienced referee would have running through his or her mind upon seeing an apparently potentially dangerous play, but it boils down to this – what do those players in this game at this moment of play need to have called in order for the game to remain safe, fair, and enjoyable?…

2019-2020 and the Pass-Back Violation

Ref, an adult pro referee, asks:

What is the new rule regarding goal keeper handling the ball from a deliberate passback or releasing the ball rolls toward and picking it up? Is it now DOGSO?

Answer

The only thing that changed (and this occurred in 2019-2020, so it is not a “new rule”) regarding this particular offense is that the Law does not consider a “pass-back” or “throw-back” punishable if the hand contact with the ball by the goalkeeper was preceded by the goalkeeper having “clearly kicked or attempted to kick the ball to release it into play.”

Here is a scenario which would exemplify this exception. Red #7, a fullback, receives the ball, turns around toward his own goalkeeper in front of the goal, and kicks the ball in the direction of the goalkeeper.  The goalkeeper, intending not to violate the pass-back rule, clearly makes an initial attempt to kick the ball back upfield.  However, the goalkeeper either misses the ball entirely or only clips it slightly and follows this by scrambling to pick the ball up and either dropkicking or throwing the ball upfield.

Prior to the 2019-2020 edition of the Laws, this would have been considered a violation punishable by an IFK.  Now, it is not.  The core change was explained by the International Board thusly: “When the GK clearly kicks or tries to kick the ball into play [following a teammate’s play on the ball by foot], this shows no intention to handle the ball so, if the ‘clearance’ attempt is unsuccessful, the goalkeeper can then handle the ball without committing an offense.”

There is no “DOGSO” involved under any circumstances.  In other words, if there is a “pass-back” offense, DOGSO is not an additional issue.  If the goalkeeper’s actions come under the 2019-2020 change in the pass-back rule, there is no offense at all, much less a DOGSO issue.…

Accidental (or Not) Handling

Russ, an adult amateur referee, asks:

An attacker at the top of penalty area, with their back to the opposing GK receives a pass which deflects from her foot to an outstretched arm. The ball lands directly in front of her. She is able to shield the defender and take a shot or pass for a great chance to score.
Would this fall under goal scoring opportunity?
I understand some say it has to be immediate…
It seems unfair to reward the attacker when there was handling, intentional or not.
If this occurred at mid field, play on, unless there’s a direct shot on goal.

Answer

It’s a little more nuanced than that.  The IFAB stated its clear intention that, if an accidental hand contact occurs, this should not result in an offense based on three decisions made in the opinion of the referee:

  1. The contact occurs above the shoulder (i.e., accidental or not, hand contact above the shoulder is per se suspicious and, in the Board’s language, is taking a risk).  This issue applies regardless of what follows.
  2. The attacker whose hand/arm made accidental contact with the ball gained control and scores a goal directly (i.e., immediately and without intervening play by that player’s foot, chest, head or any combination thereof) has committed an offense.
  3. It is also an offense if the initial contact is accidental but, immediately following this, the player or a teammate immediately scores or creates a clear goal-scoring opportunity.  The International Board clarified the meaning of this scenario by declaring that the accidental contact is not an offense if the ball travels “some distance” and/or there are “several passes” before the goal is scored or the goal-scoring opportunity exists.

We suspect that, even with 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 explanations by the Board, there will still be debate and what it comes down to is “what soccer wants.”  We don’t mean this facetiously but the further clarification provided in the 2020-2021 edition of the Laws really does emphasize that accidental (which is the decision of the referee) hand contact is not an offense unless it leads quickly (which is the decision of the referee) to a goal by the accidentally-touched attacker or a subsequent transfer of the ball to a teammate of the accidentally-touched attacker.  The span of time between accidental contact and a goal or goal-scoring opportunity is the decision of the referee.  “Immediate” and “several passes” are the decision of the referee.…

Restarts and Minimum Distances

Mark, a senior amateur player, asks:

When defending, can a referee ask me to move away from the ball during a free kick, only to have the attacking player perform a quick free kick? What if the referee moves me too far back? I was always under the impression that the attacking player needed to ask for 10 yards in order to have me physically moved but the referee instructed me otherwise.

Answer

CAN a referee do this?  Yes.  SHOULD a referee do this?  No.  It is contrary to standard management techniques for a quick restart.  It gets a little complicated but here is the short version.

Scenario 1: When there is a quick free kick pending, the referee should intervene only if an opponent is so close to the restart location that is it obvious the kick cannot be taken without hindrance.  In this case, the referee steps in and immediately states that the free kick is now a ceremonial free kick which cannot be taken until the referee specifically signals that it can be taken … and then the referee cautions the opponent for “delaying the restart of play” (in this case, the caution is not “fails to respect the required distance” but any caution given as part of Scenarios 2-4 would be given for this reason).

Scenario 2: When there is a free kick pending and one or more opponents are retreating the required distance but are not yet at the required distance when the attacking team takes the kick and one of those retreating opponents moves to and does in fact make contact with the ball, the referee halts play, cautions the opponent, and gives the attacking team a retake of the original free kick restart at the original location.  Note: the referee can decide not to stop play if the opponent’s contact with the ball results nevertheless in the ball returning to the attacking team’s possession and in an advantageous position for the attackers.

Scenario 3: When there is a free kick pending and one or more opponent are retreating the required distance but are not yet at the required distance when the attacking team takes the kick and the ball makes contact with one of those retreating opponents without that opponent making any move to the ball, the referee allows the contact (i.e., doesn’t punish it) and play proceeds without any stoppage.  The contact with the ball by the opponent who is closer than he/she should be was not the result of any effort by that opponent and is due solely to the attacking team’s wish to kick the ball despite the closenesss (except for Scenario 1) of the opponent.  In other words, the contact was not made as a result of any movement other than continuing to retreat by the opponent.

Scenario 4: When there is a free kick pending and an attacker requests that the referee enforce the minimum distance, this immediately leads the referee to convert the quick free kick to a ceremonial free kick which cannot be taken except upon a signal by the referee which is not given until all opponents are at/beyond the minimum distance.   The restart now can only occur by a signal from the referee.  If,  following this signal but before the kick is taken, an opponent moves inside the minimum distance and makes contact with the ball, the referee stops play, cautions that opponent who moved inside the minimum distance before the kick is actually taken, and then orders the kick to be retaken (ceremonially) once all opponents are at/beyond the minimum distance.  Repeat as and if needed.

Two notes about Scenario 4.  First, the referee can decide to deny the request if, in the referee’s opinion, all opponents are already at or beyond the minimum distance and the attacking team’s request is a delaying tactic.  Second, an attacking team’s request for a ceremonial restart is not the only reason for doing so.  For example, the referee can declare a ceremonial restart on his/her own initiative if, for example, there has been an injury, a card needs to be given related to the reason for the stoppage in the first place (e.g., a foul), or a substitution is being requested by the attacking team.

By the way, your “always under the impression” is incorrect.  In the absence of a specific request by the attacking team (other than in Scenario 1 conditions) to enforce the minimum distance, the Law assumes and expects that all opponents are retreating or already have retreated to the required minimum distance.  Each opponent is expected to retreat without any request by the attackers or the referee: their failure to do so could lead to a caution.

Referees step into this on their own initiative only in the case of a Scenario 1 – and this is true the older and/or more experienced are the players involved.  The only time we have ever stepped in on our own initiative (i.e., without a request by the attacking team) is if the players are young and/or inexperienced and clearly do not know what to do (and/or the attackers are equally young/inexperienced and do not know of their essential right to take the kick without any signal by the referee if that is what they choose to do).…