Unlike some sports, soccer gives its officials nearly total discretion over the conduct of the game. With few exceptions, fouls are matters of opinion or judgment, and the rules encourage the referee not to call fouls when doing so would help the offending team. The continuous nature of the game means that it the opinion of the referee — and nobody else — that determines whether a challenge is fair or foul, whether a high kick presents a danger to another player, or whether a particular incident justifies a caution or send-off. And under the Laws of the Game, the referee’s decision on any point is final, and is not to be questioned.
Under the rules, the referee’s authority starts when he arrives at the field of play, and stops only when he leaves. This means that once he shows up, and whatever his age or level of experience, the referee is in command of the field. Incidents occurring before, during, or after the game are within his jurisdiction, and subject to his control. Coaches or players confronting officials after the game have no immunity, and are still liable for any misconduct that the referee decides to punish, even if the game is over.
From the perspective of coaches, players, and spectators, the least understood justification for a caution is probably the offense of “dissent.” The rules provide that participants can be “cautioned and shown the yellow card” for showing “dissent by word or action” from any decision of the referee. This is to make sure that calls are not subject to the endless committee discussions that sometimes interrupt other sports, and that the game resumes as quickly as possible.
Most referees will not punish outbursts of disappointment that fade quickly, and will gladly explain a particular call in response to a polite inquiry. Still, each referee has a different tolerance for griping and, under the Rules, each limit is equally valid. In other words, a coach or player who utters a word of protest at any call by any of the officials may be ignored, admonished, warned, or cautioned, at the referee’s sole discretion. And the permissible level of grumbling for any game depends on that game’s referee, who is well within his authority to punish any showing of disagreement.
In most leagues, coaches are responsible for the behavior of their team’s spectators. This means that a referee whose patience is gone may choose to treat any adverse comments from the sidelines as coming from the coach, and take action against the coach. Or, if he prefers, the referee may simply suspend the game until the offending party leaves. From a practical standpoint, this means that referees may banish anyone, or everyone, from a team’s sidelines. They may refuse to continue the game until everyone dismissed from the field has left — to any distance they specify as a point of retreat. Or, they may simply declare the match abandoned, if the offending parties insist on staying. The rules grant the referee full authority to take whatever action he deems appropriate to maintain or restore order on the field.
Still, despite the wide range of their power and authority, most officials are reluctant to dismiss participants or spectators. They hope to calm emotions rather than inflame them, and do what they can to keep everyone in the game. Forbearance is not a right, however, and coaches need to remind their parents of the need to avoid “riding the refs.” This, in turn, helps keep the sidelines under control, and the players focused on the game.
Dealing with Mistakes
Under the rules, everyone must accept and deal with any decision by the referee during the game. Mistaken or not, the referee is part of the game, and organized soccer regards the referee’s decision on any point of fact as final. This does not mean that you can do nothing to protest the conduct of abusive or inept officials. However, the right way to make a complaint is not by shouting and screaming at the official during the match, but by documenting the incident in writing and filing a report with your soccer club. Your club will review the report and, if appropriate, send it to the proper authorities. Before you do, though, there are a few things you need to know:
First and foremost, formal protests will succeed only if they involve a referee’s mistaken application of the rules — and, even then, only if the mistake had an effect on the outcome of the game. By contrast, informal “protests” can do much to improve the quality of officiating within your club. By bringing mistakes in rules or judgment to the attention of your soccer club, you help educate the referees by alerting their supervisors to officials who need to be monitored more closely, and those who need special help. You also may help identify the rules that are giving your referees particular problem in application. The procedure for making an informal complaint is usually simple: just bring the matter to the attention of the club’s referee coordinator.
The Referee’s Judgment
Judgment calls belong to the Referee: you cannot change them, screaming about them will only get you in trouble, and protesting them will not change the result of any game. In addition, referees cannot see everything, or they may see a particular play differently than you do, and expecting them to call a “perfect game” from your team’s perspective is simply unrealistic. If, however, if your team was the victim of a pattern of favoritism or bias, it may indicate a shortcoming on the part of the official which needs correcting for future games. To document such a pattern, your report should contain a “foul chart,” detailing the official’s discretionary calls: this chart should contain a separate listing for both teams, indicating (whenever possible) the player fouling, the player fouled, the timing of the foul (by minute), and noting in some way whether the resulting free kick was direct, indirect, or a penalty kick. This can be time-consuming and frustrating, and you should also be aware that disparities in calling fouls often reflects nothing more than differences in playing styles: for example, a team relying on its speed and quickness to win the ball may foul less frequently than one relying upon the physical strength of its players; and an aggressive, attacking team will often commit more fouls than one which relies on ball control and finesse. Therefore, your report should acknowledge this, and contain some indication of the styles and playing levels of both teams.
Coaches, parents, and players watch the game with their hearts, and complaints about officials often reflect nothing more than sour grapes. The same referee whom the losing team regards as an idiot may get high praise from the winners. Therefore, any complaint you make about an official should be as objective and unbiased as you can make it.
If you are going to complain about the officiating at your game, make sure that neither you, nor your team, gave the officials any cause for complaint at the field. The surest way to have your complaints ignored is to allow the referee to respond: “They were on my case the entire game, they complained about every call that went against them, and when their coach wouldn’t keep quiet after his first yellow card I finally had to issue a second, just to get some peace and quiet.”
Lastly, it is often tempting for players and parents to blame the officials when a team loses. But coaches who permit or encourage such attitudes should make sure to give the referee all the credit when their team wins.
A Neutral Set of Eyes
Referees do not care who wins or loses. They are there to make sure that nobody wins by cheating. Like the players, they trying their very best. And just like a player will not deliberately try to pass the ball to an opponent, or score on his own goal, no referee will ever make a mistake on purpose.
Soccer is a wonderful sport, and a source of joy for fans and players around the world. But to play the game we need referees to provide a neutral set of eyes to settle the inevitable disputes. It is a game of passion and adventure, and cheering for your team with all your heart is a large part of its appeal. But we must all be careful not to let our enthusiasm turn into hostility toward the officials when things don’t turn out our way. There will always be another day, and another game to play. And like the weather, you may find next week’s referee to be more to your liking.
This does not mean that next week’s referee is better than this week’s, any more than rain is inherently better than sunshine (just ask any farmer). Referees are just a condition of play that both teams must deal with on a given day. But while adapting to wind or rain strikes us as perfectly natural, many of us feel free to howl at the referee when things aren’t going our way. Perhaps it’s because screaming at the referee gives us someone to blame for our troubles…while screaming at the rain would make us feel foolish.