My season is starting up again, so that means a few more refereeing posts.
Last weekend, I was reffing a bunch of U-13 to U-16 games. Most of those games were reasonable as the coaches were decent, the players tried to play smart and hard and the parents were reasonably well informed and well controlled. However there was the constant refrain from the sideline about why we were not blowing the whistle on plays that some parent thought was a foul.
There are several reasons why a referee won’t blow a play dead.
Let’s acknowledge the most frustrating one — the referee did not see it, or more often, did see the situation but either failed to recognize the foul or recognized the foul and brain-farted acting on it. That happens due to inexperience, that happens due to getting screened or being out of position, that happens due to fatigue, that happens due to the fouling player being a subtle and sneaky bastard. It happens. Good referees do their best to minimize it, but it happens. But let’s talk about legitimate reasons to not blow a whistle.
The most obvious one is that in the opinion of the referee there was no action or contact that could be called a foul at any level of the game from U-6 Brownian motion ball to UEFA Finals. Sometimes there is contact, sometimes there is a player on the ground, and sometimes there is an injury where there was absolutely no foul. Soccer is a contact sport and contact can and should happen in the game.
A related but distinct reason to not blow a whistle is that the referee is interpreting the rules in a manner that the parents’ don’t understand. The most common scenario in the youth game is the ball hitting a player’s hand. If the player’s hands are in a natural playing position and the player is not attempting to purposefully strike the ball with an illegal body part, we’re not going to call a handling offense as the player did not handle the ball. It does not matter if the ball went straight to feet on a breakaway, the ball played the hand. As soon as the hand or arm is in a non-natural position during the normal run of play or the player deliberately attempts to hit the ball, we’re seeing a foul and probably hitting the whistle.
More frequently, the referee is making an active decision. There may be contact but it may be skill and competition level appropriate contact. This is where the referee will often say that something was a foul at Under-6 or high school but it is not a foul in U-14 or in the college game. As players get better with more skill and more strength, referees are more inclined to let more contact go. Spectators who see a medium challenge that looked a little bit off will often hear the referee tell both players that the contact was “trifling.” In soccer, “trifling” is a term of art. It means that the contact may have been illegal but the violation is so minor and the impediment to play is so small that there is no reason to blow the whistle. A common example of this is the hand fighting that goes on between forwards and defenders; someone may have grabbed and released someone within reaction time, but as long as the grabbed player is still able to get to where they want to go, very few referees are going to call it.
A similar reason is that the referee has made a decision as to where the foul line lies on a given day. Referees try to be consistent within games, between games and in best circumstances between referees working the same level of competition. However there will be variance. As long as within a single game, that variance is minimized, good teams can adapt. Some days I’ll allow a bit more hand fighting than other days. sometimes I’ll let harder tackles go in while other games basically require me to set a soft contact limit or risk a brawl. I am trying to read players and coaches for their expectations as to what type of contact they want. My preference is to hold a foul line about half a step below the frustration/retaliation point so I don’t have to blow the whistle as much, and I can let the game breathe. So there are situations where a parent can rightly say that I called a certain situation a foul yesterday but I let it go today. It is a conscious decision on the referee’s part.
The next reason why a referee will see a foul but not blow the whistle is advantage. In soccer, advantage is withholding of a stoppage because in the opinion of the referee the team that was fouled has a promising attack that would be interuptted and degraded by a whistle. We want to see fluid play, we want to see a screaming shot go into the top corner; that is pretty, that is fun, that is the point of the game. Advantage allows referees to see that. It also discourages completely cynical fouling because a cynical foul that does not demolish an attack usually means the defense is off-balance or outnumbered because there is at least one defender significantly out of position and unable to recover in time.
Advantage is a tough call to make. If I see a foul in the midfield where the attacking player has lofted a ball down the sideline and I see an attacking teammate making a long run, I want to hold my whistle. If that teammate can get a clean possession of the ball while possessing a numbers’ advantage in their support, I want to give the advantage as a fluid attack 25 yards from goal is a much higher probability scoring chance than a free kick 60 yards away. Referees have four seconds to watch and wait to see what develops. If that ball is lofted down the sideline to a player making an attacking run and it either skips out of bounds or there are three defenders rotating back, a good referee will see that, and blow the whistle a couple of seconds late. If they want advantage, they should announce it very loudly and clearly so that everyone within 200 yards knows what happened. As a side note, the referee can reserve the right to caution or send off a player for a shitty foul even as they call advantage, and they should mentally track persistent infringement on advantages as well as whistled fouls.
Advantage varies greatly by both skill of the players and the position of the ball. I am far more inclined to allow for things to play out for a second or two at the top games that I referee. I want to see what the players can do as most non-cynical fouls are because the fouling player was late or out of position which means the fouled player if they are still moving is moving into open space. At lower skill levels, I am more inclined to go to a fast whistle because the fouled player will have had their fluid movement totally disrupted and won’t have good support to distribute out to. Location on the field matters. I am not calling advantage in the penalty box unless the ball is in the back of the net. I am extremely reluctant to call advantage in the defensive third unless there is a clear three touch build up to grab sixty yards of field position and a numbers advantage going forward. Most advantages will happen in the middle third as it transitions into the attacking third.
Now we can move onto advance refereeing.
Not calling a foul can be an effective means of game control and game management. There are both Light side and Dark side applications of this technique.
Reciprocation can be a tool. I was refereeing a men’s amateur game a couple of years ago where in the first minute White had a corner kick. The ball crossed the box at 15 feet in the air and skipped out of bounds. The Black sweeper bear hugged White’s forward. I had a brief word with the sweeper telling him I saw it and did not want to see it again. A PK would have been a massively disproportional sanction for an unplayable ball. Two minutes later, Black had free kick that they were playing as if it was a corner kick into White’s box. The ball went five yards over the cross bar and into the parking lot. White’s holding midfielder had attempted to yank down Black’s winger. I had a brief word with White and he started to whine that his guy had been hammered at the other end, but as soon as I told him that I saw that and already spoke with Black, he accepted the decision and accepted that he was getting off easy. Both teams knew I was seeing what was going on off the ball. I had both knuckleheads in my back pocket and favorably inclined to listen to me. That was a fun game to referee.
That is a Light side application of reciprocating non-calls.
There is a Dark side. Every referee worth their salt knows about the Dark side, they may not go over their, but they know about some of the tricks.
Non-calls can be an effective diving management tool. If a player is diving, the referee can let the player know that he is having a really hard time distinguishing fair and legal contact versus unfair and illegal contact. If that is said in sotto voce near the dived against’ team’s holding midfielder and sweeper, they often get the clue that they get a freebie as long as it it not too severe. A forward who has been going to the ground at a stiff breeze and the mere presence of a defender within playing space will soon get the clue to play through contact after he is driven hard into the ground once or twice.