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Law 5 – The Referee


Law 5 describes the role of the referee.  During a game, the referee has full authority to interpret and enforce all of the laws of the game.  Regardless of level, the referee has sole authority over the calling of a game.  The decisions made by the referee are considered final and are non negotiable.  The referee is assisted by two additional referrees that are referred to as assistant referees.  The additional refs used to be called linesmen as they help supervise the game from each side line and provide additional perspective for the main ref calling the game.  Some very important games and games at the highest levels will employ a fourth ref as alternates as needed.  The team of referees in the game are considered the officials and they use a positioning system known as the diagonal system of control. The governing body over soccer, UEFA,  has also considered and tested the use of additional assistant referees who have jurisdiction over the goal areas and help interpret incidents in the immediate goal area or if the ball has crossed the goal line in the act of scoring a goal.[1] At this point in time (sharp contrast to American Football) video review is not utilized in the game of soccer, often times the questions of whether or not the ball crossed the line will cause controversy and gossip about the game result for some time after the game has ended with a definitive winner.  

Most referees are amateur, though they are usually paid a small fee per game for their services. However, in some countries a limited number of referees, that officiate at the highest levels, are employed full-time by their national associations and receive a retainer at the start of every season plus match fees.

Referees are licensed and trained by national organizations that are recognized by FIFA. Each national organization recommends its top officials to FIFA to have the additional honour of being included on the FIFA International Referees List. International games between national teams require FIFA officials.  Otherwise, the manner of training and requirements for officials are determined locally for all levels, from the youngest youth games through professional matches.

Powers and duties

Soccer yellow card and red cardThe referee’s powers and duties are described by Law 5 of the Laws of the Game.[2] These include:


  • stopping, suspending or terminating the match at his discretion, for any infringements of the Laws;
  • stopping, suspending or terminating the match because of outside interference of any kind;
  • stopping the match if, in his opinion, a player is seriously injured and ensuring that he is removed from the field of play. An injured player may only return to the field of play after the match has restarted;
  • allowing play to continue until the ball is out of play if a player is, in his opinion, only slightly injured;
  • allowing play to continue when the team against which an offence has been committed will benefit from such an advantage and penalises the original offence if the anticipated advantage does not ensue at that time;
  • taking disciplinary action against players guilty of cautionable and sending-off offences. He is not obliged to take this action immediately but must do so when the ball next goes out of play;
  • taking action against team officials who fail to conduct themselves in a responsible manner and may, at his discretion, expel them from the field of play and its immediate surrounds.


1.  Enforcing the Laws of the Game

2.  Controlling the match in co-operation with the assistant referees and, where applicable, with the fourth official

3.  Ensuring that any ball used meets the requirements of Law 2

4.  Ensuring that the players’ equipment meets the requirements of Law 4

5.  Acting as timekeeper and keeping a record of the match

6.  Ensuring that any player bleeding from a wound leaves the field of play. The player may only return on receiving a signal from the referee, who must be satisfied that the bleeding has stopped.

7.  Punishing the more serious offence when a player commits more than one offence at the same time

8.  Acting on the advice of the assistant referees regarding incidents that he has not seen

9.  Ensuring that no unauthorized persons enter the field of play

10.  Indicating the restart of the match after it has been stopped

11.  Providing the appropriate authorities with a match report, which includes information on any disciplinary action taken against players and/or team officials, substitutions and any other incidents that occurred before, during or after the match.

Whistle use

Soccer Referee Alan Wiley issues a red card to Manchester United's Nemanja VidićWhile the whistle is an important tool and the main means of communication for the referee, their use in a game is not mandated by the rules of the game.  In a typical game, the referee will use a whistle to indicate the commencement or restart of play, to stop or delay play due to an infringement or injury, or to indicate that time has expired in the half.  The referee will also use body language, eye contact and verbal communication to officiate the game.   along with verbal, body and eye communication.

Prior to using a whistle in the game, referees would use a white handkerchief to indicate starts and stops and other decisions within the game.

The whistles that were first adopted by referees were made by Joseph Hudson at Mills Munitions in Birmingham, England. The ACME Whistle Company (based at Mills Munitions Factory) first began to mass produce pea whistles in the 1870s for the Metropolitan Police Service. It is frequently stated the referee’s whistle was first used in a game between Nottingham Forest and Sheffield Norfolk in 1878; however the last such fixture known to have taken place between the two clubs was in 1874. The Nottingham Forest account book of 1872 apparently recorded the purchase of an “umpire’s whistle” and in 1928 an article by R M Ruck about his playing days in the early 1870s referred to the use of a whistle by umpires to indicate an infringement.[3]

The whistle was not mentioned in the Laws of the Game (LOTG) until 1936 when an IFAB Decision was added as footnote (b) to Law 2, stating “A Referee’s control over the players for misconduct or ungentlemanly behaviour commences from the time he enters the field of play, but his jurisdiction in connection with the Laws of the Game commences from the time he blows his whistle for the game to start.”[4]

In 2007, when IFAB greatly expanded the LOTG Additional Instructions section, a full page of advice on how and when the whistle should be used as a communication and control mechanism by the referee became available.[5]


Henning Jensen, Danish football refereeToday the referees and their assistants wear uniforms consisting of a jersey, badge, shorts and socks.  Up until the 1950s, referees would wear a black blazer while officiating the game.  For most of the history of the game, the uniform was all black.  If one of the competing teams was wearing black or any dark color, the referee would wear a different color to stand out from both teams.  It wasn’t until the 1994 World Cup finals, that new jerseys were introduced that gave officials a choice of burgundy, yellow or white, and at the same time the creation of the Premier League in England saw referees wear green jerseys.  Since then, most referees have worn either yellow or black, but the colors and styles adopted by individual associations vary greatly, for international contests under the supervision of FIFA, Adidas uniforms are worn because Adidas is the current sponsor. FIFA allows referees to wear five colors: black, red, yellow, green and blue. Along with the jersey, referees are required to wear black shorts, black socks (with white stripes in some cases), and black shoes. The referee’s badge is typically found on the left shirt pocket of the jersey and shows the license level and expiration date for that ref. 

There are many tools that all referees carry during a match including at least one of each of the following: a whistle, a watch, penalty cards, a data wallet with pen and paper, and a coin for determining who gets the first kick-off in each half.   The referee will usually carry extra pens, whistles and watches.  Often, referees utilize two watches so that they can use one to calculate time lost for stoppages for the purposes of added time. There are additional tools that are utilized at the highest levels including two-way radios to communicate between each other. Assistant referees use electronic flags, which send a signals to the referee when a button is pushed. Specific guidelines concerning the use of technology are written by FIFA and IFAB to aid referees as to when they can and cannot (or should not) be used.


About Author

Mike Slatton is a 2nd generation American youth soccer coach since 1984, and the son of one of the nation's first female licensed youth soccer coaches (Anita Slatton, 1979). He's also a professional soccer scout, a player since 1977, and the father of three adult and teenage children who all play or have played the game. "My job as a youth soccer coach is to develop detail oriented problem solvers who can react quickly under pressure. This relates to life - not just soccer."

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