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Law 6 – Assistant Referee

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In soccer, an assistant referee is one of several officials who assist the referee in controlling a match. Two officials, traditionally known as linesmen (or lineswomen if they are female), stand on the touchlines, while a fourth official assists administrative or other match related tasks as directed by the referee.

All decisions by the assistant referee are only advisory to the referee; assistants do not actually make binding decisions. During the game one assistant referee oversees one touch-line and one end of the field utilising the diagonal system of control. The more senior of the two assistants will normally occupy the side of the field containing the technical areas, in order to help oversee substitutions. An assistant referee indicates matters to the referee (usually initially by raising his flag, but nowadays also by wireless communication devices, which can include “buzzer flags” and in the most senior games, additionally a microphone and headset link, which the referee may then act upon.)

Assistant referees were formerly called linesmen. In 1996, the name was changed, primarily to better reflect the modern role of these officials, and secondarily to become non-gender specific. They are also sometimes incorrectly referred to as “referee’s assistants”. However the term “linesman” is still commonly used.

Law 6 of the Laws of the Game outlines the general duties of the assistant referees, however their duties in a given game remain subject to the decision of the referee. These duties usually include indicating:

1.  When the whole ball has passed outside the field of play

2.  Which side is entitled to return the ball into the field of play

3.  When a player may be penalised for an offside offence

4.  To assist the fourth official (if present) in notifying the center referee that a substitution is being requested

5.  When offences or other infringements of the Laws of the Game have been committed of which the referee does not have an adequate view

An assistant referee may also be called upon by the referee to provide an opinion regarding matters which the referee requires clarification on. Occasionally the assistant referee will assist in player management during free kicks, as well as provide visual assistance during penalty kicks. The assistant referees also usually assist the referee with preparatory and administrative functions.

Due to the nature of the offside rule, the assistants are generally better placed to assess whether a player is in an offside position than the referee. Assistants are generally expected to position themselves such that they are best able to make such judgements.

Fourth official

The fourth official assists the referee in a variety of tasks, and may be called upon to replace another match official.

The fourth official was added to the officiating crew in 1991.  The fourth official is simply instructed to assist the referee at all times, and his duties are largely at the discretion of the referee. His usual duties can be broadly divided into assisting functions and a replacement function (see below).

The fourth official typically has a table a short distance from the touchline between the two teams’ technical areas, however his positioning is not defined by the Laws of the Game.

Fourth soccer official indicating a minimum of two minutes of injury-time left to playIn usual practice, the fourth official assists the referee in the following ways:

1.  Assisting with administrative functions before, during and after the match

2.  Assessment of players’ equipment

3.  Ensuring substitutions are conducted in an orderly manner

4.  Notifying the referee of the details of the substitution, by means of numbered boards or electronic displays

5.  Notifying the teams and spectators, by means of numbered boards or electronic displays where supplied, of the amount of time added on at the end of each half, after having been advised of this by the referee

6.  Acting as the contact point between the match officiating crew and any non-participants (such as stadium managers, security personnel, broadcast crews, and ball retrievers)

7.  Maintaining decorum in the teams’ technical areas and interceding in situations where coaches, bench personnel, or substitutes become agitated

In practice, the fourth official becomes a key member of the officiating team, who can watch the field and players and advise the Referee on situations that are going on out of his sight. The fourth official keeps an extra set of records, and helps make sure the Referee does not make a serious error such as cautioning the wrong player, or giving two cautions to the same player and forgetting to send off the player.

The fourth official serves as a replacement official in the event that one of the other officials (referee or assistant referees) cannot continue officiating (usually through injury).

In situations where an assistant referee is unable to continue, the fourth official replaces that assistant referee. In situations where the referee is unable to continue, the fourth official replaces the referee directly, or the senior assistant referee replaces the referee, with the fourth official in turn taking an assistant’s position. Competition rules are supposed to clarify which of these options is to occur. If for some reason it is not stated, then typically the official with the most refereeing experience (either the fourth official or the senior assistant referee) will replace the referee.

Extra officials

Assistants beyond those discussed above are generally uncommon, however extra official roles have been trialled in a few international tournaments.

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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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