Sunday, February 6, 2011


"Handball" is a game played with a little rubber ball inside a glass cube. In the game of soccer, there is a violation of the rules known as "Handling.”

The handling offense occurs when a player deliberately plays the ball with “the hand” (which is defined in the technical literature as any part of the arm from the top shoulder seam to the fingertips), even if the arm is not extended. The key is that the player plays the ball, not that the ball plays the player. Unintentional contact with the hand or arm while it is held in a natural position is not a violation. Many less experienced referees tend to call the handling violation too often

When the ball approaches near shoulder level, young players will often use the outside, upper arm area while keeping the arm pressed up close to the body. That is a violation of the rules, but you will see a lot of leeway given for this at the younger ages of youth soccer.

Very young players often tend to raise their hands straight up when faced with a ball over their heads. Usually they are trying to keep their hands out of the way so they can play the ball with their chest or head, but they simply haven’t learned to judge the flight of the ball accurately. Despite their good intentions, if the ball strikes their hands or arms, that is a commonly called as a violation, because their arms are not in a natural position. It is also highly visible to the spectators.

Playing the ball with the top or front of the shoulder is often also called as handling, although technically, it is not. But the judgment of the referee determines that because only the referee has an official opinion on what part of the body was used to play the ball.

It is instinctive to protect the face or body with the hands from a fast, powerfully-struck ball at close range. Making contact with the ball during a purely defensive reaction is not a violation. Taking the opportunity to direct the path of the ball after accidental contact is a violation. Obviously, this is purely a judgment call by the referee. What is “fast” and what is “close-range” are also judgment calls and will vary by age and experience levels.

To repeat: the handling offense occurs when a player deliberately plays the ball with the hand or the arm. The key is that the player plays the ball, not that the ball plays the player. Unintentional contact with the hand or arm, while it is held in a natural position or as a result of an instinctive protective motion, is not a violation. If the player's team benefits from such unintentional contact, even if it occurs in the penalty area, or even if it leads to a goal or the prevention of a goal, that is called "the breaks of the game.” It is still not a violation.

So, the next time you are at the pitch, calmly enjoying a Saturday morning match, show your sophistication. Remember to holler “handling” rather than “handball” – or, even better, recognize that the situation has been adjudged by the referee to be not a violation at all, and holler nothing. J


There is no "Offsides" in soccer. That term comes from American Football. In soccer, the call is "Offside" with no final "s."

Signaling for offside (or not) is the most important responsibility of the assistant referees (ARs) or “linesmen” as they formerly were known. If you have ever wondered how the AR could signal in the “wrong” direction for a throw-in when the ball went out of bounds right in front of him, it is likely that he was concentrating on the offside situation. The offside decision is a much more important element of the game than the throw-in because of the game-changing potential that may be associated with the call (or no call) – that is, a goal or no goal.

The offside call is probably the most technical, and often the most controversial, call (or non-call) in a match, because of the associated potential for goal vs. no goal. The decision involves a number of factors including location, timing, and involvement of the players. It is not an offense simply for a player to be in an offside position. Let me repeat that for emphasis. It is not an offense simply for a player to be in an offside position. The player must also be involved in active play by interfering with play, interfering with an opponent or gaining an advantage by being in an offside position. This requirement probably generates more vocal input from spectators than anything else in the game.

There are many instances during a game when players are in an offside position, but they cannot be penalized for it. The classic example is when one player dribbles down the field, shoots and scores. Simply because teammates were in an offside position does not negate the goal, because the teammates were not involved in active play – the first player did not pass to them, etc.

The offside decision is made at the moment the ball is last played by a teammate, NOT when the (potentially) offside player receives or plays the ball. A couple of specific exceptions are worth knowing. A player cannot be penalized for offside if he or she is on his or her own half of the field (this is why each assistant referee or “linesman” never moves past the mid-field line), or if he or she receives the ball directly (the first touch) from a corner kick, from a throw-in, or from a goal kick. It is also not an infraction if the player receiving the pass is trailing his teammate who makes the pass, even if the receiver has already penetrated beyond all the defenders.

The essential decision is relatively straightforward; however, the decision is often based on conditions that exist for only a split-second, such that the AR is the only person with a complete view. Of course, there are technical considerations and some of those may be outside the focus of the AR. That is the reason a referee may occasional signal offside on his own, or may wave down the signal from the AR.

If "everyone" on the sideline thinks there is an infraction by the opposing team, but the AR does not signal with his flag, the chances are that the AR is correct. If the AR does not make the "obvious" call, he may just be a superior official.

So, the next time you are at the pitch, calmly enjoying a Saturday morning match, show your sophistication. Remember to holler “offside” rather than “offsides” – or, even better, recognize that the situation has been adjudged by the referee to be not a violation at all, and holler nothing. J

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Yellow and Red Cards

In the U.S., we are fond of the baseball analogy, three strikes and you’re out. A case could be made that the analogy also holds true in soccer. But from an official caution perspective, it’s really two strikes and you’re out. I could only speculate on the origin. Perhaps it is because the modern game developed out of a sport for English “gentlemen.”

Personally, I find the soccer approach to be vastly superior to the three strike system as it significantly reduces the gamesmanship opportunities available to the players for testing the resolve of the referee. Once officially cautioned, a soccer player does not have the luxury of saying to himself, “OK, I can try it once more to see if he really means it.” A second caution, whether for the same type of offense or another, leads automatically to the red card and a send-off. There is no third strike.

But let’s back up a minute and fill in the definitions.

As with many sports, the game officials can administer verbal warnings which have no authoritative standing, but do serve to put players “on notice” for unacceptable behavior, although that also is not official terminology. If you still want to think in terms of three strikes, that would be the first.

In soccer, an official caution is always accompanied by the display of the yellow card and the recording of the player’s identifying information (name, jersey number) and the reason for the caution in the referee’s notebook. The purpose of the yellow card is simple and straightforward. It communicates to everyone – player, coach, spectators – that the player has received an official caution. Whether or not a verbal warning has preceded the caution, you could think of the yellow card as the second of the three strikes.

A send-off is the ejection of a player. It is a permanent exclusion for the remainder of the match. A send-off is always accompanied by the display of the red card and the recording of the player’s information and the reason in the referee’s notebook.

A caution can be administered and the yellow card displayed for a variety of reasons. The most common are unsporting behavior, dissent with a decision of the referee, persistently infringing the laws of the game (usually repetitive fouling), delaying the restart of the game and failing to respect the required distance (for example, 10 yards at a free kick).

Players are most commonly sent-off for serious foul play, violent conduct, spitting, cursing, denying a goal by a DFK foul or by handling the ball (field players, not the keeper), and for a second yellow card caution in the same match.

Typically, a foul is only careless play that results in someone being kicked, tripped, etc. and the only punishment required is the free kick.

In a foul situation, the caution and the yellow card are generally associated with reckless play. “Reckless” means the player has made unnatural movements designed to intimidate an opponent or to gain an unfair advantage. An example might be the swinging of an elbow (which does NOT connect!) But remember, the yellow card can also be shown for behavior such as dissent, failure to respect the distance, and other situations that do not involve a foul.

In a foul situation, the red card is shown and the player is sent-off for use of excessive force. This means the player has far exceeded the use of force necessary to make a fair play on the ball and has placed the opponent in considerable danger of bodily harm. Swinging an elbow and striking with it would certainly merit consideration for a red card.

In the game of soccer, there is no required escalation process. A yellow card does NOT have to be shown before a red card can be issued. Situations often naturally progress from verbal warnings, to yellow cards, and possibly to red cards. But certain behaviors and game situations will produce a red card as the very first response by the referee. For example, spitting at a person or violent behavior on the field will draw the red card immediately, even if the game has not yet even started.

At times, a fairly innocuous-appearing foul may earn a caution for a player. Several factors my lead to this result, including:
  • Persistent infringement – the referee has seen a pattern of fouls from a player and the behavior must be addressed to prevent retaliation or an escalation of fouling in the match;
  • Tactical fouls – the team in possession of the ball may have created a good opportunity to score a goal and the only "sure" defense is to stop play by delivering a foul. That is unsporting behavior.

Unless league or tournament rules specifically require otherwise, cautions and send-offs, and their related cards, are only directed at players and substitutes. Of course, misbehaving coaches and spectators can be dismissed from the field, but they are not officially “cautioned” or “sent-off.”

In NASA soccer, the display of cards is rare. I have personally shown only 2 in the past five years. Most of the situations that arise in NASA league are purely careless. Recklessness and excessive force are rarely present. In my personal experience, the overwhelming majority, if not absolutely all, of the players would never for a minute consider being intentionally violent. Their minds simply don’t work that way. I would say that if intimidation crosses the minds of any of the players, it would be only a few of the very oldest U-10 boys and not with any regularity.

That being said, however, I have seen a number of kamikaze players with delusions of indestructibility. They hurl themselves into every situation of the game with utter abandon and without fear of injury to themselves or others. That type of behavior has to be judged as reckless, especially if directed at the goalkeeper. Since the paramount concern of the referee must always be the safety of the players, I felt that displaying the yellow card would have a positive affect on the awareness of these players. In both case, I believe I was correct, but it is still not a happy choice when dealing with 9 and 10 year olds.

It is hardly an issue in NASA, but as players move up in age, it is prudent to realize that tournaments and leagues generally apply sanctions to players for accumulation of cards. They often use a point system to administer game suspensions. A single red card, for instance, will earn the player an immediate disciplinary suspension of at least one game and possibly more, depending on the underlying basis for the send-off.

The referee is under no obligation to explain his calls to anyone – even the coaches. Cautions and send-offs are documented on the game card and can be determined from that card after the game, by those with access to it. But you may live your entire life never knowing what a referee saw that you didn't.

Irrespective of what coaches or anyone else may say, cards are never "mandatory." No call is "mandatory." Remember from a previous column, "In the opinion of the referee…"

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Fouls - Part 3

Let me address a situation that regularly recurs in youth soccer. Your kid is challenging or is challenged for control of the ball and he ends up on the ground. Cries of “Foul!” might erupt from the sidelines.

In the game, being knocked down does not necessarily indicate a foul has been committed. As I stated earlier, soccer is a physical game and players are allowed to contest for control of the ball by physical means known as a charge. This is commonly understood to be approximate shoulder to shoulder contact. At youth level, your 4'2" daughter could be knocked over by a 4'8"girl who weighs 40 pounds more. Your daughter has not necessarily been fouled. Players cannot be penalized for being larger or stronger. They can only be penalized with a foul for carelessness, recklessness or excessive force. Again, this is a judgment call by the referee. A big player against a small player rarely involves excessive force. It is more likely to involve the use of an inherent physical advantage. Now, if your daughter goes flying 15 feet through the air before landing, that would be a different story.

Remember from the previous column, a tackle is a challenge for the ball using a foot. Often it accompanies a slide, but the two concepts – tackle and slide – are not interdependent. It would be uncommon for a slide NOT to be for a tackle, but tackles are performed without a slide more often than not at younger levels.

The tackle/foul can be the most confusing call to spectators, because the referee's decisions can appear to be inconsistent without a good understanding of this area. So, when is a tackle legal and when is it not? The easiest call to make is when the foot of the tackling player strikes the opposing player before it strikes the ball. That is always a foul. Sometimes the play is very close and, as with all things soccer, the call depends on the judgment (or eyesight) of the referee. But according to the LOTG, striking the player first is ALWAYS a foul.

So, is the opposite true? If the tackling foot strikes the ball first, then it's never a foul? No, although many spectators, players and even coaches seem to operate under that misperception. It all depends on how the tackle is performed.

Many times a defender will make a tackle and the opposing player will trip and tumble down over the tackler's foot. If the defender's foot has contacted the ball before contact with the player, AND the defender has made no other unfair or dangerous actions, then it is very likely a legal tackle. The fall by the attacking player is just part of the game.

What exactly do I mean when I say no other unfair or dangerous actions? Generally, that means the defender has not raised a leg to deliberately trip the opposing player and has not struck the player after dislodging the ball. In the tackling situation, there is a clear distinction between striking with the foot and tripping since the attacking player may often fall as a result of the tackle. Fair also means the tackle is timely (not after the ball has already been passed away), is not done with both feet, and is not done with the cleats up. At older ages, you may hear players tell the referee "I got all ball" when called for a foul on a tackle. The referee obviously disagrees. Otherwise, he wouldn't whistle.

The slide tackle can be completely legal and highly effective if performed correctly. It can also be very dangerous. A badly executed slide tackle can easily draw the yellow or even the red card from the referee, especially if it comes from behind.

So, what about the aerial challenge – when does it become a foul? The aerial challenge is unlikely to result in a foul if both (all) the involved players are jumping toward the ball and making a legitimate attempt to play the ball with the head. Fouls occur when one player directs his jump at the opposing player, or uses an arm to clear other players from the area. The focus of the eyes is often a clear indicator of the player's intent. Leading with or swinging an elbow can earn a yellow card and making contact with it should prompt a red card and a sending off from the match. But I doubt that you will ever see this situation in a NASA recreational game.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Fouls - Part 2

Direct free kick fouls result in direct free kicks (DFK) and indirect free kick fouls result in indirect free kicks (IFK). Simple, right? What’s the difference? A goal can be scored from a DFK with no intermediate action. That is, the ball can be kicked directly from its spot on the ground into the net and a goal is scored. On an IFK, a goal cannot be scored directly from the kick; it must be touched by a player other than the kicker for a goal to be scored. The second touch can come from either team. By the way, the penalty kick (PK) is just a special case of the DFK, because the infraction has occurred within the penalty area (hence, the name) of the defending team. Note that an IFK foul does NOT result in a PK, even if it occurs inside the penalty area.

How can the spectators (or players and coaches, for that matter) tell what type of free kick has been awarded? That’s easy. Look at the referee. If the free kick is indirect, after pointing in the direction of the kick, the referee will hold one arm straight up in the air until the second touch has taken place. The lowering of his arm indicates that a goal can now be scored by either team. If it is a general DFK, he will give no additional signal after indicating the direction of the kick. If the referee awards a PK, he will point downward at the penalty spot, a position marked on the pitch directly in front of the middle of the goal and halfway between the top of the penalty area and the top of the goal box.

Is the choice of DFK or IFK at the discretion of the referee? No. The LOTG specify the nature of the kick to be awarded based on the infraction. That is how the DFK and IFK fouls are classified.

So, what is the “free” part of DFK and IFK? A free kick can be taken anytime at the discretion of the team taking the kick – the team that was fouled. They do not need to wait on any signal from the referee or on the status of the defending team. That is, the kicking team is not required to wait for the defenders to set “the wall” or anything else. They must satisfy only two conditions prior to taking the kick – the ball must be approximately at the point of the foul, and the ball must be stationary.

During a free kick, the defending team MUST retire 10 yards (8 yards at the youth level) in any direction from the spot of the kick. They must do so AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE without being told by the referee. Failure to do so, places the offenders in jeopardy of being shown the yellow card, although this rarely happens for a first offense, unless it is blatant. If the referee is required to intervene, some technical changes occur – for instance, the kick cannot be taken until the referee whistles.

On a related note, the positioning of the ball is different in each case, but a goal kick, a corner kick, and a kick-off after a goal or to start a half are also free kicks and the opposing team must respect the required distance.


Sometimes a team in possession of the ball obtains or retains an attacking positional advantage on the field despite an obvious foul. A good referee will allow "the advantage" to continue and not call the foul. It does NOT mean that he did not see the foul or did not judge it to be a foul. But why stop play and remove the advantage? In such circumstances, the referee should give the standard "advantage" signal (both arms swept forward and upward) and shout "advantage" or "play on." Even if the foul merits a caution or send-off, the card can be displayed later (but before the next restart of play).

If the expected advantage does not materialize within a couple of seconds, the referee can still stop play and penalize the foul with a free kick. Advantage can mean as little as retaining possession in the attacking portion of the field. It does not have to produce an immediate shot on goal.

Be glad to have a referee who displays the ability to assess the advantage situation accurately.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Fouls - Part 1

Most challenges for control of the ball are performed with the foot, simply by the nature of the game. Such a challenge is commonly known as a tackle, whether successful or not. All legal tackles are, by definition, directed at the ball. 

Other challenges may be performed with the head. (Jumping with an opposing player to head a ball in flight is often referred to as an aerial challenge). When challenging with the head, the ball is almost never under the control of any particular player, since it is almost always in the air.

Another type of challenge is known as a charge. It is performed by exerting pressure from the shoulder against the opponent’s shoulder in an attempt to dispossess him of the ball. It may or may not accompany a tackle. It is legal either way, provided that the player being so charged is in control of the ball or is also challenging for the ball (a loose ball on the ground or in the air). A charge against a player who is not playing the ball is a foul. The shoulder charge, by the way, MUST be directed toward the shoulder “area.” A charge to the spinal area can easily result in a caution or a send-off. (We’ll get to this subject in another column.)

So, to sum up, players generally contest opponents for control of the ball by a tackle, a charge, or an aerial challenge. All can be legal. In another column, I will discuss how each can become a foul. First, however, let’s talk about the different kind of fouls and the result of a whistle for them.

In general, fouls come in two major categories – direct free kick (DFK) fouls and indirect free kick (IFK) fouls. As you might imagine, the DFK fouls are the more serious and that category includes all the major physical contact transgressions – kicking, tripping, striking, pushing, and holding. The DFK fouls also include ATTEMPTS to perform those nefarious actions. Additionally on the list are spitting, handling the ball and couple of others, including tackling if done unfairly.

IFK fouls are rather more subtle. They include such offenses as playing in a dangerous manner (but obviously without the commission of one of the DFK fouls), impeding an opponent, and a variety of activities involving prohibited contacts with the ball by the goalkeeper in highly specific circumstances. Note that these two groups are the defined FOULS in the game and are not all inclusive of all infractions for which the referee may stop play. An offside offense and other infractions may stop play and produce an IFK, but they are not fouls. We’ll address offside in a separate column.

Players are allowed to keep their arms up and bent at the elbows to protect their ribcages. Pushing is using the arms in an extended position or motion. It is not allowed, but it is a natural instinct and usually goes both ways during a challenge. Leave it to the referee to decide what is legal and what is not.

Playing while on the ground is not a violation. Playing dangerously is. The younger the age of the players, the more likely referees will tend to equate the two when opposing players are involved, because young players do not typically have the level of skill to play from the ground without being dangerous. But it can happen. This is another judgment call.

Do you remember from the last column my mention of the goalkeeper laying on the ball or holding it with his feet? He does not have possession (remember my definition?) of the ball and he is placing himself in a position where other young players of potentially limited judgment and high excitability are likely to kick him. In my opinion, that is dangerous play which would result in an IFK for the opposing (attacking) team. Conversely, if the keeper HAS established possession with his hand, continued efforts to kick the ball by the opposing team would constitute a DFK foul of striking or attempting to strike. A kick which contacts the goalkeeper in such a situation, would likely result in at least a caution (yellow card), if not an immediate red card and the attacking player being sent off from the field. More on cards later.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Control, Possession and Goalkeepers

Perhaps for some the concept of “the beautiful game” conjures images of graceful players performing a pas de deux over the pitch before pirouetting and dancing off after the ball again. Certainly, grace, balance and nimbleness of foot are valuable traits and they play a large role in the game. But so do strength, speed and aggression. It is, after all, an athletic contest.

As with any other team sport in which physical control of the ball is a necessity for scoring, the opposing teams are going to battle each other for that control. Just like with other team sports, the acceptable methods of contesting for control of the ball are provided in the rules and enforced by the officials.

Field players generally control the ball with their feet, although they can also use legs, head, chest, back and really any part of the body other than hands and arms. The goalkeepers can also control the ball the same way. Goalkeepers, however, may also use their hands and arms, (but only within their own penalty area) and when they do so that may result in possession of the ball. I use the two terms, control and possession, somewhat imprecisely, but deliberately, in the hope of providing clarity.

Any player with control of the ball may be challenged for control by any opposing player anywhere on the pitch. This includes goalkeepers in control of the ball. By contrast, a goalkeeper in possession of the ball, that is, using his hands, cannot be legally challenged.

That brings us to two points regarding goalkeepers.

Let me address the minor point first. The goalkeeper cannot maintain possession of the ball for more than six seconds once he is in a position to distribute the ball (no longer lying on the ground after a save, for instance). You will never see a referee count off the seconds, and for some referees, six seconds is a lot longer than for others. But the idea is to prevent extensive time wasting by the goalkeeper. Like any field player, however, he can attempt to control the ball with feet or head, etc. for as long as he wishes.

So that brings us to the major point. What constitutes possession by the goalkeeper? That answer is very simple. The goalkeeper establishes possession by pinning the ball to any surface (the grass, the goal post, his other hand, any other part of his body) with any part of either hand or arm. You may occasionally hear a coach yell “one finger” at a referee. That is the coach’s way of suggesting that his goalkeeper has established possession of the ball – “pinning the ball with as little as one finger.” So when does the use of hands and arms by the keeper NOT result in possession? A good example would be whenever he deflects a shot rather than catching it.

For how long, you may ask, does the keeper have to pin the ball to establish possession? Possession is instantaneous. Even if the keeper pins the ball while the attacker’s foot is already swinging, he has gained possession of the ball, and the attacker must cease his challenge. And if he doesn't? We’ll answer that question when we talk about fouls.

Laying on the ball or holding it between the legs or pinning it with a part of the body other than hands and arms does not count as possession. What happens in that situation will also be addressed later.