Refs on top of the action: How to position

By Randy Vogt

The referee's diagonal that he or she runs goes from corner flag to corner flag.

Actually, a referee who strictly adheres to this diagonal will miss seeing a number of fouls. I like to think that the referee’s positioning isn't a diagonal as much as it is a modified version of a half-open scissor -- corner flag to corner flag and penalty arc to penalty arc. The referee is not a slave to this positioning, but it is a rough guide to follow, especially for the newer referee.

I have seen many youth soccer games when the referee made an important call -- sometimes correctly, sometimes incorrectly -- and loud dissent followed since the ref was 40 yards away from the play. I have seen just as many games in which the call was completely missed by an out-of-position referee.

Just as with phones, long-distance calling can be very expensive. The preventive officiating technique is to be fit enough and to hustle each game so that you are close to the play.

Teams are much more likely to dissent from referee decisions when the ref is far away than with the same decision when the ref is 5-10 yards from the ball. After all, presence lends conviction.

Should you blow the whistle for a foul in which you are too far from the infraction, continue running to the point of the restart. You will appear to be closer to the play than the ref who simply blows the whistle and stands there.

During the course of the game, you might encounter 1-2 players on each team who are causing problems. Modify your diagonal so that every time one of these players receives the ball, you are less than 10 yards away. Players rarely commit fouls when the referee is right there.

The Assistant Referee’s Position
During normal play for nearly the entire game, the assistant referee’s position is parallel with the second-to-last defender. The first defender is almost always the goalkeeper.

It is very challenging for new assistant referees to have the discipline to stay with the second-to-last defender instead of watching play develop 40 yards upfield, especially when the ball is in or near the other penalty area. Half the challenge of being an assistant referee is having the discipline to be exactly in the correct position.

For example, should the other team take possession of the ball and launch a long pass to your half, you will know if the player running toward the ball is offside by being parallel to that second-to-last defender.

Should 21 players be in the other half of the field with only the goalkeeper in your half, the assistant referee’s position is not with the second-to-last defender in this instance but at the halfway line.

Another exception to being parallel with the second-to-last defender is when the ball is closer to your goal line than the second-to-last defender is. Your position would then be parallel to the ball.

Other exceptions are during the taking of a corner kick and penalty kick. The assistant referee’s position both times is at the goal line.

On a corner kick, the assistant ref is behind the corner flag.

On a penalty kick, the AR is at the intersection of the 18-yard line and the goal line.

Summarizing, the referee’s perfect position can vary but the assistant referee’s position almost always needs to be exactly in line with the second-to-last defender except with the situations noted above.

How Officials Position Themselves as a Team
Watch professional games and concentrate on the officials, paying special attention to their position and signals.

You will notice that referees like to keep the ball between them and an assistant referee. It’s easier to officiate a match when there are two relatively close views, from different angles, of play around the ball.

You’ll also see that referees often jog when play is in midfield, such as in or by the kickoff circle, and the ball might be 15 yards away. But referees sprint to get closer to the ball when it is in one of the “hot areas” such as in or by the penalty area or by the benches.

The penalty area is hot since it’s by the goal and important goal-scoring opportunities happen there. The area in front of the benches is hot as coaches and substitutes have a close view of play by the touchline and will probably be upset should you miss something against their team.

(Randy Vogt has officiated over 7,000 games during the past three decades, from professional matches in front of thousands to 6-year-olds being cheered on by very enthusiastic parents. In "Preventive Officiating," he shares his wisdom gleaned from thousands of games and hundreds of clinics to help referees not only survive but thrive on the soccer field. You can visit the book’s website at

5 comments about "Refs on top of the action: How to position".
  1. Al Micucci, July 16, 2010 at 1:49 p.m.

    Randy's book is must reading for both new and experienced referees. He talks the talk but even better, he walks the walk. He is fit and is always on top of the play. There is so much good advice and insight in the book that this article just brushes the surface. At the youth level we rarely have asistant referees so it is that much more important for the official to be near the play. It's a tough and sometimes thankless job, but a good ref is worth his weight in gold.

  2. Christopher Holden, July 16, 2010 at 2:18 p.m.

    Well done. It is important to note that good communication between AR's and the center ref is very important as it relates to quality officiating. Yes the AR can get the dreaded offside call wrong when players are as close to the last defender as possible so as to gain maximum advantage on the pitch. It is the toughest call in soccer, particularly on a long ball when you have to be looking at two points of interest at exactly the same time (which is impossible to do). The ref will get it right 80% of the time but when he or she misses it the result could be a win or loss for a particular team. No ref wants to be the determining factor in a match, other than Mr Webb in the final match of the 2010 World Cup. Nice article -- as RF said it would have been nice if FIFA refs had a glance at your article before they officiated WC matches.

  3. Tom Kondas, July 16, 2010 at 4:12 p.m.

    Too bad you didn't take it one step further and discuss what the AR, on the goal line, and the Referee should be looking for at the taking of a penalty kick.

  4. Raveen Rama, July 16, 2010 at 8:34 p.m.

    Great article and a refresher for all youth coaches who a lot of times have to referee youth games. Thank you, Mr Vogt.

  5. DARREL DEMARCO, July 26, 2010 at 10:50 a.m.

    Thank you Randy for this excellent article; obviously built on your 7,000+ games experience. Especially liked your reminder to hustle to and be vigilant in the "other" hot areas- the bench areas. Too often that area of the touchline seems so distant from the "action" at midfield. One couldn't be more proactive in this area.

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