The Ref-AR Relationship: When to overrule

By Randy Vogt

The referee can overrule the assistant referee but the assistant can never overrule the ref. The assistant is to assist the referee and not insist instead.

We have a situation in which the ball has gone over the touchline near the assistant referee, who indicated that it is blue’s throw-in. However, the AR did not see the last bounce off a blue leg so it should be red’s throw-in instead. The referee should blow the whistle and indicate that it’s a red throw by pointing the direction that red is going. The ref should also say something nice to the assistant such as, “Thanks, Bob, but you were screened when the ball last came off blue so it is red’s throw.” The assistant should then point the flag in red’s direction.

A referee should not overrule the AR often, otherwise the officiating crew will not be working as a team and the players will realize that the ref has no confidence in his or her assistant -- so why should the players?

While overruling the assistant may be necessary on one or two occasions during the match when the ball is out of play, it is absolutely dangerous when the ball is in play.

When an assistant’s flag goes up to signal an offside or foul, players tend to stop, even if they have been told to play the referee’s whistle, not the assistant’s flag.

It’s a lesson that I learned the hard way while refereeing a college game two decades ago. A red player headed the ball in the general direction of a teammate in an offside position. The assistant made the mistake of raising his flag immediately and the blue defender momentarily stopped. From my angle, I could see that the red player was probably dribbling the ball rather than passing it so no offside should have been called. My interpretation was in conflict with the assistant’s.

The player recovered the ball without his teammate playing it, dribbled to the goal and scored. A relatively easy game became difficult from that point on as the blue team thought that I allowed an offside goal. Clearly, the assistant and I did not work as a team on this important call.

As soon as the flag was raised, I should have blown the whistle and given the offside as it was not clear whether it was a pass or dribble at that point. I should have gone with the AR’s interpretation rather than telling him to lower the flag.

The bottom line is that the only time that a referee overrules the AR while the ball is in play is if all 22 players on the field know that the AR is clearly wrong.

Let’s take this a step further and mention a boys under-16 game in which I was the AR and the shoe was on the other foot. Both the other assistant and I were well positioned with the second-to-last defender throughout the match to flag for offside. Yet, the referee decided to whistle for offside when we kept our flag down on five different occasions -- two in my half of the field, three in the other AR’s half. The game became an absolute disaster! Three players of the losing team were sent off near the end of the game for using abusive language when they cursed the referee.

Let me also describe two instances during college games from a number of years ago in which MLS refs (who should know better) created problems for the officiating crew by overruling ARs during the course of play, giving the impression that they did not have the confidence in that AR.

The first example is a ball was played at midfield to an attacker who was onside. But she could not get to the ball as the defender pushed her 10 yards from me as soon as the ball was passed. I twirled the flag in my right hand, signaling the defense committed a foul. The ref signaled for me to lower the flag, which I did. The defender who intercepted the pass after the push played the ball upfield and the ball was in the back of the net 10 seconds later. Loud dissent followed from the other team, who had seen my flag. At halftime, we talked about my decision and the other assistant referee, with a more panoramic view of the field, had seen the foul too and questioned the ref why he had overruled me. The ref’s answer was that he did not think a foul had occurred. He apologized.

The second example involved a pass inside the penalty area. At the time the ball was played by an attacker, the ref standing nearby thought all attackers were in onside positions. The ball deflected off a player to an attacker near the goal. The other AR’s flag went up for offside. The ref told him to lower the flag as the defense questioned why the ref overruled the AR. Thankfully, the shot was saved by the keeper. The ref and AR discussed it later and the ref thought that the ball deflected off the defender and since he believed all attackers were onside at the time the ball was originally played by an attacker, offside should not be given. Yet an attacker was standing next to that defender so it certainly could have been played by an attacker to a teammate in an offside position near goal.

In both games, goals were later scored in tight offside situations with the overruled AR and loud dissent followed. Not simply because the disallowed goal was incorrect -- replay would prove it was right. But because the ref had shown no confidence overruling that AR in close decisions before the goal.

(Randy Vogt has officiated over 8,000 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 web site at

3 comments about "The Ref-AR Relationship: When to overrule".
  1. Scott Nelson, January 31, 2012 at 1:17 p.m.

    Why should the defending team have been rewarded for stopping play just because they saw the flag? The attacking team was rewarded because they correctly played on until the whistle. The AR made the first mistake, but no matter who they chose to blame, the defending players (and by extension the coach) have to take sole responsibility for their own poor play in the situation above. I don't agree that we should be encouraging referees to disallow what they believe are perfectly good goals in the hopes of mitigating conflict.

  2. Dustin Edwards, February 3, 2012 at 5:26 p.m.

  3. Christopher Vreeland, February 11, 2012 at 11:48 a.m.

    The signalling of offside and the mechanics of handling a disagreement between the center and the assistant referees should be a very basic component of the center ref's pregame with his or her assistants. I do not think it wise to advise referees to defer to what the referee considers to be an incorrect signal from the AR simply to avoid an argument from the team who "likes" the incorrect signal.

    Even the youngest AYSO player understands the concept of "play until you hear the whistle" and the life lesson that ignorance of the law is no excuse. Players will always have the inclination to "assist" the referees but they do so at their own risk - just ask the Dutch national team about about Brazil's goal where Romario (Bebeto?) Walks deliberately toward the halfway line to communicate his non-involvement to the AR while Bebeto (Romario?) Rounds the Dutch defenders to score in the '94 (?) WC. Even if the AR had raised his flag (he didn't), the center ref would still have been correct in allowing the goal, regardless of what the Dutch thought. In addition to being a physical game, soccer is also a cerebral game and the game is not always won by the biggest or fastest. Sometimes intelligence and knowing the rules carries the day.

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