Are the Best Refs the Ones You Don't Notice?

By Randy Vogt

After a few of the games I have refereed, a spectator approached me and said, “You must have done a good job as I did not notice you.”

Soccer Americans have heard it stated that the best refs are the ones you don’t notice. But is this true?

I believe that it’s true for most but certainly not all youth soccer games. Referees often talk about the “moment of truth” in the match (when you would notice the ref). An important decision needs to be made as game control is hanging in the balance. The truth regarding the moment of truth is that some games have them and some do not.

Looking back at my recent games, these games had a moment of truth:

• Boys U-19 game (penalty kick given for a trip in second-half stoppage time)

• Boys U-15 game (five cautions, particularly since the leading team was trying to delay the game)

• Girls U-15 game (penalty kick given for a trip in the first half)

So you would have noticed me if you watched those games. But a recent boys U-16 game that I refereed between two very sporting teams did not have a moment of truth. Ditto for other recent games that I have officiated in the younger age groups.

Moving from youth soccer to college matches and amateur games, the probability for a critical decision needing to be made increases. Particularly in tough games, the ref needs to be a rhino -- take charge, be unafraid and have a thick skin.

Red card offenses are send-offs, whether they occur in the third minute or the 90th minute. The 10 penal fouls, when committed by the defense inside the penalty area, are penalty kicks whether they occur at the beginning of the game or the end. Referees who lack courage and give cautions for what should be send-offs and move the ball outside the penalty area for fouls that occur just inside it will have a tough time for the rest of the game. Do not be surprised if the players, realizing that no penalty kicks are going to be called that day, turn the penalty area into a war zone.

Although each ref develops a style, he or she needs to whistle fouls corresponding to the level of play. There is some contact that is clearly a foul and other contact that is clearly a fair play. The ref also needs to understand what the players on the field and the particular game will accept in the gray area between fair or foul.

So are the best refs the ones you don’t notice? The answer is it all depends on that game.

(Randy Vogt has officiated over 9,000 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 "Are the Best Refs the Ones You Don't Notice?".
  1. R2 Dad, October 21, 2014 at 11:41 p.m.

    Great advice. Even more crucial than PK decisions are DOGSO calls. They rarely come up; I've never given it. But a referee had better have enough brass to give that card, even at the youth level. re: the referee you don't notice, my favorite memory as an AR is of this old center ref who was doing BU17. I thought for sure he was a 3 step ref (never taking more than 3 steps from the center circle). But every time there was a decision to be made, there he was less than 10 yards from the action. I'm still amazed he covered all that ground, sold all the calls though a difficult match, and was johnny-on-the-spot for the entire game. He's the referee I want to be when I grow up.

  2. Michael Borga, October 22, 2014 at 11:16 a.m.

    Agree with the whole concept, the best games are the ones that don't "need" a referee!

  3. Kent James, October 22, 2014 at 11:43 a.m.

    Games go smoothly when referees call what players expect to be called. This can present a dilemma; I used to think getting all the calls right was the most important aspect of refereeing (if you do that, everything else takes care of itself). Doing a tense, D-II college game many years ago I had a situation that forced me to re-evaluate that philosophy. A ball was coming in to two players who were challenging for it; I was very close to the action, and saw that as the ball was coming in, one player deflected it slightly with his hand, which forced the other player to readjust his challenge, and when he did so, he tripped the player who handled the ball. I blew the whistle, and being very proud of myself for positioning and attention to detail, called the first foul (the handling). That call did not go over well; the only people in the park who knew what happened were me and the two players involved. Everyone else saw me award a direct free kick to the player who had blatantly tripped his opponent right in front of me. That made the rest of the game quite difficult, even though I had been right. In retrospect, the best referees always keep in mind the context, and may let less significant fouls go (or even call them incorrectly), if making the correct call will hurt the overall tenor of the game. Of course, significant infractions (PKs, red cards) have to be called correctly, regardless of the consequences. But it is important to keep in mind the big picture...

  4. James Madison, October 22, 2014 at 6:01 p.m.

    Well said, Randy. Your thoughts apply across the board.

  5. Kelly Ross, October 27, 2014 at 10:29 p.m.

    In this day and age, the visibility of the referee is directly proportionate to the level of play and the difficulty of the game. At the top levels, referees are expected to be seen, especially when it comes to critical decisions. The emphasis on fitness and proximity to play demands that referees be seen more than ever. In the American game, the same holds true (MLS is included as a top level for this response) within the collegiate, scholastic and top flight club levels. Referees wishing to "move up in the ranks" must be seen to get exposure by the referee evaluators and to compete for tougher, higher ranking assignments given by the assignors. I do believe, if the referee calls the obvious fouls and gets a majority of those decisions correct (always a point of view, yes); a referee, although seen may be considered, "not seen." If the players in that instance, walk off the field believing the contest was fair on both sides of the ball, the referee did what was needed. In hotly contested games, marred with lots of athletic play and lots of fouls (i.e. not a lot of skill), the referee MUST be seen AND heard. At the lower recreational levels, a referee can and should be seen to assist the players with the rules/laws of play; where some verbal communication and, sometimes, explanation aids the players, coaches and parents understanding and learning of the game and its rules/laws. The modern game as advanced to the point where referees MUST been seen. This applies not only to soccer, but to all major sports, especially in the U.S. with more emphasis on instant replay and technology to aid the officiating crews to get the calls right and accurate application of the rules. After nearly 30 years of soccer officiating, I'm content with not working "the big game" anymore. My ego has had its share of those nerve testers. Give me the young and inexperienced players where they're still developing, not yet frenzied on results, not yet knowledgeable on the rules/laws of play and not yet fevered on challenging the authority of the officials; where they just want to go out and play. I guarantee you, they won't see or remember you. And that's fine by me.

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