Reffing the Problem Player

By Randy Vogt

You and I, and truly all of humanity, have a wonderful potential to make a difference in the world. All we need to do at first is to get started. Arguably the most significant thing that I ever did was start refereeing when I was 16 years old and I write this because people, often many years later, call out my name on the street or soccer field and say that I refereed their games, which they recall quite fondly, when they were playing soccer.

Each of us can make a difference but it’s up to us whether we are a positive or negative influence. A commissioner of one amateur league told me that the league was going relatively well except for “a couple of men who were trying to ruin it for everyone.” No matter the gender or age, the problem player needs to be controlled by the referee.

So who is the problem player? It will be the player who obviously breaks the rules, whether it’s by too much fouling or dissent. Worse even if it’s an off-the-ball foul when the problem player thinks that none of the officials are looking. It’s for that reason that it is so much easier to officiate with certified assistant referees (who watch for off-the-ball fouls behind the referee’s back) than with club linesmen.

In a junior college game that I was refereeing with a nationally ranked team a few years ago, my pre-game instructions to the AR’s included (as they always should) to “watch for fouls behind my back and get my attention if there are any.” Which occurred at the start of the match.

Just after I whistled a foul against white at midfield and the teams were starting to set up for the direct kick, I was still at midfield as I had to make sure the white team was not approaching the stationary ball. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw some jostling by the 18-yard line and a blue attacker falling down. This is perfect, I thought, as that white defender is the second-to-last defender so the AR should be looking right at him. I looked at the AR and he had no idea what had happened. So I stood by the white defender at the taking of the free kick but could not deal with him as the AR did not see what had occurred.

I maintained control of the game but it was challenging. It would have been easier if the AR had seen if the white defender had committed what was most likely either a yellow-card or sending-off offense while play was stopped. The white defender was sent off in their next match. Chances are he would not have been sent off (or possibly even been on the field that day) if we had properly dealt with him at the start of our game as he had gotten away with something and thought the pattern would continue.

Referees might know who the problem player is as they have officiated that team before. Perhaps you have not officiated the team before but know of colleagues who have and you can ask them how those games went. If it’s college soccer, the team and conference will have a website and often there is much info that could be used.

Should a player have committed significantly more fouls or received significantly more cards than anybody else, there is your problem player who the officials will need to be aware of. I am not telling you to prejudge the player but to be aware of him or her. Just as some teams are alerting their players as to the tendencies of what the referee will call and what he or she will let go.

The easiest way that I deal with the problem player is try and stay near him or her as much as possible as presence leads conviction. As basic as this might be, it sometimes does the trick as the players know where the referee is. As an AR, if the ball is approaching me and I can maintain staying in line with the second-to-last defender by back-pedaling, I do as the players know I am watching. I have seen ARs turn their back to the play by the touchline and sprint downfield and as soon as they did, a foul was committed in play by the touchline as the players thought it would be not seen.

Dealing with the problem player, and really all players, involves whistling the first foul. If it is not called, chances are there will be retaliation and you will be punishing the player or team who was the recipient of the first foul.

Should any players commit a large number of fouls, they are to be cautioned for persistent infringement. The caution is a statement that any further misconduct will result in a player’s removal from the field. Cautioning the player does not in any way reset the foul counter and fouls that would have been whistled if not for an advantage situation are included in the count for persistent infringement.

Now about those former players who see me and approach years later as they recall me refereeing their games. Some of them were problem players who I had identified, had to handle and actually respected me for doing so. One even mentioned that I taught him a great deal on how the game should properly be played and he has gone on to become a very good youth soccer coach.

(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

6 comments about "Reffing the Problem Player ".
  1. James Buckner, February 27, 2015 at 11:15 a.m.

    You saw jostling but could not deal with it because the AR did not see it? Since when?

  2. Ginger Peeler, February 27, 2015 at 11:51 a.m.

    He saw the motion out of the corner of his eye. He saw a player fall down. He did NOT see inititiation of the contact and what, exactly, led up to the falling player. He was counting on his AR to be watching all of that. So, a player fell down. It happens all of the time in the game. How do you call a foul if you don't really know who is responsible? I think it's past time for Randy to be put in charge of our MLS refs. Perhaps, with his guidance, we might get some consistency in the way games are called.

  3. Kent James, February 27, 2015 at 2:07 p.m.

    Problem players are the primary reason we need refs. As Randy said, presence lends conviction, so being around them is the first step. Recognizing the difference between an intentional and unintentional foul is also important (yes, I know they took "intent" out of the rule book because it is impossible to always know the intent of a player, but much of the time most people watching can know intent, and if you don't deal with it, the players will). Players will often play to the standard permitted by the ref; calling fouls early and not being hesitant to show a card when it is warranted can prevent later fouls (and cards) and let everyone get on with playing. Letting a problem player do what they do, well, that creates problems!

  4. Ric Fonseca, February 27, 2015 at 5:47 p.m.

    I am somewhat puzzled: Even if, as Mr. Vogt tells us, he "saw some jostling... out of the corner of his eye (sic" but supposedly assumed his AR did not see it, conventional wisdom tells us that he, Mr. Vogt, should have spoken to the offending player, as it is his job to do, telling him that he'd be keeping an eye out on him for the remainder of the game. As my first ref instructor told us during a training session, Toros Kibritjian, it is best to nip a potential "trouble" player in the bud as early as possible in the game. Using this brilliant bit of instructional advise, I was very successful moist of the time in keeping "trouble players" in line. So as they say, an ounce of prevention.....

  5. R2 Dad, February 28, 2015 at 1:41 a.m.

    Wise words, Randy. Keep the good columns coming. Part of the reason I avoid those older matches is exactly this reason--the higher incidents of trouble-makers, intentional bad behavior. Who needs it? For me, that takes all the fun out of officiating. Sadly, girls can be just as much trouble as the guys. What's the worst? Co-ed evening leagues--there's always that one guy who will go studs up on girl just because she's better than him. *groan*

  6. Billy theLimpet, March 1, 2015 at 9:42 a.m.

    'AR had no idea what happened...' Sounds like the results of effective communication from the thorough pregame. As the referee, why then didn't YOU move to the area and have a word?

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