How to remove the burden from the referees -- three suggestions to Laws of the Game

Since the argument of “what professional soccer expects” started some years ago the burden on the referee has increased. The transition in the professional game form “refereeing by the book” to the “management of the game” has been neither seamless nor easy. When Massimo Busacca – then the Head of Refereeing for FIFA - introduced the 2014 World Cup referees with a new set of concepts if not all but most of the referees were confused.

The smarter ones understood what is expected of them faster than the others. One thing is clear what is expected of the referees then and still now is just for the professional game. The expectations of the professional game and the amateur/youth one is diversely different and it should be. The first one: the game is played for money/business. The other is played for fun. The losses caused by refereeing decisions in a professional game are not even comparable to similar losses in an amateur game although at times watching some games might give you another impression.

This is why I had suggested that there should be two sets of the Laws of the Game (LOTG): one for the professional game and one for the rest. The rest of the article will be based on the professional game and the LOTG that are governing it. It is clear that the LOTG must be modified to accommodate “what football expects” in the professional game. There are very positive signs from the International Football Association Board (IFAB) to that effect. 

One of the critical match incidents (KMI) that the referees’ performance is evaluated is sending off (red card) decisions. The red card not only penalizes the player but actually penalizes the team as well as the game itself. In the last couple of weeks, I watched a number of games in which an early red card shown -- usually in the first half -- shifted the whole balance of the game towards the team playing full sided. According to The Numbers Game (Anderson and Sally), “In the Bundesliga, over the five seasons between 2005 to 2010, a single red card cost a team half of its expected points, slicing 1.42 points per game with no red cards to 0.75 with one card. Red cards are very costly – playing 10 against eleven is a recipe for defeat.” Actually the research does not include the first half or early red cards and its effect on the points expected. One thing is clear a red card has a very strong negative impact on the short-sided team. 

Of all the professional sports played in North America, the ejected/disqualified player can be substituted. Only in ice hockey the players sit in the sin bin for up to five minutes when power play resumes. The player in the sin bin joins the game after the penalty is over. The only game that I know of other than soccer where the sent-off player is not substituted is rugby.

The game should be played 11 vs. 11 at least at the professional level. This is what football expects. This is an “off the record” advice made to the referees. The professional game does not want the referees to decide the outcome of the game and red cards -- whether correct or not -- do affect the outcome. That is why VAR and GLT have been introduced. If you look at the cases that a VAR can interfere, they are all KMIs except for a second caution. The referees in the professional game try to avoid the red card as much as possible since they know its effect on the game.

That is why Busacca advised the World Cup 2014 referees to delay the first yellow card as much as possible. This is why Howard Webb, one of the best referees of the last two decades and now the General Manager of PRO, said in a TV interview that he will show a yellow card for a challenge in the second half whereas he will be reluctant to show a yellow card for the same challenge early in the game. That is why FIFA referee instructor Esse Baharmast while instructing national referees in the USA said “Yellow card, yellow card, yellow card first” when talking about Denying an Obvious Goal Scoring Chance  (DOGSO) in the penalty area after the LOTG have been changed. Both Busacca and Webb know that an inevitable second yellow card will result in a red card so they prefer to have it later in the game where the impact will be less severe. They all know how a red card changes the outcome of the game and they want to avoid it as much as possible.  Some “smart” referees will show an “easy” red card to make 10 versus 11 game into a 10 versus 10 game. They also know “what football expects” in the professional game. Let us not forget that there are mandatory cards in the game as well as some black and white red-card decisions that cannot be ignored. So some red cards can be inevitable regardless of the timing.

But as long as the LOTG is not modified to accommodate “what football expects”, these red card decisions will be a burden on the referees’ shoulders. Either they will be criticized for a decision which is not a black and white red card or for being inconsistent like showing a yellow card in the second half for which they did not show a card for a similar offense in the first half. Once the players realize that the referees are reluctant to show yellow or red cards (for serious foul play especially) early in the game, they might test the referees’ game control or exploit the situation by intimidating the opponents. 

I have three suggestions to the LOTG -- the LOTG for the Professional game -- that will remove some of the burden from the referee.

  1. A sent off player should be allowed to be substituted as long as the team has not used its maximum number of substitutions. So even if a team has to play shorthanded it will be towards the end of the game. The player sent off should definitely be suspended for at least for one week by the appropriate authorities. There might be a few exceptions to this rule when a sent off player cannot be substituted like physically making contact with officials. When more than 4 players are sent off from one team even though the team might have players to substitute the game should be terminated. Then it is not a personal offence any more but rather a team offence. This will allow the referees to apply the LOTG consistently and the effect of the red card will be limited to the player who was sent off and not to the whole team. The effect will be limited to missing that specific player for that game. We will most probably do not have to witness another Ba ttle at Stamford Bridge.
  2. DOGSO as the term suggests is denying an obvious goal scoring chance; just sending off the player who committed the foul and who could be substituted, is not a just or fair decision. For DOGSO offenses outside the penalty area, a penalty kick should be awarded to compensate for denying an obvious goal-scoring chance. Obvious goal-scoring chance means the player has a good chance of scoring but not 100 per cent. So is the penalty kick; only 75-80 percent of the penalty kicks are converted into goals. When a player denies a goal like handling the ball on the goal line, then awarding a penalty kick is not a just decision either. (World Cup 2010: Ghana versus Uruguay: Luis Suarez saved a goal on the goal line with his hand in the last few minutes of the game. The ensuing penalty kick was missed. Eventually Uruguay advanced. Was the awarding of a penalty kick a fair and just penalty for the offense?) In such situations a goal should also be awarded even though the ball did not cross the goal line under the cross bar and between the goal posts.
  3. A timekeeper should be incorporated into the game. The game should be played 30 minutes each way with the timekeeper stopping the clock on all stoppages. Today in the world the games are played from a low of 47 minutes to a maximum 65 minutes of net time. So in some games the fans watch 18 less minutes than in some another game. The referees are advised to estimate the added time.  Usually the estimated time is not an exact measure of the time lost for injuries, substitutions and others that the LOTG allows. The referees are criticized for the time added and for the time not added. Also the referees are advised not to stop the game when 90 minutes -- including additional time added -- has elapsed when a team is attacking. For example, if a corner kick is awarded at the end of 90 minutes they are advised to wait for the outcome of the corner kick and then end the game. The other day in a game when 90 minutes has elapsed one team which was losing the game (2-1) was awarded a corner kick, the referee following advice allowed the corner kick to be taken. The corner kick was defended immediately for another corner kick. He allowed that also, but that corner kick was also immediately headed for another corner kick. This time the referee said “enough is enough” and ended the game. The losing team’s coach went berserk and caused lots of problems. The referees have a lot of things to enforce in a game -- let timekeeping be not one of them.

The modern professional game is extremely challenging for the referees as they are. IFAB can help them by modifying the LOTG to accommodate “what football expects” from the professional game and narrowing the gap between the application and the letter of the LOTG.  This will remove some of the burden off the shoulders of the referee crew, the lonely third team on the field. 

Ahmet Guvener ( is the former Secretary General and the Technical Director of Turkish FA. He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as Panel member for the FIFA Panel of Referee Instructors and UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a soccer consultant in Austin, TX.


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8 comments about "How to remove the burden from the referees -- three suggestions to Laws of the Game".
  1. Ed M, March 2, 2018 at 11:19 a.m.

    We have similar Laws in Futsal. What you suggest is already part of a soccer type game. Some Futsal things have already been placed in the current Laws. Easy to adopt.

  2. Glenn Auve, March 2, 2018 at 3:49 p.m.

    Who decided "what football expects"? I'd suggest that if players don't want to be sent off, then they shouldn't commit sending-off offenses. There should be a disincentive for players committing those fouls with excessive force or violence. If you know you can get away with murder and not really hurt your team you'll have even more violence than there is in the game now.

    IMHO the biggest problem with the pro game is that referees refuse to enforce the LotG. All of this "game management" crap is what has ruined the pro game.

  3. Ahmet Guvener replied, March 2, 2018 at 5:34 p.m.

    Dear Glenn,

    You are correct, but it is not the referees who are not enforcing the LOTG instead the establishment is asking them in the name of "what football expects" not to enforce them at times. So my suggestion is to bring the pratice in line with the LOTG. My suggestion is only and only for the professional game.

  4. Bob Ashpole replied, March 4, 2018 at 11:25 a.m.

    Ahmet, I don't see "what football expects" ever going away. Cave in on these things and something else will become a target, like double standards on foul recognition for players that draw the crowds. Clubs are always going to pressure referees to act in a manner that the clubs think will be to their financial advantage.

  5. beautiful game replied, March 4, 2018 at 2 p.m.

    Glen A; you are absolutely right about the red to holding up the yellow card as long as possible is a FIFA inspired cancer to the game. That concept alone is contradictive to the LOTG. Forcing the referee on the pitch not to issue an early game has been the concensus of FIFA for years and applauded by Webb et al. It's the players that are responsible for the yellow or red card, and FIFA's dereliction to fair play is criminal . Give all four officials on the pitch a right to inform the man in the middle during the game and the players will be forced to play within the LOTG. I prefer goal line officials, to make it six voices to inform the man in the middle instead of VAR which is another game delaying cancer to the game, and another tool for subjuctive decision-making.

  6. Alvaro Bettucchi, March 4, 2018 at 1:28 p.m.

    In yesterdays Italian Serie "A", Bologna vs Spal, a red card was shown early in the first half.  It totally runed the game for Bologna and the fans. As a fan, a red card in the first half, send the player off and allow a substitute.  Do not punish the whole team and it's fans that come to see the beautiful game as it should be played, with 11 vs 11.  Any red card in the second half, you can disallow a substitute.

  7. Bob Ashpole replied, March 4, 2018 at 2:55 p.m.

    My view is very simple. If you don't want to see red, play fair. 

    I find it very difficult to believe anyone would argue that violent play doesn't deserve an ejection. 

    I also find it very difficult to believe in the sincerity of anyone in the context of professional football who says don't punish the team for what one player did. As if the team was not working together.

    In my view "professional fouls" and all the pushing and shoving before restarts ruin the game.

  8. Bob Ashpole replied, March 4, 2018 at 2:57 p.m.

    I might add that allowing substitutes for violent play would enable some very cynical tactics.

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