Soccer's new rule changes -- a ref's view

Several important changes to the "Laws of the Game" come into effect June 1. In this column I'd like to examine them from the youth and amateur league referee's point of view. There are many adjustments to take on board and get used to, and some changes will require a lot of pre-game or on-field explanations during the first few months of the next season. Overall, I believe that the new rules will improve the flow of the game and help younger referees especially to manage difficult games. However, the new handball rule has done little to clear up the current confusion about what constitutes an offense.

Probably beneficial changes:

Referees will now be able to show team officials yellow and red cards for poor sideline behavior. Currently there is a three-stage verbal warning process that many coaches and referees alike do not fully understand. The clear use of cards rids the process of all ambiguity. FIFA still recommends a verbal warning before showing the first yellow for less serious offenses - for example: "minor/low level disagreement (by word or action) with a decision." A yellow card for a second transgression should, in most situations, prompt a coach to calm down and modify their behavior.

This rule change will particularly benefit young and inexperienced referees who are frequently intimidated by seasoned and obstreperous coaches. Also, if the team official can not be identified, then the head coach takes the punishment. This is useful because teams often delegate an assistant coach to harangue the referee while the head coach maintains an air of child-like innocence.

Further reading: How referees need to deal with dissent from coaches by Randy Vogt

Goal kicks, and free kicks taken in the defending team's penalty area, are in play as soon as the ball is played and moves. The current rule, whereby the ball has to leave the penalty area before it's in play, makes no sense, especially as infringements just mean a re-take. This will improve the flow of play and stop teams who are defending a narrow lead from wasting time by deliberately flaunting the law and then forcing a re-take. Attacking players must still be outside the penalty area when the kick is taken.

Substitutes must leave the field of play at the nearest point to the boundary line. This is to stop that aggravating waste of time near the end of a game when a foot-dragging substituted player trots in first gear from the field, pausing to shake hands most sportingly with anyone who might happen to be in their path and to acknowledge the applause of their adoring fans. The new rule is a direct consequence of years of unsporting behavior. If players are really concerned about their security (through having to walk around the field's boundary in front of opposing fans, say), then they can always make a direct sprint for the bench instead.

Drop balls no longer contested. I once stood too close to a ball I dropped to two opposing young players and got the ball straight back smack in the face for my troubles - during a cup final in front of a couple of hundred spectators (try maintaining your dignity with a numb, reddened face, streaming eyes and momentarily dizzy vision). So I thoroughly welcome this change for drop-balls to be given straight to the goalkeeper (if play was stopped in the penalty area) or back to the team that had possession when play was stopped. Although in truth, this has almost become the norm over the past couple of years.

The jury's still out:

No more "deliberate handball," everything is now a "handball offense." For the amateur ref, the advent of the VAR means that on weekends there are even more screams of "Handball!" every single time the ball hits a player's upper body. FIFA's new definition is less than helpful thanks to its ambiguous use of the words "usually" and "unnatural" in defining when a handball offense has been committed - for example (from the new Law 12): "It is usually an offense if a player: touches the ball with their hand/arm when: the hand/arm has made their body unnaturally bigger." What does "usually" cover? Who on earth can define "unnatural"? This change will mean only more delays and debates, and more players, coaches and spectators making usually loud not to mention unnatural appeals.

It is an improvement that goals scored with the hand or arm or right after a hand/arm play -- even unintentionally -- will be disallowed. That this also applies if the hand/arm play "creates a goal-scoring opportunity" will, however, again be tough on amateur refs. How far back in play will that be valid? Easy if you have a VAR, but at the amateur level be ready for players to start moaning about an alleged handball you let go a full minute before a goal was scored.

The goalkeeper must have one foot on or above the line at penalty kicks. The current rule is both feet, but no one takes much notice of that unless there's a really blatant violation (that is, the goalkeeper rushes forward two or three yards before the kick's been taken). This law change supposedly allows goalkeepers some leeway to move in one direction or the other, especially if the penalty-taker is indulging in the fashionable 'stutter kick.' Although keepers will probably continue to move both feet off the line before the kick's taken, as they have been doing for years with impunity.

Drop ball if the ball hits the referee ... and then a promising attack occurs, a goal is scored, or there is a change of possession. I can see the point of this to some extent -- FIFA justifies it by saying that it is "unfair" if one team gains an advantage from the ball accidentally hitting the ref. On the other hand, the referee has always been a part of the field of play, and players have to take that into account when they play the ball. I cannot say I've ever seen a situation where a player's tried to use the referee to make a wall pass and gain an unfair advantage. Nonetheless, this change may take the heat out of the odd controversy.

Attacking players must be at least one yard from a defensive wall. Again, the intention is good -- this disruption became the tactical norm a few years back and is certainly irritating and often inflammatory. It may be difficult to implement if attacking players still insist on trying cause a 'disturbance' close to the wall (and one yard is a tough distance to measure), but hopefully it will just mean they stay away from the wall altogether, and then free-kicks will look like they used to.

All the latest rule changes and their explanations can be found here -- recommended reading for all referees. A summary (without my commentaries) can be found here.

(Ian Plenderleith's blog Referee Tales is a game-by-game chronicle of officiating in Germany's amateur and youth leagues.)

8 comments about "Soccer's new rule changes -- a ref's view".
  1. John Daly, May 28, 2019 at 11:24 a.m.

    I find it interesting that the six second rule for goalkeepers has not been addressed for years. In the same vein as the above article, please consider the following.

    In the waning minutes/seconds of a game a goalkeeper, having gathered the ball, will fall to the ground and lay there for five to six seconds. He/she will then stand up whilst cradling the ball and take another five to six second as he/she surveys the field of play. He/she will then wave his/her players forward and waste another five to six seconds and then release the ball! I watched the Aston Villa v Derby game and counted 20 seconds before the Villa keeper actually released the ball!

    If the rule is there, it should be followed, instead of referees completely ignoring it. When it is called, as in the Canada v US women's game a few yearsa go, everyone goes crazy. 

    So, either enforce it or get rid of it!

  2. Ian Plenderleith replied, May 29, 2019 at 1:33 a.m.

    Completely agree, John. I think the criticism refs face if they enforce this rule is that they're being pernickety, but I would like to see all the blatant attempts to waste time properly punished. Thierry Henry used to hold his fingers up to the ref while keepers were doing this, counting up to 7, but they never took much notice.

  3. Kent James, May 28, 2019 at 11:54 a.m.

    I think most of the changes are in the right direction (recognizing reality, mostly), and I agree with Ian's analysis, especially that the handling changes aren't particularly helpful.  The purpose of the law is to prevent people from using their hands to play the ball.  Players should not be penalized for having arms. I think the proper interpretation is that as long as the player does not attempt to play the ball with the hand (and the evidence of that would be the arm changing direction or moving from a still state), if the ball strikes the arm, even if it gives a favorable bounce, there is no infraction.  While this may be controversial (when the ball bounces up and hits a player's are in the box, e.g.), it is fair and relatively straight forward.  The only caveat is that a player must have his/her arms in a natural postion (so defenders cannot run towards an attacker with their arms spread out to block  potential balls).  The only place this is a difficult call (assuming the ref can see it) is when a player has his/her hands out for balance (when executing a slide tackle, e.g.), but even here, it's doable.  Basically, if the player was going to use their arms in the exact same way regardless of where the ball was, it shouldn't matter if the ball hits their arm.  There has been some question under the existing rule if a players arm is away from there body and is struck; many refs call that (which leads to defenders challenging the player with the ball while clasping their hands behind their back to avoid this, which, while understandable, should not be necessary).  But I feel that the existing rule just needed clarification (I think the appropriate clarification would be something like, if the player does not change the movement of their arm to strike the ball, it is not a foul, even if the arm is away from the body and regardless of where the ball ends up).

  4. Ian Plenderleith replied, May 29, 2019 at 1:39 a.m.

    It's telling that there was never so much debate about this issue until the VAR was introduced. 'Hand to ball - handball. Ball to hand - no call.' That has always seemed to me like a reasonable and simple way to decide, and I'll pretty much continue to call it that way. Fortunately there is no VAR (yet!) in the amateur leagues of Germany, although at the weekend I had a very argumentative coach who righteously pouted at me at the game's end, "We've got it all on video!" Still waiting for the invite to go over to his place and peruse the highlights over a civilized cup of tea.

  5. beautiful game, May 28, 2019 at 1:32 p.m.

    What about the 10-yard rule on free kicks...this rule is never enforced and when the kicker beckons the referee to enforce it, the response is a wave to kick. Either abandon this rule or enforce it!!! 

  6. Ian Plenderleith, May 29, 2019 at 1:41 a.m.

    Referees enforce it all the time if the kicker requests a wall, but often the player (sensibly) wants to exploit the situation and take a quick free-kick before the opposition has had the chance to cover back.

  7. Randy Vogt, May 29, 2019 at 6:31 a.m.

    I was wondering what the restart would be in a dropped ball scenario if neither team was in possession when play was stopped. So I looked this up and the new rule change says, "If play is stopped outside the penalty area, the ball will be dropped for one player of the team that last touched the ball at the point of the last touch." So refs will need to remember who last touched the ball in those scenarios such as in youth soccer where a player goes down immediately and everybody stops playing.

  8. Jim Lindsay, June 5, 2019 at 1 a.m.

    Thanks very much for this!  I coach and ref, so this is really great info.

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