Dissent management tips for referees

Dissent as a noun is defined by Cambridge Dictionary as “strong difference of opiniondisagreement especially about official decisions” and as a verb as “to disagree with other people about something”. The Laws of the Game (LOTG) refers to dissent in Law 12: “A player is cautioned if guilty of….….dissent by word or action…”

Dissent is an important game management issue that has to be dealt in one way or the other. No dissent whether by word or action should be ignored. That said, one should emphasize that the ego of the referee should not be put ahead of the game and we should not forget that no one goes to a game to watch the referee. 

I refereed for 11 years (1978-1989). At the beginning of my refereeing, I cautioned a lot of players for dissent. In the last years, I might have cautioned 2-3 players per year for dissent and was still able to manage the dissent and the game. I cannot say that I grew a thick skin or became more lenient towards dissent over the yers. But maybe I learned not to interpret dissent in a game to be an attack on my ego or developed other tools other than the cards in a game to combat dissent.  

Although the LOTG tells you to caution players and the bench for dissent, if you follow the letter of the LOTG in competitive games you will end up with a lot of cards and still have player management issues. 

I did not plan on writing an article on dissent. Last week I assessed a referee in a Premier Men’s State Final game. The referee was a very talented referee and had a very good body language and approach to the game. One of the teams challenged nearly every call made by the referee. Later on, I learned that this team was infamous for dissenting referees, both on the field and via the bench. The referee tried to call a tight game to keep the competitive game under control. He ignored most of the dissent and at times talked to the dissenting players for a good number of seconds. Nothing worked in managing dissent with that team until the other team scored the third goal and made the score 3-0 at the 80th minute of the game. After then, the dissent ended abruptly. This proved the point that their dissent was not genuine but was tactically used to put pressure on the referee. Once the score was 3-0 and only 10 minutes left, they realized that dissenting will have no value.

This game reminded me of the game between Colombia and England in the last World Cup and how the Colombians dissented nearly every call that our own Mark Geiger made, sometimes surrounding him in doing so. I wouldn’t like to have been in Geiger’s shoes. 

It also reminded me of another World Cup qualifier game years ago. I know from first hand that the players of one team were instructed to dissent every call of the referee without touching him and they did.  The objective was to get the “gray” calls go their way. The referee had a very hard time in controlling the game; luckily, the team that tried the tactical dissent approach at the end of the day did not qualify for the World Cup.

Tactical dissent is used to manipulate the decisions of the referee and is a very serious problem for game management.

With all these things in my mind, I talked to the referee after the game and gave him some advice. I just wanted to share my ideas on dissent management with the readers of Soccer America. Let us not forget those are my ideas for dissent management and hence are not universal.

The basic cure to dissent is to make correct and fair calls. Unfortunately, this might not always work with tactical dissent.

There are two kinds of dissent: Genuine dissent and tactical dissent. It is very humane and understandable that a human being will show some reaction to a decision that he/she considers unjust and/or incorrect. Since referees are humans and humans can make judgmental errors while making decisions (call or no call), the same human -- the referee -- can approach the genuinely dissenting player with empathy, understanding and compassion but still showing somehow that dissent is not acceptable. 

This is only true for dissent by word, though. Any dissent by action must be dealt with severely. Kicking the ball away to protest a decision or applauding sarcastically after a decision should always be managed by a caution. It is a MUST. The difference between a dissent by word and action is that the first one is something that you and the player – or may be another player or two – are aware of and hence can be dealt with a word or two versus dissent by action is observed by all the players, benches and spectators. It will ruin the credibility of the referee immensely. Another form of dissent -- even though it might be genuine that has to be dealt with -- is mass dissension. It happens when the referee is surrounded by a group of dissenting players. The first player that touches the referee must be cautioned; otherwise things will get out of hand. The first time mass dissension happens and if the referee does not think it is part of tactical dissent then the referee can talk and warn the players. If that happens again, the closest player or the one who came in first must be cautioned. 

The tactical dissent that I described earlier is a different animal and I must admit it is difficult to deal with. It might take a while before the referee realizes that one of the teams is tactically dissenting. I do not even want to think about the case when both teams are tactically dissenting; that is a nightmare. Once the referee realizes that tactical dissent is being employed, the first thing she/he should do is to identify the main culprits on the field and on the bench. Culprits are usually a few players and/or the coach on the team who are the instigators of tactical dissent. The referee should tell these sternly that he/she understands what they are trying to do. In the case of the coach, he should be warned right away. If they keep on tactically dissenting, there is no point in talking to them or warning them. The referee must switch to another tool. 

One tool is to caution one of the culprits when he/she dissents on a black/white correct decision. The player knows that the decision is correct but is dissenting so that the future calls will go in their favor. Usually, after a few such cards to the culprits – players and/or coaches – they will not push too much with tactical dissent.

If this does not work, just the call the game the way they do not want it to be called ignoring their dissents. If the team wants the referee to call every foul for them, do not call the trifling or easy fouls, call the major ones only. If on the contrary they want the referee not to call petite fouls they commit, then call every little foul. This way the referee tells them that he/she understands what they are trying to achieve with tactical dissention and will not please them by calling the game they wanted to be called. I know that this a bit controversial approach, but so is tactical dissent.

It is possible that whatever the referee does the tactical dissent will not end. The only other solution is for the team to realize after a couple of games that this particular referee cannot be manipulated, then they will quit the tactical dissent. Let us not forget referees are humans they might be affected by tactical dissent and start making calls in favor of that team. Bottom line is to make correct and fair calls regardless of the pressure that might be exerted on the referee and that is not easy.

I wish all my referee friends games without tactical dissent. Let us not forget dissent and especially tactical dissent poisons our beautiful game.

Ahmet Guvener ( is the former Secretary General and the Chief Soccer Officer 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 Georgetown, TX.

3 comments about "Dissent management tips for referees".
  1. Andre Bell, February 7, 2020 at 11:23 a.m.

    Dessent, encroachment, and blatant holding is ruining the beautiful game. FIFA needs to take action!

  2. Gordon Holt replied, February 7, 2020 at 5:43 p.m.

    Here's my take: Send the coach off. Impose fines. Knock it off. Or else!  I think we all know the level of dissent discussed here can be blamed directly on the coach/owner/manager. Ya gotta be blind not to see it.
    That means an organization's top executives -- amateur or professional -- those who don't or won't police their own (and likely encourage it) should be given holy hell.
    In order to pull off such a range of options, of course, means that a league/association can't be staffed with the timid. In short, it is long past the time to start kicking some organizational butt -- and on both sides of the game. 

  3. R2 Dad, February 7, 2020 at 1:02 p.m.

    Uggh--those types of matches stick in the craw like a bad bit of beef repeating on you for hours. 
    It has happened a couple of times, but in anticipation of mass dissent a second time in a match, I've pulled out a yellow card and just held it in my hands. This may not be state-approved technique, but it seems to convey the immediacy of the problem to approaching players. BTW, having discussed this issue with many referees for hours at league meetings and under the ref tent at tournaments, what Ahmet calls Tactical Dissent doesn't work, and only galvanizes the will of the officials to avoid preferential treatment or make-up calls for some perceived slight/non-call/contentious call. I HAVE seen it work on solo officials in mens league play, but that officiating is simply managing the kickball carnage and the whole idea is to finish the match without too much blood being spilled.

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