Ref's View: Leniency on 'holding' can create out-of-control games

Of the direct-kick fouls in soccer, arguably the easiest one to call is holding, or to quote directly from the rules, “holds an opponent.” Contrast this with handling the ball, which takes up not just three words but over 300 words in the rulebook.

Holding is the foul where the continuation principle can be applied, meaning that if the hold starts by a defender outside the penalty area but continues as the attacker crosses the 18-yard line, a penalty kick should be whistled. If the defender stops the hold outside the penalty area and the attacker still has the ball, advantage can be played.

When holding is whistled for a penalty kick and it’s denying an obvious goalscoring opportunity (DOGSO), the defender should be sent off for this reason. A red card for DOGSO also applies to PK fouls from pulling, pushing or when there is no possibility for the defender to play the ball.

Holding almost always involves holding a part of the opponent’s upper torso but on rarer occasions, the lower torso is grabbed such as a player holding an opponent’s shorts plus I have seen a few players on the ground reach out and grab an opponent’s leg.

If the shirt or shorts are grabbed, this can be easy to spot as they often have become larger because of the hold.

I wanted to focus on holding in this article because not whistling holding fouls is a very easy way to lose control of the game. Players tend to react emphatically when held. An unwhistled holding foul can result in retaliation of an elbow going into the chest or worse, the head, of the player who initiated the contact.

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A decade ago, I was the assistant referee for the same ref in two college games. I clearly remember his pre-game instructions and I believed that he was incorrect yet went along with him for those two games as he was the ref and I was the AR.

The ref stated, “If a player grabs an opponent’s shirt, we are not going to call it unless that player pulls on the shirt.” And the ref then gave a demonstration what he meant by grabbing his own shirt.

Players are smart, particularly those in college, and they will figure out quickly enough when a ref allows some levels of holding and the players will do it. After all, what you allow, you eventually encourage.

This ref figured that out and he changed his pregame instructions with no mention of any holding being allowed.

(Randy Vogt has officiated more than 11,000 games in six different decades.)

7 comments about "Ref's View: Leniency on 'holding' can create out-of-control games".
  1. Ian Plenderleith, February 19, 2021 at 11:36 a.m.

    Excellent topic, and very timely. I'm amazed at the amount of holding that referees let go nowadays, especially in the professional game. Now, I understand that you wait before whistling to see if the player being held can win or play the ball regardless of the offence, but there seems to have been a change of culture. Although there has been no change to the wording of the law, defenders seem to have their hands everywhere. And the more refs let it go, the more it occurs.

    There was a penalty given for holding in a Bundesliga game recently, that allowed Stuttgart to equalise against Moenchengladbach deep into injury time. The center ref didn't want to give it, but the VAR forced his hand - looking at the replays, there was no denying that the forward was held, and then thrown to the floor. Referring to the incident, the editor-in-chief of the revered bi-weekly kicker magazine made an appeal for a more liberal interpretation of the laws to stop too many interruptions, as though whistling too many fouls for holding was somehow on the refs, rather than the offenders. I wrote in (and they were kind enough to print it) pointing out that we could go two ways - make holding an opponent lawful and thus turn soccer into rugby. Or, defenders could simply try and win the ball without wrapping their arms around opponents. Which, as professionals, must surely be within their capabilities.   

    Same goes for shirt-pulling. It's against the game's laws - if I see it, I call it when there's no advantage. Unlike with handball, there's no interpretation necessary. If both holding and shirt-pullling are being accepted at the professional level as 'part of the game', then that's just another reason to lament what a sorry state the game is in.

  2. Kent James replied, March 9, 2021 at 1:41 p.m.

    I couldn't agree more.  Holding (especially of the shirt) is planned cheating.  No one grabs a shirt by mistake. And when called for it, a player really doesn't have a leg to stand on. "Come on ref, I was only cheating a little..."  If this were consistently called, players would stop.  I played defense for over 30 years and never pulled anyone's shirt. 

  3. R2 Dad, February 19, 2021 at 1:34 p.m.

    I have no problem with calling the shirt-pulling in open play. It's the direct free kick in the attacking 3rd and corner kicks where everyone is pulling/pushing around the 6 to crowd out the keeper, where I have trouble seeing it all, prioritizing and then calling it correctly. On a consistent basis. 9 out of 10 correct still leaves one call to regret. It's the regret that eats at me that has pushed me to younger matches. I see (and envy) the match officials who appear to manage this effortlessly. I know, excellent positioning and experience puts them in a posistion to make the right calls--Rafael N. comes to mind.

  4. Alan Goldstein, February 19, 2021 at 3:15 p.m.

    This strikes me as similar to the old 6 step keeper rule and the way it was called for youth many years ago. The intent of the rule was to stop keepers from running all over the penalty area and delaying the game. Knowing the intent of the rule, international refs didn't count steps as long as the keeper was making a valid attempt to play the ball. But not in the USA where the letter of the law rules ( pun intended). Refs called the rule on kids for taking 6 and a half steps. Trying to explain the discrepancy between Soccer Made in Germany and the interpretation we saw every day was very difficult. So, now, the author wants tight calls for holding while we watch the rest of the world wrestle like they are in a ring. When Americans get off our high horse and stop trying to tell the rest of the world how they should  call the game, perhaps we will learn how we should play it. 

  5. Ian Plenderleith replied, February 21, 2021 at 2:58 a.m.

    If I wanted to watch wrestling, I'd switch to WWE. Soccer's laws weren't written by 'Mean' Gene Okerlund.

  6. Bob Ashpole replied, February 21, 2021 at 3:46 a.m.

    Alan, youth watch those matches and come away thinking it is legal. Then they hold and pull shirts instead of learning how to play fairly. Is it any wonder people lament the lack of man marking skills today?

  7. Ed M, February 22, 2021 at 1:31 p.m.

    The topic is a good one but the text fails to make any connection with what is holding and why a referee would lose control of a match by being too lenient.

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