The Referee – Law 5



The authority, duties, and responsibilities of the soccer referee are contained in “Law 5 – The Referee” of the 17 “Laws of the Game” of soccer.  The soccer referee, together with the assistant referees, has been called “the third team on the field.”  The referee is in charge of this officiating team.  Referees are to apply the Laws of the Game equally, fairly, and consistently for both teams during the entire course of a match.

It is the responsibility of the referee to:

  • Enforce the Laws of the Game
  • Make decisions in accordance with both the Laws of the Game and the “Spirit and Intent of the Laws”
  • Control a match in cooperation with the other match officials, including the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) when used
  • Act as timekeeper
  • Keep a record of the match
  • Supervise and/or indicate the start and restart of play
  • Allow play to continue when an offense occurs and the non-offending team will benefit from the advantage
  • Take disciplinary action against players guilty of cautionable (yellow card) and ejection (red card) offenses
  • Address injuries
  • Stop, suspend, or terminate a match for any offenses or because of outside interference
  • Signal actions, as appropriate
  • Apply “Local Rules”
  • Wear and utilize proper equipment

Enforce the Laws of the Game

Each match is controlled by a single referee who has full authority to enforce the Laws of the Game as they apply to the match.  (See: “The Rule Book:  Laws of the Game.”)  The referee has full authority to take disciplinary action from the moment upon arriving at the field of play until leaving after the match ends.  If, before entering the field of play at the start of the match, a player commits an ejection (sending-off) offense, the referee has the authority to show him a red card and to prevent the player from taking part in the match.

Before the start of a match, the referee is to ensure that the ball(s) used meets the requirements of Law 2 (See: “The Ball – Law 2.”) and that all players’ equipment meets the requirements of Law 4 (See:  The Players’ Equipment – Law 4.”)   During a match, the referee applies all of the Laws of the Game to the match itself and restarts the match appropriately after it has been stopped for whatever reason.  When a player commits more than one offense at the same time, the referee is to punish the more serious offense.

Make Decisions in Accordance with Both the Laws of the Game and the “Spirit and Intent of the Laws”

The decisions of the referee regarding facts connected with play are final. The referee may only change a decision upon realizing that it is incorrect or, at his discretion, upon the advice of an assistant referee, provided that he has not restarted play, or, if the referee has signaled the end of the first or second half (including extra time) and has left the field of play, or, abandoned the match.

Decisions by the referee are to be made to the best of the referee`s ability according to the Laws of the Game and the Spirit and Intent of the Laws of the Game.  These decisions are to be based on the opinion of the referee, who has the discretion to take appropriate action within the framework of the Laws of the Game.  The decisions of the referee regarding facts connected with play, including whether or not a goal has been scored, and the result of the match, are final.

(See: “Spirit and Intent of the Laws of Soccer.”)

Control a Match in Cooperation and Coordination with the Other Match Officials

The referee works with the Assistant Referees and the Fourth Official as a coordinated unit.  This includes the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) when video observation and replay is used.  The information regarding the Assistant Referees and the Fourth Official is included in Law 6 of the Laws of the Game, “The Other Match Officials.”  (When VAR is used a terminology distinction is applied between the “on-field” match officials and the “video” match officials.)

The referee is the sole person responsible for enforcing the Laws of the Game during the course of a match. (See: “The Rule Book:  Laws of the Game.”)  As such, the referee is the final decision-making authority on all facts connected with play, and is the only official on the field with the authority to start and stop play and impose disciplinary action against players during a match.

The referee is helped by two assistant referees (previously called “linesmen”), who are empowered to advise the referee in certain situations, such as the ball leaving the field of playoffside, or infringements of the Laws of the Game which may occur out of the view of the referee.  Assistant referees’ decisions are not binding and the referee has authority to overrule an assistant referee. The referee may also be assisted by a fourth official, who supervises the teams’ technical areas and assists the referee with managing substitutions.

The referee has the ability and the authority to:  stop a match due to spectator interference or any problem in spectator areas; take action against team officials who fail to conduct themselves in a responsible manner and may, at his discretion, warn, caution, or eject them from the field of play and its immediate surroundings; ensure that no unauthorized persons enter the field of play; and, to stop, suspend or terminate a match because of outside interference of any kind.

(If a referee is incapacitated, play may continue under the supervision of the assistant referees until the ball goes out of play.  If a referee is so incapacitated as to not be able to continue, an assistant referee or other match official may take the referee’s position.  Per the International Football Association Board (IFAB), this is to be stated in competition rules.)

Act as Timekeeper

The referee keeps the official time of a game in accordance with Law 7 of the Laws of the Game, “The Duration of the Match.”  This includes such things as managing and signaling: the start and end of each half; the halftime interval; and, allowance for playing time lost (“added time” or “additional time”).

Keep a Record of the Match

The referee is to create and maintain a written or electronic record of a game which includes such things as the date, time, location, and teams involved; the goal-scorers and time of scores; who is shown yellow and red cards and why; and, the final result of the match.  The referee is to provide the appropriate authorities with a match report which includes information on any disciplinary actions taken against players, and/or team officials, and any other incidents which occurred before, during, or after the match.

Supervise and/or Indicate the Start and Restart of Play

The referee has full authority to stop play, including suspending or terminating the match at his discretion, for any infringement of the Laws of the Game.  The referee is to indicate the restart of the match after it has been stopped, usually by using a whistle or by giving hand signals.  (Under VAR, the referee can review ejections even if play has restarted.)

Allow Play to Continue when an Offense Occurs and the Non-Offending Team Will Benefit from the Advantage

The referee allows play to continue when the team against which an offense has been committed will benefit from such an advantage and penalizes the original offense if the anticipated advantage does not ensue at the time the decision is made.  This is the “Advantage Rule” or “Advantage Clause” unique to soccer.  A detailed explanation of this rule may be found at “The Advantage Rule – Law 5.”

Take Disciplinary Action Against Players Guilty of Cautionable (Yellow Card) and Ejection (Red Card) Offenses

The referee has the power and the responsibility to show yellow or red cards in accordance with the Laws of the Game.  This includes prior to the start of the match and until after the match has ended, including during the half-time interval, extra time, and kicks from the penalty mark.  The referee is not obligated to take (show) a yellow- or red-card action at the moment the violation occurs, but must do so when the ball next goes out of play.  Yellow- and red-card offenses are contained in Law 12 of the Laws of the Game, “Fouls and Misconduct.”

Where competition (local) rules permit, the referee may temporarily dismiss a player.  This is the so-called “sin bin” option.  (See: “Temporary Dismissals”)

Address Injuries

A soccer referee is placed in the unenviable position of having to determine if players are faking injuries or, if they are truly injured, how severe the injury may be, and then to act upon it accordingly.  (Faking an injury in an attempt to draw a call of a foul is a cautionable offense as unsporting behavior.)  If, in the opinion of the referee, a player is only slightly injured, the referee may allow play to continue until the ball is out of play.  If the player is able to continue, play is then restarted according to how the ball went out of play.  If, in the opinion of the referee, a player is seriously injured, play may be stopped and the player removed from the field of play. An injured player may not be treated on the field, unless a penalty kick has been awarded and the injured player will be the kicker.

An injured player is only to be allowed to return to the field of play after the match has been restarted.  If the ball is in play, re-entry must be from the sideline.  If the ball is out of play, re-entry may be from any boundary line. (Exceptions to the requirement to leave the field of play are only when:  a goalkeeper is injured; a goalkeeper and an outfield player have collided and both need attention; players from the same team have collided and both need attention; a severe injury has occurred; a player is injured as the result of a physical offense for which the opponent is cautioned or sent off; or, if the assessment/treatment is completed quickly.)

If play is stopped for a seriously injured player, the referee may call for medical personnel to enter the field.  These personnel may not enter until the referee has signaled for them to do so.  If the referee has authorized medical personnel and/or stretcher-bearers to enter the field of play, the player must leave on the stretcher or on foot. (A player who does not comply must be cautioned for unsporting behavior.)  If play has not been stopped for another reason, or if an injury suffered by a player is not the result of an offense, play is to be restarted with a dropped ball.

With the advent of HIV/AIDS, the referee must ensure that any player who is bleeding immediately leaves the field of play. The player may only re-enter upon receiving a signal from the referee, who must first be satisfied that the bleeding has stopped, and/or the wound has been sufficiently covered, and that there is no blood on the player, the uniform, or any equipment.

(If the referee has decided to caution or send off a player who is injured and is required to leave the field of play for treatment, the card must be shown before the player leaves. A medical team official who commits an ejection offense may remain with his team only if it has no other medical person available, and may act in his designated capacity if a player needs medical attention.)

Stop, Suspend, or Terminate a Match for Any Offenses or Because of Outside Interference

The referee may stop, suspend, or terminate (abandon) a match for any offenses or because of outside interference.  Examples include: daylight or floodlights are inadequate; lightning is present; an object thrown by a spectator hits a match official, a player or team official; a spectator blows a whistle causing the players to stop; or, an extra ball, other object or animal enters the field of play during the match. If this occurs, the referee must stop play (and restart with a dropped ball) only if it interferes with play, unless the ball is going into the goal and the interference does not prevent a defending player from playing the ball, the goal is awarded if the ball enters the goal (even if contact was made with the ball) unless the ball enters the opponents’ goal.  Otherwise, the referee is to allow play to continue if it does not interfere with play and have it removed at the earliest possible opportunity.

As authorized by a competition organizer or venue, the referee may allow or not allow any persons (including team or stadium officials, security officers, photographers or other media representatives) to be present in the vicinity outside of the field of play.  The referee is to take action against team officials who fail to conduct themselves in a responsible manner and may, at his discretion, expel them from the field of play and its immediate surroundings.  The referee is to ensure that no unauthorized persons enter the field of play.

Signal Actions, As Appropriate

Referees mostly use a whistle to control a match, however, overuse of the whistle is discouraged.  Accordingly, referees also use verbal and non-verbal communication to indicate stoppages, starts or restarts. The International Football Association Board (IFAB) has provided detailed advice on the use of the whistle.  In addition, hand signals have been identified for certain actions.  These hand signals include:  arm straight up (indirect free kick), arm straight forward (direct free kick), single-arm sweep (advantage), double-arm sweep (advantage), point to the penalty mark (penalty kick), hold yellow or red card overhead (caution or ejection), point to the corner (corner kick), and point to the goal area (goal kick).

In addition, pointing to the center mark may be used to indicate that a goal has been scored or time has expired. [With the use of Video Assistant Referee (VAR) technology, referees may put one hand to their ear while extending the other hand out as the “check” signal, or show that video replay is being used by making a rectangle like a television monitor as the “review” signal.  If a “temporary dismissal” or “sin bin” option is available and is used, the referee is to point with both arms to the temporary-dismissal area, which is usually the player’s team technical area.]

Apply “Local Rules”

Referees have the full authority to implement changes to the Laws of the Game as provided by local competition organizers.  These are the so-called “local rules” which, according to the IFAB, may be applied to “youth, veteran, disability and grassroots football, subject to the agreement of the national football association, confederation or FIFA.”  (See: “Local Rules.”)

Wear and Utilize Proper Equipment

Referees must have the following mandatory equipment on their person during a match:  whistle(s); watch(es); red and yellow cards; and, a notebook and writing utensil (or other means of keeping a record of the match).  Other equipment referees may be permitted to use include: a coin to determine who gets the first kick-off; devices for communicating with other match officials, such as headsets with earpieces and microphones; and, “vanishing spray.”

Referees may also have other devices at the highest levels which can receive a signal from assistant referees using electronic flags or which can receive a system alert if “goal-line technology (GLT)” is being used.  Referees may wear Electronic Performance and Tracking System (EPTS) devices or other fitness monitoring equipment.  Referees are prohibited from wearing any jewelry or any non-authorized electronic equipment, including cameras.


Referees and assistant referees are to wear a matching uniform consisting of a jersey, shorts, socks, shoes and, as appropriate, a badge signifying their authorizing organization.  Attempts should be made to wear jerseys with colors that distinguish the officiating team from the players.  The shorts, socks and shoes are usually black. The badge is usually affixed to the left chest pocket.

Obtaining Referees

At the highest levels, referees are licensed and trained by the same national organizations that are members of FIFA.  Otherwise, the local organizations determine the manner of training, ranking, and advancement of officials from youth games through professional games.

Liability of Match Officials

Law 5 acknowledges that the game cannot be conducted properly by referees without limiting their liability in the conduct of their duties.  This includes: any kind of injury suffered by a player, official, or spectator; any damage to property of any kind; and, any other loss suffered by any individual, club, company, association or other body, which is due to, or which may be due to, any decision taken under the terms of the Laws of the Game with respect to the normal procedures required to hold, play and control a match. (The IFAB provides additional examples of what these decisions may be.)

Soccer Coaching Tips:

–       Referees strive for uniformity in their decision making, but they are human and they are all different and they make mistakes.

–       However hard it may be for coaches, players, fans, and supporters, referees are to be treated with respect and appreciation at all times.

–       Do not permit your players to “mob” the referee after a questionable call.

–       Don’t get into rules discussions with referees.

–       Don’t confront referees. There should be a mechanism in place from the organizing committee or the referee’s association to provide evaluations. Use it.  Be objective.  If a mechanism is not available, get one implemented.

–       Good referee associations or the Club should provide pre-printed rating cards or access to on-line forms and will take the input seriously.

–       Players must be taught not to engage with the referee or the assistant referees and to never, ever, touch them.

–       Players must be reminded that the referee has full authority while present, before, during, and after a match.  Players (and coaches) have been ejected and subject to suspensions for actions before and after matches.

–       Thank the referee (and assistants) before and after the match.  Show sincerity no matter what.

–       After the match (post-game), remember to retrieve the game ball(s) and player passes, and offer water to the referee and assistants.

–       Unfortunately, it is just a fact of life that referees can and do influence the outcomes of matches.  Players must be taught to recognize how the referee is calling/not calling, controlling/not controlling, or responding/reacting to play, and to keep from getting into trouble.  See the reference to referees as a part of “Coaching to Soccer-Field Conditions.”

–       Players must be taught to overcome the possible effect of the referee on a match by being “one-goal better.”

–       Coaches must be prepared and ready for a match well in advance of kick-off in order to perform pre-game activities by arriving early and having player passes, local rules cards and game balls (well-marked) at the ready and all players lined up for inspection when called upon.  Greet the referee with a smile and a handshake, introduce yourself, be especially nice, and thank the referee for helping the sport.  If club “linesmen” are to be provided, have them ready.  The kickoff is to be performed at the designated start time.

–       Players must be taught to be in proper uniform, with legal equipment, and how to undergo inspection.  (See: “The Players’ Equipment – Law 4.”)

–       Players must be taught which signals the referee will use and how they are to be interpreted.

–       Players must be taught how to react to. and how to properly accept, calls for fouls, cautions, and ejections.

–       Offer unopened water bottles to the referee and assistants at halftime and after the game.

–       From the referees’ perspective, they will “have never seen it all.”  Some situations arise that no one has anticipated.  It is always hoped that logic and cool heads will prevail.

–       Get agreement on how the referee wants you to call for (get their attention) making substitutions.

–       If you feel that you must speak to the referee about a decision:  After the match, approach alone, slowly, always with a smile, and ask permission to speak – if permission is not granted, walk away without saying anything; keep at least three-feet away; never touch the referee; keep hands down; never raise your voice; never use foul language; do not make any accusations; don’t “question” the referee or ask for rules interpretations; essentially it boils down to, “Please watch for…”; Always end with “Thank you.”  (You may wish to have a non-participating “witness” stand a respectful distance behind you.  They should not be taking video – this could be perceived as a form of intimidation.)

–       Know in advance what procedure is to be used if a referee is late for the start of a match or if the referee does not show up at all.  The Club organization should have a written process in place to deal with this.  If not, one needs to be created.  This process should include whether or not games may be officiated by volunteers and if the outcomes will be considered valid.

–       Players are to be encouraged to become referees (possibly starting as “junior,” “provisional,” “starter,” “club,” “house,” “trainee,” or “apprentice” referees).  See:  Club Referee Program

–       If there is a real, serious, problem that occurs during a match, document-document-document.  Jot down notes immediately after the match, to be written up that evening. Obtain witness names and phone numbers, and ask for any photos or video to be transmitted to you. Any written correspondence must be fact-based, without opinion or rancor.

–       Note that organizations are so desperate for referees that they are extremely reluctant to criticize anyone who is providing this service, so much so that that they will often ignore or fail to support coaches who raise issues (however legitimate).   Organizations tend to be more responsive to coaches who provide “objective” information, like referees being late or out of uniform or who didn’t perform inspection, than “subjective” information, like referees who didn’t know the rules or couldn’t control the game.

–       Remember that coaches and team personnel are also subject to all the rules and sanctions, including cautions, ejections, and suspensions.

–       Be aware that some “Local Rules” call for coaches to be responsible for, and to control, their fans and supporters.  If so, take this seriously.

–       The game needs the referees, so they must be treated with respect.  (See: “The Unwritten Rules of Soccer.”) 

–       If a coach personally knows, or is friends with, the referee or an assistant referee, conduct at the field must be business-like and professional at all times in order to ensure that there is no bias or even the appearance of favoritism.

NOTICE:  This article is based on the soccer Laws of the Game as maintained by The International Football Association Board (IFAB).  As represented in the article, the Laws may be paraphrased, edited for “American English” readability, or quoted in whole or in part.  Supplemental wording presented by® should be provided in brackets.  Every effort has been made to be faithful to the letter, spirit, and intent of the Laws however, since the Laws are subject to modification annually by the IFAB, recent changes may not be currently reflected.  Although national associations are permitted to institute local rules changes to the Laws, particularly for “youth, veterans, disability and grassroots football,” the IFAB is the original source for the official English-language version of the Laws of the Game.  If there is any question, the Laws of the Game may be found at

© Copyright, John C. Harves