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The 4 referee terms you need to know before you yell, “Are you blind?!”

“That’s a technical!” she screamed from her lawn chair on the sideline. She turned to the other parents sitting next to her. “I can’t believe he didn’t call that! It was totally a technical!”

I couldn’t help but think of how ridiculous she sounded. As a referee who has officiated many recreational and competitive games, I had heard parents yell a lot of things (some of which we cannot print here), but this one was especially absurd. Why? Because a technical is a foul in basketball, and we were watching a soccer game.

I haven’t watched a live soccer game since I quit refereeing. Every time I went to a game, I left feeling angry. Either the crowd had maltreated the referee for a call that I knew was correct, or the referee would botch his job so badly that I wanted to run on the field and take over myself.

I couldn’t win.

While I can’t help make referees better, I can share my knowledge of the game so that, while you might still yell at the referee, you will at least know what you are talking about. I will be referencing the International Football Association Board’s Laws of the Game, which is the authoritative manuscript for all FIFA and United States Soccer Federation games and can be found online.

1. Direct Free Kick (DFK) versus Indirect Free Kick (IFK)

This one is easy. DFKs are always for contact fouls, like charging, punching, head butting, tackling, tripping, biting or spiting. IFKs are for pretty much everything else. You can tell when the kick is an IFK because the referee will hold their arm up in the air until the ball is touched by a second player. If the ball goes into the goal when the referee’s arm is still up, no goal. There is one more foul that results in a DFK, but it’s so often misapplied, it will get its own section:

2. It’s “handling,” not “hand ball”

Even the most seasoned referees get this one wrong. Law 12: Fouls and Misconducts specifically states: “Handling the ball involves a deliberate act of a player making contact with the ball with the hand or arm.” Basically, the ball can touch the hand, but the hand can’t touch the ball. So next time the whole crowed starts screaming at the ref for a no-call, be thinking to yourself, “Did the hand move to the ball or the ball to the hand? Did the player have time to react or was the ball unexpected?”

3. Drop ball

This doesn’t happen often so a lot of people get it wrong. When play is stopped for some reason and no team has committed a foul, like if a cat runs onto the field and interrupts play or someone lands on their head after failing at a bicycle kick, it is re-started with a drop ball. The biggest misconception is that the referee must have one player from each team at the drop ball. Law eight states: “Any number of players may contest a dropped ball” and that “the referee cannot decide who may contest a dropped ball or its outcome.” This line also invalidates the common but illegal referee practice of rolling the ball to the goalie, since that would be deciding the outcome of the dropped ball. So feel free to yell at the referee if they do that. Go ahead. I give you permission.

4. Offside

Just kidding. There is no way to explain a law so convoluted and misunderstood in the limited space the Editor-in-Chief has given me. Just go look up Law 11 yourself, or leave the referee alone. They are doing the best they can (most of the time). In fact, the assistant referee’s (the one with the flag running up and down the sideline) primary job is to keep track of the offside line and see if a player is in an “offside position” or is guilty of an “offside offense.” Yes, those are two different things. No, I will not explain the difference. I already told you I wouldn’t.

I hope you don’t think I want you to yell at referees. I have been to many games that could have better been officiated by a crew of deaf, blindfolded monkeys, and I yelled the loudest. (I also did it in Spanish, which is slightly more intimidating.) My aim is to have you yell in an educated manner, and not make a fool of yourself when you channel your inner soccer mom.