Competition Rules, Law 18, and “Gotcha” Refereeing
We have an obligation to know and apply the Laws of the Game (LOTG). It is helpful to know that the historical role of the referee was to be the independent judge to whom the teams would “refer” any disagreement. The expectation in the middle of the nineteenth century was that gentlemen (organized sports being the province of the privileged) should be able to play a game with minimal involvement of the judge.
Over time, this role began to be referred to (no pun intended) as the “referee” (well, maybe a little intended). And over time, unfortunately, the need for the referee became greater. That the referee is still the person that gets involved (or interferes, as a coach might put it) only as necessary is embedded in the Laws of the Game in concepts such as “trifling offenses”, “advantage”, and “if in the opinion of the referee”. This last term, commonly designated IITOOTR, is to give the referee the leeway to NOT get involved when it is appropriate, or get MORE involved when it is necessary.
Nowhere in the LOTG is a referee directed to be a “Gotcha” referee, calling every trifling offense. In fact, Both FIFA directives and USSF Advice to Referees explicitly mention the complementary concepts of interfering with game flow as little as possible and of “Fingerspitzengefühl” (literally: “sensing with one’s fingertips”). This describes the need for a referee to inform his or her “opinion” by having a feel for that game at that time.
We also have the obligation to know and apply the Rules of Competition (ROC) for any assignment we choose to accept (whether we agree with them or not, and whether in conflict with the LOTG or not). Some ROC may request/require the referee to become more involved than the LOTG might otherwise require. This is not uncommon in recreational or developmental programs. Instructional refereeing is not described anywhere in the LOTG, but is a very necessary part of helping our youngest players learn the game (and if we are lucky, our newest coaches as well).
Recently, a question on AskTheRef.com illustrates the challenges facing referees regarding the LOTG, the ROC, and “Gotcha”refereeing. What do you do when you notice in the second half of your game that two players on the same team have the same jersey numbers? The referee in the question did the following:
Issued a Caution to one of the players who happened to be sitting on a Caution, and then Sent Off the player for the second Caution. The referee insisted that the LOTG “require” unique uniform numbers. This was not a high school (NFHS) competition.
Let’s put aside for the moment the fact that the referee crew (U19 game, assume there was a crew) did not catch this at check-in, and worse, took three quarters of the game to realize that there was a number conflict.
Was the referee correct? NO! Nowhere in the LOTG are uniform numbers required. Where unique uniform numbers are required it is due to a ROC. Not all competitions require numbers, and not all competitions require they be unique. (This emphasizes the responsibility we have to know our competition rules.)
Assume in this situation that the competition requires unique jersey numbers. Was the referee then correct? NO! A duplicate jersey number falls under the category of improper equipment. The remedy for improper equipment is to have the player leave the field and not return until the problem is rectified. When substitutions are not limited, the player can be replaced subject to the ROC.
Assume in this situation that the competition requires that a duplicate jersey number be deemed Unsporting Behavior and a Caution is mandatory. Was the referee then correct? No (notice my “No” is not capitalized or followed by an exclamation point, as this is now Law 18 territory). You have two players with duplicate numbers on the pitch (they better be on the pitch when you deal with this or you are wrong on so many levels). Why on earth would you pick the player with one Caution already (assuming the other player was clean)?
This is the same logic we are expected to apply when cautioning one of the five players in a wall that encroach. We NEVER caution one who already has a Caution in the game. For those of you who argue that you would be proper within the LOTG to decide who to Caution and therefore create a player-down situation, you forgot to read Law 18! You forgot that the referee’s job is not to get involved unless it is either required or necessary!
What should you do if at check-in or at any time you come across two players with duplicate numbers? If the competition says each player must have a unique number, do you tell a nine year-old girl she doesn’t get to play today? You could, but I would consider that bad judgment. You have some options that are within your authority and indicate your understanding of the role of the referee. One is to consider the problem trifling and assume that if either nine year-old Ann or nine year-old Zelda need to be Sent Off, you will be able to sort it out.
When that might not be satisfactory (say a U16 match between rivals), here is what I do. I carry a roll of black and a roll of white tape (you can actually buy “hockey stick” tape rolls that have both side-by-side. If I have two #7s and no #17, I use a piece of tape to make a #17. If I already have a #17, I make a #71. If I have two #13s, I make a #113 or a #131.
“What? Three digit numbers?” you say. I have not seen a ROC yet that required a maximum of two digits. “FIFA referees don’t do that!” you say. You are correct (although there have occasionally been games at the highest levels where players have had temporary numbers applied by training staff). While the FIFA referees probably don’t carry rolls of tape and apply numbers, we are not FIFA referees. But I am also pretty sure they did not get to be FIFA referees by Sending Off youth players for having a duplicate jersey number!
Knowing the LOTG and the RoC is a science. Knowing when to call what is an art informed by experience. Applying Law 18 and fingerspitzengefühl appropriately is how you demonstrate you are ready for the next level. Don’t be a “Gotcha” referee…