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Foul Recognition, Selection, and Severity

By Brian Goodlander

I remember when I first started as a referee and was afraid that I would not know how and when to call fouls.  I read and thought I understood the definition of a foul but lacked the confidence that I would actually realize that a foul occurred during an actual live soccer match. Some of the older officials would say things intended to help but only increased my anxiety. Things like: “Don’t worry!  You will know them when you see them.”  The reality is that you probably will not know them when you see them.  In fact, calling fouls in a soccer match is an art that must be developed with experience and practice.  The first step is to recognize when a foul has occurred.  The second step is to select the foul that you are actually going to whistle.  The final step is to determine the severity of the foul.

Foul Recognition. Before you can recognize a foul, you need to define what a foul is.  The USSF defines a foul as one of the 10 direct free kick fouls or 8 indirect free kick fouls “against an opponent who is a player (except handling), on the field of play, while the ball is in play.”


  • Work and Move. To be able to recognize a foul, you have to be able to see it.  To see it, you have to move and work hard.  A tool for figuring out how close to be to play is to think of televised match.  The referee was likely on the edge of the screen throughout the match.  This equates to about 15-20 yards from the play.  Most importantly, do not grow roots!  Even if the game is slow or easy or does not require you to move much, always keep moving.  This can be a walk, jog, or backpedal.  Stopping leads to trying to look around or over players.
  • Make the Easy Calls. Do not over think things.  Relax and call the easy fouls that the players give you.  If there is a simple trip in the middle of the pitch, call it.  This will get you into the match and will increase your game control.  If you think about a play too long before deciding, the opportunity to decide is gone.
  • Go Where the Ball is Going, not Where it is. The referee needs to be moving to where the ball will be next and not get stuck watching where it is now.  A referee has to understand the options that are available to the player and predict where play will be. Over time, your ability to read play and predict where the ball is going will improve. Watch.  Learn.  Be flexible and understand the options.
  • Do a Pre-Game and Trust Your Referee Team. Make sure to cover fouls and the role of the rest of the referee team in recognizing and calling fouls.  Discuss how you want to call the match (loose versus tight) and ask them to adjust to your style for consistency. If they see a foul that you may or may not have seen, what do you want them to do? Have a plan and help the whole referee team execute it.
  • Look Through Play to Your AR. A referee who does not know where to go and is trying to cover every part of the field or in the middle of the passing lanes or missing critical decision points, is a referee who does not understand that by keeping the play between you and your AR will usually keep you positioned to see play and fouls.  This position will tell you when to be wide and when to be tight to play.  You will not only be at a good angle to see the play and/or foul, you will be able to capitalize on the help of your teammates.
  • Find the Right Focus Point. What part of the players are you watching during a match? Most inexperienced referees tend to watch player’s feet.  A better place to start is about mid-thigh. If there is more activity around the shoulders and chest (typical of men’s play), then move your focus point a bit higher to catch these fouls in your peripheral vision.  If there is more activity at the calves, thighs and waist (typical of women’s play), move your focal point a bit lower to catch this action.


Foul Selection. There are probably a thousand fouls in a 90 minute soccer game.  If the referee called every foul that occurred, the players and fans would not enjoy the match and the game would stall to a crawl, lacking tempo and rhythm – no longer The Beautiful Game. The art of refereeing starts with learning to select the fouls to call and not to call.


  • Trifling Fouls. Constant whistling of trifling fouls will destroy the flow of the game and generate frustration in the players, coaches, and fans.  Fouls that do not have an impact on the ability of a player to play the ball should not be called.  They are fouls and it is important to recognize that they are fouls but not important enough to stop play.  If not calling the foul has a negative impact on your ability to officiate the match or undermines your authority as the referee, they are not trifling and warrant the stoppage.
  • Use of Advantage. Advantage is an advanced skill that tells everyone that you saw a foul but have decided that calling the foul would be more damaging to the fouled team than not calling the foul.  Too many referees invoke advantage in their mind and seldom make it public with a sweeping gesture with the arms and a boisterous “Play on”.  If you do not let the players around you know that it is an advantage decision, how can they know that you recognized it and gave them the opportunity to play the ball.  In their mind, you may appear unaware and they just got lucky.
  • Feel the Heat. An effective referee can sense when a game is turning from a friendly night in the park to a tempest in a teapot.  Look into a player’s eyes.  Read their body language. Listen to the tension, volume, and intensity of their voice.  If the pulse of the game increases, your effort should increase with it.  If the game begins to come to a boil, tighten your foul selection.  If the game cools, loosen your foul selection.  Remember as tempers flare, you have to remain under control and bring calm to the match.


Foul Severity. Once you have mastered recognizing and selecting fouls, the final step is to define the severity of the foul.  The indirect free kick fouls are seldom a major issue since they do not typically involve contact or violence.  However, six of the ten direct free kick fouls need to be defined as careless, reckless, or using excessive force.


  • Careless. How do you define careless?  Unthinking, reactive, unconscious, may or may not have been a deliberate act, having no intent, and somewhat out of control are common definitions.  They are fouls that are not trifling and need to be whistled but lack the need to do more than whistle and point the direction of play.  They are simple and easy fouls.
  • Reckless. When a foul elevates to reckless things begin to change.  The act is deliberate, calculated, without remorse or concern about the consequences.  These fouls must be dealt with using more than just a whistle and a signal.  The referee has to make it clear to the player who committed the foul that this is not acceptable.  This acknowledgement can be a private word, a public admonishment, and even a caution.
  • Using Excessive Force. A foul that is premeditated, callous and uncaring, with no concern for safety, and lacking self-control should be deemed as using excessive force.  This is the late tackle from behind, the elbow used as a weapon, and the exposed cleat into the shin.  These fouls end careers and destroy the excitement of the match for everyone.  The safety of all participants is your primary responsibility as a referee.  Do not waver.  Send the player off.


Refereeing a soccer game and calling fouls is not a black-and-white affair, there is a lot of gray areas. It takes experience, skill, and education to maneuver in these murky waters.  Seek the advice of a mentor, assessor, instructor or experienced referee.  Learn and develop a sense of how the game is played and how it meshes or conflicts with the Laws of the Game.

Brian Goodlander referees all levels of soccer in the Cincinnati area and is a leader in his local official’s association.


Last Updated on Saturday, 20 February 2010 15:02


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