Soccer Referee Resources
Ask a Question
Recent Questions

RSS FEED Subscribe Now!

Q&A Quick Search
The Field of Play
The Ball
The Players
The Players Equipment
The Referee
The Other Match Officials
The Duration of the Match
The Start and Restart of Play
The Ball In and Out of Play
Fouls and Misconduct
Free Kicks
Penalty kick
Throw In
Goal Kick
Corner Kick

Common Sense
Kicks - Penalty Mark
The Technical Area
The Fourth Official
Attitude and Control
League Specific
High School

Common Acronyms
Meet The Ref
Contact AskTheRef
Help Wanted
About AskTheRef
Panel Login

Common Sense" - Which Law is That?

Julian Carosi, Melksham R.A. Wiltshire England Class 1 Referee 8/22/2000

Law 18 - Common Sense

1. Introduction:

Being successful in the Football (Soccer) Refereeing exam is the easy bit. Refereeing is a life-long on-the-job training course, with constantly changing Laws, interpretations and people management to contend with. The perfect Referee has yet to be found. Law 18 - Common sense is the framework that holds all of the other Laws together. It allows both the Referee and Football, to retain their human characteristics. The unwritten Law 18 is the most important of all the Laws; it overrides, modifies and controls all the others. Referees interpret and apply the Laws to ensure that decisions do not go against the 'spirit of the game'. Law 18 - Common sense, and the 'spirit of the game' are an integral part of the football, without them Football would not be the game that it is.

The uncertainty of game-action and interpretation of incidents is a key part of making football the exciting game that it is - long may it remain so. Over the past 10 years, football authorities have endeavoured to make the game safer for players and more enjoyable for spectators. Referees have a greater responsibility to make every decision a correct one. The commercialism that has inevitably crept into the game, has left the poor Referee in an unenviable position - a decision made in a split-second could have a most devastating effect on the finances of a professional football club; or even a Sunday morning team fighting for promotion or fighting against relegation. Common sense used fairly and correctly, is the greatest difference between a good Referee and a bad Referee. It is a quality, which thankfully most of us naturally have.

"most football is now played for gain rather than pleasure"

Common sense used during Refereeing is built up from experience gained within football, (whether it is by watching or participating), and by experience picked up during actual games Refereed. In general, a Referee will have the support of colleagues and Referees' Societies during his initial baptism of fire. A great deal of experience will be gleaned from experienced officials, and the new Referee will gain a great deal more, as the number of games he officiates increases. It is virtually impossible to provide a definitive guide for Law -18 Common sense, and you will not find much information covering this subject elsewhere. The advice expressed on these pages are a personal view, that will go some way to help the newcomer understand that an individual's personality, is just as important as knowing the Laws inside out. The advice is aimed at (what I would call) the 'normal' Referee. In other words, the 99 per cent of us who officiate at the lower levels - the ones that do not have the luxury of free hotel rooms and transport etc..... Referees at the very top level have almost been sanitised, by being made to act less controversial. They have been monitored, trained, cajoled, moulded, and turned into robotic machines controlled by their mentors. All done to minimise and remove (or lessen) the potential for making wrong decisions. This is obviously driven by the importance of commercialism in football at the top level. Don't get me wrong, I have full admiration for the top officials, they are under extreme pressure; and they have all been through the treadmill of officiating at the lower levels - but the element of common-sense has been lessened by the demands of business. It is a shame in a way, that most football is now played for gain rather than pleasure. It's important that Referees apply Law 18 Common sense, conscientiously and consistently, if not always as a group.

2. Spirit of the Game:

This is an important integral part of the game, it is so important, that the Referee will use it to override the written Laws themselves. There is no 'Spirit of the Game' Laws, neither will you find much written material on this subject. Nevertheless, it is a part of Football that all (or at least many) participants seem to naturally learn and accept. Football is meant to be played in a fair and 'gentlemanly fashion. The 'gentlemanly' manner has all but disappeared - but thankfully, there are elements of it that remain. For example, when a player is injured, if the opposition have possession of the ball, they will invariably and purposefully kick the ball out for a throw-in, to enable the injured player to receive immediate treatment. Another example that happened to me recently during a 6-a-side competition. The rules dictated that the goalkeeper was not allowed to handle the ball outside his goal area - else a penalty had to be awarded. When, I penalised a goalkeeper for doing this in one of the very first games, the penalty taker just passed the ball back to the goalkeeper from the penalty spot. This was done because the goalkeeper obviously did not know the proper Laws for that particular tournament, and the penalty taker proved to be sympathetic. "the Referee is just there to ensure fair play, he is not an actual player!"

Referees will have to judge for themselves exactly what action contravenes 'the spirit of the game'. This will be based on the Referee's own experience and conception of how football should be played. Football should be played as it has evolved over the many years. The Referees' role is to apply the Laws of the Game in a flexible way, and to take the part of mediator between player disputes. The Laws of the Game are not a strict edict to be followed to 'the letter of the Law'. They are provided as a recognised framework to be used along with common sense - providing a controllable environment for this beautiful game. The Referee is not just a 'policeman' who blows his whistle every time one of the Laws is violated - he is (luckily) allowed to interpret each situation sensibly - this ensures that the game 'flows' properly, and is not interspersed with numerous stops and starts. It also allows for individual characters to blossom, thus adding to the enjoyment of all.

Common sense ensures that an element of natural justice is used - the game must be allowed to flow with the minimum number of interruptions, but without the Referee losing full control. After all, Football is about the players, and they should be allowed to determine the outcome of the match - the Referee is just there to ensure fair play, he is not an actual player! It is important for Referees to understand the history of Football, and to participate in the 'spirit of the Game'. If the Referee blew his whistle every time that one of the Laws was infringed, then the game would have died many years ago. Players and spectators become very frustrated when play is not allowed to flow. To stop a game for every offence committed, would only serve to be nothing more than a protracted and frustrating series of restarts. Good Referees are able to maintain complete control of a match whilst allowing the players' plenty of leeway to keep the game flowing.

That is not to say that the Referee will sometimes need to use this tactic to control a game that is deteriorating. For instance - if two teams are more interested in kicking 'lumps' out of each other, the Referee is advised to blow for every infringement (no matter how small). This enables the Referee to retain full control of the game. It also prevents further escalation between players. As soon as the players realise that the Referee will stand no nonsense, they quickly start to behave themselves (sometimes). Football has a long traditional pedigree that distinguishes it from any other sport. Referees often need to temper their judgements with the simple application of common sense.

Football is played at all age levels and experience levels. Young players (and older players) can very often commit minor fouls inadvertently through their own clumsiness or their own lack of footballing skill. Experienced players will very often use 'gamesmanship' to try and win a game. Referees will need to judge just when to penalise such offences before stopping play. The seriousness of an offence must also be considered, before the Referee stops play for an infringement of the Laws. Every game is different, and the players, managers, and even the spectators will need to adjust to the Referees interpretation on how he wishes to control the game. This difference, (and you could describe it as uncertainty) adds to the enjoyment of everyone involved with Football. The Referee has a great deal of 'power' when officiating. This control of 'power' is one of the reasons why Referees enjoy their vocation. To have full control over 22 players, substitutes, Assistant Referees, managers, officials and even sometimes spectators, is an awesome power that can sometimes thrill, and can sometimes paradoxically frighten.

At the top level, players and managers are not supposed to speak out of turn about the performances of the officials. Doing so, can result in heavy financial fines, bans and even point(s) deduction being imposed. An English top manager once said:

"A massive touch-line ban would be a big negative on behalf of the commission. I would like to think that a common sense attitude would prevail". By the commission, he meant his employers!

Reactions will always be a part of football - the high emotions and high rewards will inevitably produce spilling emotions; after all, we are only human. The Referee should always apply a modicum of common sense when dealing with irate personalities. Of course, this must be finely balanced with the need to take appropriate action for aggressive instances that merit proper disciplinary action. You have probably heard mentioned, that "Every Referee has their own tolerance level" and will only react when this level has been breached. Luckily, the Laws are fairly straightforward concerning abuse - the Referee has the option of either instantly disciplining an offender, or he may decide to use common sense and a strong warning instead.

"To have full control over 22 players, substitutes, Assistant Referees, managers, officials and even sometimes spectators, is an awesome power that can sometimes thrill, and can sometimes paradoxically frighten."

Most Referees love football (what other reason could there be for facing abuse in almost every game) they love officiating in the sport. Some Referees always put the players' first, they actually 'like' the players and are willing to talk with them throughout the game, as a method of controlling the match. These Referees have an ability to calm players down in heated situations, and sometimes even before heated situations occur. "Preventing incidents happening? - where is that written in the Laws?" Law 18 of course. These efficient Referees can almost sense danger, and by remaining calm, impart a relaxed attitude onto the players. They rely on an abundance of common sense, as opposed to adhering strictly to the Laws - they seldom use their cards. The trick here is to prevent, rather than punish. Common sense is a very good tool for those who know how to get the best from it. Conversely, some Referees use little or no common sense, and plenty of cards. It is a matter of personalities, whether one system is better that the other. I would advocate that a mixture of the two would probably be the best solution. Referees, who are lenient with their cards, do get themselves a bad 'name' for being too lenient - some players can manipulate this leniency to their team's benefit. On the other hand, Referees who are renown for 'carding' every misdemeanour are not very well liked by players. This attitude can spoil the on-field relationship between players and of ficials. Notwithstanding this, for example, in a match between two warring teams, it does not pay to try and be too friendly - you must be strict, both with your verbal instructions to players and with your cards. I suppose the ultimate Referee will continually adjust within a game, along the full spectrum of 'being the players best mate' to ' carding just about everything that moves on the field of play'.

3. A few Examples of Common- sense:

Friendly pre-season matches.

A Referee officiating in pre-season friendly matches is 'betwixt the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea'. Friendly matches are a way for both the Referees and the teams to ease their way back to fitness before the season starts. Many local Referees have been praised for not sending-off players for offences that would have normally merited a 'Red' card. In such cases, the Referee will have already spoken to both the managers before the game. If the Referee feels that a player should not remain on the field of play (for whatever reason), the Referee need only glance at the manager, who should then immediately substitute his player from the field of play. The removed player should not be allowed to return. This is a very controversial way of disciplining players, and will not be everyone's 'cup of tea. But it is a method of common sense used by the more experienced Referees during friendly matches. You will of course note that incidents of violent conduct such as fighting or head butting must be acted on properly, by the issue of a 'Red' card and appropriate disciplinary report to the authorities. Common sense comes into its own during the officiating of friendly matches. Cautions are rarely given - the punishment can be for the manager to remove the offending player from play for about 15 minutes, by putting on a replacement substitute. The number of substitutes allowed is usually unlimited - with substituted players being allowed to return into the action later in the game. This allows the manager to give as many of his players a chance to experience some game action before the season starts. It also allows the manager to assess any new players. There are many more facets to how a Referee can use common sense in a friendly game, I have mentioned just a few. The Referee, who does not use common sense on such occasions, will not be asked back to officiate next season!

"The referee seemed to be making up a few new rules as he went along, but it showed a lot of common sense. You don't want to see players suspended from friendly games."

"I suppose they could all have been sent off in a proper match, so I have no problems with the way the Referee handled the situation.''

"The referee was outstanding and not just because he did not give us any bookings. He smiled during the game, showed common sense and was a referee who was part of the game rather than the focus of the play."

(True comments after friendly matches played at the top level in England.)

No other sport allows its officials such a wide latitude in determining whether an offence has been committed. If it has had a significant impact on play, how it should be addressed? should play be allowed to continue, even though a Law has been breached?. The Laws of the Game are there to give Referees a basis on which to make their final decisions.

The 'opinion of the Referee' IS THE LAW........ The Law on its own, is not the Law!!

Celebrating after a goal is scored.

In 1996, FIFA recognised that a reasonable celebration should be allowed after a goal is scored. At the lower levels of Football, celebrations are part of the game, and enjoyed by all. The Referee must make a concerted effort to control excessive celebration. Referees should not intervene when a reasonable celebration is taking place; for example when it is done quickly and without time wasting, or when it is done without the purpose of demeaning the opposing team or the spectators. Referees do not wish to be seen as 'Killjoys'. The scoring of a goal can be a very emotional moment, and celebration is just an automatic reaction - I know, because I've done it myself on many occasions as a player - you just can't help it. It is not done with the intention to cheat, waste time or to incite the crowd -that's just the way it is.

The recent practice at higher levels (and on TV), of exaggerated, and choreographed celebration is seen as either unsporting behaviour, or a tactical ploy to delay the restart of the game. Any such excessive time wasting tactics should be penalised accordingly. A good Referee will quickly intervene when excessive celebrations take place, thus preventing having to discipline players. This preventative action is yet another example of common sense used by the Referee.

Referees should of course, caution players who make provocative gestures that are derisory or inflammatory, or who remove their tops, or who run behind the goal to celebrate excessively with spectators. The Referee should use Law 18 - Common-sense when dealing with the celebration of a goal. Players who run off the field of play to celebrate, should return quickly back into the field. The Referee should not unduly punish a player who by his momentum, runs behind the goal post after scoring a goal, runs around the back of the goal net, and then quickly returns to the field of play. Leaving the field to celebrate a goal is therefore, not deemed to be an automatic caution. In such cases, the Referee should again use their discretion and common sense, and not resort to cautioning a player too quickly.

"Some Referees have more common-sense than others."

Pitch Inspection:

I'm not going to explain the ins and outs of how a Referee should inspect the field of play before each game - but just to explain how common-sense is also a part of the pre-game action. Many football pitches are managed by the local district Councils. The Councils have a responsibility to ensure that the fields are fit for play, but the Referee makes the final decision whether a pitch is safe or not. Most Councils accept that the Referee will inevitably decide. Law 1 covers the Field of Play - the Referee uses his common sense when allowing a game to proceed on a pitch that is not 100 per cent as defined in Law 1. For example, in the local Sunday morning leagues, a large number of the pitches are in countryside villages, or just somewhere out in the 'wilds'. Invariably, some of the line markings might not be as clear as you would like them to be. Or someone has forgotten to mark out the semicircle, and there is no white line machine available. Referees will use their common sense. Let's be honest, if you (the Referee) have travelled some 30 miles on a cold Sunday morning, and all the players are changed and waiting for you on the field of play, would you cancel the game because someone forgot to mark out the penalty spots. I wouldn't, but I know some Referees who would - some Referees have more common sense than others. Also -see Question Number 2 below.....

Matching Shirt Tops:

Most competition rules' state which team should change if there is a clash of colours. Most teams do not HAVE a change of jerseys!. Common sense should be used when deciding which team should change. If the competition rules state that the Home team must change, but the Home team do not have a change of jerseys, BUT the Away team does, then obviously, the Referee should ask the Away team if it would mind changing. At the very worst, one team could turn their jerseys inside out; this very often serves the same purpose. Players will generally be happy to oblige where they can - because it is difficult for them to discern colleagues when both teams have similar coloured tops.

Of course, the Referee and his Assistant Referees should aim to wear shirts of a similar colour and style. This is important, as it establishes initial credibility for them as a team, and it also demonstrates their kinship.

Throwing in the towel!

It has also been noticed recently, that when a team has a player who is capable of throwing the ball a large distance, strategic towels are placed around the field of play, to enable this throwing player to dry his hands and gain extra purchase to enable the ball to be thrown further into the penalty area during wet weather. I see this as an unfair advantage, and against the spirit of the game.

Burst ball, in play or out of play?

If the ball is bursts on its way towards the goal whilst a player is taking a penalty kick, what action should the Referee take?

Law 2 (The Ball) states that 'If the ball bursts or becomes defective during the course of a match - the match is stopped - the match is restarted by dropping the replacement ball at the place where the first ball became defective. (If the ball was out of play when damaged, restart as normal i.e. goal kick, throw-in etc..... )'

During the taking of a penalty kick, the ball becomes 'in-play' as soon as it is touched and moves forward. In this example, the ball was on its way, and therefore 'in-play'. The correct restart by 'the letter of the Law' should be a dropped ball at the place where the first ball became defective during the taking of the penalty kick. But see my advice below. If the ball bursts on impact without actually moving forward, then the ball is NOT in-play - Law 2 (The Ball) states 'If the ball bursts or becomes defective whilst not in play at a kick-off, goal kick, corner kick, free kick, penalty kick or throw-in: the match is restarted accordingly.' It would be very difficult for the Referee to identify exactly when a ball bursts immediately after it has been kicked. My advice here, is to give the benefit of the doubt to the kicker, and retake the penalty kick. The fact that the impact of the boot on the ball is almost certainly the catalyst for making the ball burst. The fact that the ball bursts immediately, or two yards forward from the penalty mark is really irrelevant. The moment of impact occurs 'out-of' play, and therefore, the kick should be retaken. But if the ball hits the goal post and then bursts, and then bounces back out into the field of play, the restart should again be a drop ball on the goal area line parallel to the goal line, at the point nearest to where the ball hit the crossbar and burst. In this instance, it was the crossbar and not the kicker that was the catalyst in making the ball burst 'whilst it was in-play' after the penalty kick had been taken.

Continue to Part II

This article and others like it appear in our newsletters. To sign up for the newsletter simply email us at newsletters

What do you think? Comments and suggestions regarding this article are appreciated please email

Julian Carosi, Melksham R.A. Wiltshire England Class 1 Referee.

Mr. Carosi also has a training website for referees in Corsham UK.

Call for Papers

We are calling for papers on...

Funny Stories while refereeing

Managing the Sidelines (Parents, Coaches and Fans)

If you would like to submit an article for publication on please email your article to In the subject line put article submission.

Editorial Guidelines

Your article must be soccer referee, or laws related.

The article must be your work. Please do not send us articles that you do not have reprint permission for.

Please proof and spell check your work.

You must include a short BIO at the end of your article stating your name, licenses, affiliations and a brief history of your experience.

If you have any questions you may contact MrRef

Soccer Referee Extras

Did you Ask the Ref? Find your answer here.

Enter Question Number

If you received a response regarding a submitted question enter your question number above to find the answer

Offside Question?

Offside Explained by Chuck Fleischer & Richard Dawson, Former & Current Editor of AskTheRef

This web site and the answers to these questions are not sanctioned by or affiliated with any governing body of soccer. The opinions expressed on this site should not be considered official interpretations of the Laws of the Game and are merely opinions of AskTheRef and our panel members. If you need an official ruling you should contact your state or local representative through your club or league. On AskTheRef your questions are answered by a panel of licensed referees. See Meet The Ref for details about our panel members.