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Victor Matheson, USSF National Referee 12/31/2005

Let me tell you about an incident that occurred at an Under-10 tournament I worked at last fall. Since all of the teams in this tournament were Under-10 recreational teams, this tournament gave the referee scheduler a great opportunity to use some younger officials as center referees in these games where the players are just out to have fun. Unfortunately, in one match the teenage referee had come off the field in tears after she had been forced to terminate the match following abuse from the coach of one of the teams. Apparently, the coach was extremely upset about a call that the referee had made and began to loudly protest the call. After being warned repeatedly by the referee that his behavior was unacceptable, the coach continued his verbal abuse, and the referee was forced to abandon the match leaving two teams of ten-year olds without a game.

Now the obvious question is: what was the crucial call that the referee missed that caused this whole incident? The sorry truth is that the referee had allowed an illegal substitution. That's all, nothing more. The referee, who had been playing for her high-school team throughout the fall, got the high-school and USSF rules mixed up and allowed one of the teams to substitute on a corner-kick. In all fairness, the referee did make a mistake, and it is the duty of referees to know the specific rules of competition for any game they officiate. However, to blow such a minor technical infraction out of proportion to the point of causing the match to be abandoned is a disgrace, and I hope this coach is embarrassed by his behavior and that he has fully apologized to his club, the parents of the team, and most importantly to the kids whose game he ruined. Left to their own devices, the kids playing the game never would have known the difference of whether a substitution was properly done and would have simply enjoyed playing the sport. Unfortunately, thanks to the reckless behavior of an immature adult, these kids didn't even get to finish their game.

There are two important points to be made here. The first point is obvious. Verbal abuse of an official, especially a younger official, is not acceptable, and any time the actions of a person or persons on the sideline cause a match to be abandoned, we have serious problems. This sort of behavior should not be tolerated in any league anywhere in the world.

The second point is a little more subtle. Coaches and fans need to learn what things are important in soccer and what things are relatively trivial. It is clearly absurd for this coach to get so worked up over an illegal substitution. The specific substitution rules for youth soccer are simply for administrative ease, and a team does not really gain any advantage by accidentally violating one of these rules.

The throw-in is another example of a common decision made by referees that really makes very little overall impact on the game. If the referee messes up and points the wrong direction, don't worry too much about it. Since dozens of throw-ins usually occur in a single game, the referee is likely to make some calls both for and against you. Furthermore, the whole reason why throw-ins are so awkward in the first place is that they were specifically designed to allow players to quickly get the ball back in play without giving the team with the ball too great an advantage. Thus, giving the throw to the wrong team really doesn't do your team that much harm. Similarly, sloppy throws may look ugly, but don't go yelling immediately for a foul throw. Nothing in the Laws of the Game says that throw-ins must be pretty, and even if the throw borders on illegality, let it rest. It's not likely to make any difference in the game.

A final set of common occurrences that are minor are the "trifling" fouls. Law 5 specifically instructs the referee to refrain from calling fouls that are relatively minor, so don't expect the referee to call every little bump and push especially when the little touch does not affect play. Soccer is not a "non-contact" sport, and the less the referee has to interfere with the game by blowing her whistle the better.

Overall it is always important to remember that the motto of U.S. Youth Soccer is, "the game for kids," not "the game for coaches" or "the game for parents." (Officials would do well to remember that soccer is also not "the game for referees.") Anytime we as coaches, fans, or referees do things that distract the kids from "their game," we do a disservice to the players.

Victor Matheson is a USSF National Referee as well as a certified assessor and instructor. In his 15 years as a referee he has officiated over 1,600 games including A-League matches as referee and MLS matches as a 4th official and assistant referee. He has refereed in USSF amateur or youth regional competitions thirteen times and in national competitions five times. He currently serves as the State Director of Instruction for Illinois.

When he is not on the field, he is an assistant professor in the Department of Economics and Business at Lake Forest College in the northern Chicago suburbs. He has authored or co-authored numerous publications dealing with the economics of large sporting events, state lotteries, and tax policy.

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