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Fan Guide to Refereeing Part 1: VAR and Cards

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Here are some guidelines for why refs do what they do (whether we agree with them or not).

Colorado Rapids v Seattle Sounders - Western Conference Finals - Leg 1 Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

Over the years I’ve taken an interest in refereeing to better understand the game. Through reading forums, the rules, etc. I’ve seen a difference in how the referees are taught to officiate the game and how fans want refs to officiate the game. Some of this is natural bias by the fans but I think some of this is because the fans don’t have the full picture of how refs are taught to see the game.

This column is my attempt to bridge that gap as the new season starts. A couple of caveats. First: I am not a ref, I’ve taken no refereeing classes, and all statements below are my understanding of the rules after many years of reading ref forums. If I get something wrong, feel free to point it out. Second: I fully understand that there are a number of fans (myself included) who know very well that the ref got it right and will still boo at times, both in an attempt to influence the ref for the rest of the game and just as an outlet for frustration. This column is not meant to stop that, just to help explain things so you know when you’re booing because the ref got it wrong and when you’re booing because you’re annoyed the ref got it right.

Video Assistant Referee (VAR)

Let’s start with the big one, VAR. The newest addition to soccer officiating first showed up in the last half of last season and it certainly left some fans confused. The VAR is an actual person who is in a booth at the stadium and has access to the replays. A review can be initiated by either the VAR or the head referee on the field. The key thing to remember about VAR, though, is that it can only be used in four specific instances in the game:

  1. Goals (scored or not),
  2. penalties (given or not),
  3. red cards (given or not),
  4. and mistaken identity (making sure the ref sends off the correct player in the event of a red card).

The fourth one really never comes into play from a fan’s POV so we’ll ignore it for this article.

The other three are really the important ones. A ref can’t “go to VAR” unless he or the VAR ref believes that a goal, penalty, or red card call/no-call was made incorrectly and the mistake was a “clear and obvious” error. That means that foul in midfield that the fans think should be a yellow card can’t be reviewed. That goal kick that should have been a corner kick can’t be reviewed.

The other key to VAR is that it can’t go back beyond the prior stoppage in play. Say a red card foul occurred but was missed by the ref. On the next stoppage of play (goal, foul, ball out of play, etc.) the ref can go back and review it. If the play is restarted without a review though, the ref can’t go back and a later time to review it. So on a goal, once the kick-off happens, that’s it. On a penalty call, once the penalty is taken, that’s it.

Once a review is initiated though, anything can be reviewed. Say the ref awards a PK and on review determines it to be a dive. Not only can the ref wave off the PK, he can go and give a yellow card to the attacker based on what he saw on the replay. If he had correctly determined that the attacker dove on the initial call he would not be able to go to VAR to decide if it was bad enough to deserve a yellow though, since that would not be reviewing a goal, PK, or red card decision.

On reviews of goals and PKs, the referee can also review as far back as the beginning of the attacking sequence. If a team scores a clear goal, but the VAR tells the ref there was a foul leading up to the goal, the ref can go back and see that the defender who won the ball in the defensive third to launch the counter-attack that led to the goal actually committed a foul to win the ball, so the goal is waved off and play would be restarted with a free kick for the team that was scored on where the foul occurred.

Yellow/Red Cards

As much as we might like, the refs can’t just decide to give a card. There are very specific times when a card can be given.


For a yellow card, there are seven categories. Two of them (entering or re-entering the field and leaving the field without permission) are not likely to occur very often, but we did see it happen to Caleb Calvert last year. Two other are essentially the same (delaying a restart and failure to give 10 yards on a free kick) and are self-explanatory. The other three is where most of the confusion comes from: persistent infringement, dissent, or unsporting behavior.

Persistent infringement refers to the same player committing multiple fouls, usually in a short span of time. No one foul on its own is worth a yellow card but combined, they show a pattern that deserves a caution. Dissent is completely up to the referee but it tends to be shown for language or “showing up” the ref by a player’s actions. Unsporting behavior encompasses everything else. There’s a lot of leeway given to a ref to categorize unsporting behavior, but your average foul usually doesn’t fall into it. The foul has to be with excessive force, stop a promising attack, or show no real attempt to play the ball to draw a yellow.


Red cards are even stricter. Beyond the obvious second yellow there are six other categories: serious foul play, violent conduct, spitting, denying an obvious goal scoring opportunity by handling the ball, denying an obvious goal scoring opportunity by fouling, and abusive language/behavior. Again, that last one is completely based on what the ref feels.

The first two are for violent fouls and contact that has nothing to do with playing the ball. We’ll get more into handling in Part 2, and the last one is generally determined by the “4 D’s” in American officiating: Direction of play, Distance to goal, Distance to ball, and number of Defenders. To be a red card, the play must be headed directly at the goal (not to one side), the ball must be within a playable distance from the attacker (not rolling out of bounds), the defender committing the foul should probably be the last one (not counting the keeper), and the closer to goal the more likely it is to be red. You’re not likely to see a red for a foul at the midfield spot unless the rest of the defending team is grouped around that attacking team’s goal.

In Part 2 I’ll cover handling, offside, and advantage.