The Advantage Rule in Soccer

Sometimes during a soccer match, whether you are a spectator or a player, you notice a foul has been committed practically right in front of the referee, but no penalty is awarded and play continues on. This may leave you wondering how the referee could miss such an obvious foul.

In these cases, the referee is actually following the advantage rule.

The advantage rule in soccer gives the referee the ability to determine whether a foul should be called on an offending team based on how it will impact the team that has been fouled.

We’ll take a closer look at what the advantage rule is in soccer, how referees determine if it is applied, and even provide you with some examples of when this rule is used. After reading our article, you will get a better understanding of why it seems referees pick and choose which fouls to call.

What is the Advantage Rule?

Every year, the IFAB, International Football Association Board, publishes what is known as The Laws of the Game. The Laws of the Game are a unified set of rules that soccer leagues all around the world follow. These rules are set to ensure fair play and that all teams are using and playing by the same set of rules.

Rules and guidance regarding referees are covered under Law 5 of the Laws of The Game. It is here where the advantage rule is found.

Under Law 5: The Referee, section 3, the advantage rules is described as follows:

“Advantage allows play to continue when an offence occurs and the non-offending team will benefit from the advantage and penalises the offence if the anticipated advantage does not ensue at that time or within a few seconds”

The Laws of the Game, IFAB

The Advantage Rule Explained

The advantage rule in soccer gives the referee the ability to determine whether a foul should be called on an offending team based on how it will impact the team that has been fouled.

In other words, if calling a foul and awarding a penalty to a team causes them to experience a disadvantage, such as being moved further away from the goal in which they are trying to score or prevents them from attempting to score or scoring, the referee may choose to allow play to continue and not call a foul.

There is one exception. The foul must have occurred while the ball was in motion on the field. If a foul is committed and the ball is not in motion, such as during a throw-in or corner kick, advantage cannot be applied.

The Advantage Rule Exists to Keep the Game of Soccer Fair

The advantage rule is created to ensure fair play during a soccer match. It prevents a team that is at an obvious disadvantage from committing a penalty in an effort to stop game play.

For example, if a team notices that their players are out of formation or having difficulty getting into proper position to gain possession of the ball, they may consider committing a foul against the opposing team. Even though possession of the ball would still be given to the team that was fouled, it would stop game play and allow the team to shift into a better position on the field where they may be able to gain possession of the ball.

The advantage rule prevents teams from using this strategy. If they commit a foul, it will only be called if the fouled team will gain some type of advantage from it.

How Do Referees Know When to Use the Advantage Rule?

Some guidance is given to referees to help them determine when or when not to apply the advantage rule.

The International Football Association Board asks referees to think about the following when determining if they will apply the advantage rule:

  • Severity of offense – severe offenses that would normally be awarded an automatic red card should be called. However, if there is a very clear and obvious opportunity for the fouled team to score, advantage may be given and play may continue.
  • Proximity to the goal – advantage is often applied when a foul is committed closer to the opposing team’s goal. This is because the fouled team often has a higher chance of scoring so close to the goal. Stopping play by calling a foul could prevent the fouled team from scoring.
  • Likelihood that the fouled team will be able to attack the goal (move forwards to try and score or actively shoot on goal)
  • Match control – if the referee feels that by not calling a foul there is a good chance they could lose control of the match, such as players will be more aggressive and therefore continue to commit more fouls, they may consider calling the foul instead of awarding an advantage

CONCACAF, which is a specific governing body for soccer leagues in North America, Central America and the Caribbean, provides similar guidance, but in an easier to understand way. They recommend referees use a system known as the “Four P’s” when thinking about applying an advantage.

The Four P’s to consider include:

  • Possession of the Ball
  • Potential for Attack – will the fouled team continue to be able to move towards the opposing team’s goal with the ability to create a scoring opportunity or actually score
  • Personnel – does one team gain a numerical advantage from the foul or from not calling the foul?
  • Proximity – how close is the fouled team to the opposing team’s goal and how does it impact play?

FAQs Regarding the Advantage Rule in Soccer

Now that you have a better understanding of the advantage rule in soccer, you probably have a lot of questions. We will answer some of the most frequently asked questions about the advantage rule for soccer.

1. How Long Does the Advantage Rule Last?

The advantage a fouled team gets doesn’t last long. It only lasts a few seconds or until the ball has been passed to another member of the same team.

This means that if Team A commits a foul on Team B, the referee may choose to allow game play to continue if they think the team would be disadvantaged. If within a second or two after the play continues, the referee determines the team lost an advantage, they can go back and award a penalty on that foul. However, the penalty cannot be awarded if the fouled player on Team B successfully passes the ball to another member of Team B.

2. How Does the Referee Signal the Advantage?

The main referee, the one who is on the field amongst the players, makes a very distinctive gesture to indicate that they are applying the advantage rule and allowing game play to continue despite the foul. This signal allows both players and the other outside referees to know what is going on in the game.

The signal for when an advantage is applied is both arms held out in front of the referee in a horizontal manner. When this happens, players and outside referees know that if the offending team who committed the foul touches the ball in the immediate moments, a free kick could be awarded.

3. Can You Play Advantage on a Handball?

Yes, a referee can choose to allow play to continue on a handball penalty. However, if a team commits a handball penalty and the opposing team immediately loses the ability to advance or score, the referee could go back and call a handball penalty and award a free kick.

Of course, the referee would only be able to go back and call a penalty on the handball within a few seconds after the foul or if the ball has not been successfully passed. This was outlined and covered by question #1.

4. Can Advantage be Applied to Fouls Committed in the Penalty Area?

Yes, advantage can be applied to fouls that have been committed in the penalty area. The referee can choose to allow play to continue instead of stopping play and awarding a penalty kick. However, referees will usually choose to stop game play and call the foul in the penalty area as opposed to applying advantage.

Referees prefer to call the penalty because a team has a higher chance of scoring with a penalty kick than if the play was allowed to continue. Since the advantage rule is to prevent teams from being disadvantaged by a foul, the referee would prefer to give them a penalty kick which increases their chances of scoring.

5. Can the Referee Reverse the Decision to Play the Advantage?

Yes. If the referee notices that the fouled team is at a disadvantage even though the advantage rule was applied, they can go back and call a foul or penalty. However, the referee only has a few seconds in which he can reverse his decision.

Once the ball is successfully passed to a member of the same team or some time has gone by (approximately 2 to 3 seconds) the referee’s decision to apply advantage is permanent and cannot be reversed.

6. Can the Referee Give a Red Card After an Advantage?

A referee can award a yellow or red card after an advantage. The referee would apply the advantage and allow play to continue. Once play is has stopped, either with a goal or attempt on goal or by having the ball kicked out of bounds, the referee can go back and award a yellow or red card for the foul. However, it has to be done the first time game play stops after the advantage.

7. Does Advantage Apply to Improper Throw-Ins?

No, referees cannot apply advantage when a team performs an improper throw-in. When an improper throw-in occurs, it must be retaken.

Advantage does not apply for throw-ins because the ball is not considered to be in motion. An advantage can only be applied when a foul has been committed and the ball is in motion.

Hopefully this comprehensive, yet brief, overview of the advantage rule provides you with a better understanding of why a referee may choose to not call a foul and allow game play to continue.

Other confusing rules in football that you may want to learn about include the offside rule and the high kick rule.