If you’ve ever watched a game of professional soccer, you probably will have noticed the assistant referee on the sidelines, waving a flag around to indicate a series of different signals.
To the casual observer, it’s pretty much impossible to tell exactly what all of the assistant referee’s signals mean so plenty of soccer fans will watch games not knowing what’s going on.
Thankfully, I’m here to help with this handy guide to assistant referees and what all of the complicated signals mean!
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What does the assistant referee do?
In a professional soccer match, you’ll always have two assistant refs, standing on the touchline, with each covering one-half of the field.
Their role is pretty much exactly what the name suggests: they’re there to assist the referee in the middle of the field. This means the main referee still has the final say over every decision that gets made during the game.
However, the assistant refs can help the head referee out with some of the decisions that would be harder for them to make on their own.
For example, it can be difficult to tell whether the ball has crossed the touchlines and gone out for a throw-in unless you were standing on the touchline.
That’s why the assistant referees stand there and indicate to the head ref whether or not the ball crosses the line.
The same is true with offside decisions where the assistant referee will always be in the best position to make an accurate decision.
In fact, assistant referees can even call foul and handball decisions if they take place near the side of the field where the head referee can’t see it very clearly.
Assistant referee flag signals
The assistant referees will hold a brightly colored flag to make signals to the head ref during a match so that each signal can be seen quickly and clearly.
Flag signals are the most common and important way of signaling decisions not only to the head referee but also to players and spectators.
For this reason, the flag should always be kept visible, even while the assistant is running, and any kind of signal should be made with clear motions while making eye contact with the head ref.
These are all the different flag signals an assistant ref will make and what they mean:
The most common signal the assistant will make during a match is for a throw-in. Whenever the ball goes out of play over the touchline, the assistant will raise their flag at a 45-degree angle in the direction of which team will be awarded the throw.
This is the only part that can get confusing sometimes. When the assistant awards a throw-in to one team, the flag will always be pointed in the direction of the goal that that team is attacking.
Whenever the ball crosses the goal-line (outside of the goal itself) and is last touched by an attacking player, a goal kick will be awarded.
The assistant ref will indicate this by raising their flag out in front of them at roughly chest height.
If the ball crosses the goal line and is last touched by a defending player, a corner kick will be awarded to the attacking team.
To indicate this to the head referee, the assistant will step to the side of the corner flag and point their flag at a 45-degree angle down towards the bottom of the flag.
While the corner is taken, the assistant then has the job of watching to see whether the ball crosses the goal line before it even gets to the box. This actually happens more often than you’d think!
By far the most difficult decision that assistants have to make is offside. This rule is a little confusing to some people but essentially a player is offside if they are closer to the goal line than the second-to-last defender of the other team.
When the ball is played deliberately by a member of their own team. Don’t worry if you still don’t understand it, it takes some time to get used to it!
When the assistant ref recognizes an offside call, they’ll indicate it to the head ref by raising their flag straight up above their head.
When the head referee sees this signal and blows their whistle, the assistant will then lower the flag to indicate where the resulting free kick needs to be taken from.
Basically, if the assistant has their flag at a 45-degree, upwards angle, the free kick will be on the far side of the field from them.
A 45-degree downward angle indicates it should be taken on the near side to them and a straight angle indicates it should be taken from the center of the field, in line with them.
I’ve joined these two calls together because the assistant referee signal is the same for each. Bear in mind that an assistant will usually only make these calls if it happens very close to them or if the head referee can’t see it clearly enough themself.
When the assistant sees a foul or handball, they will shake their flag above their head to indicate it to the head referee.
Interestingly, assistants are taught to shake the flag more vigorously if the foul is more serious to give the head ref an indication of what type of punishment to give out.
Once the ref blows their whistle, the assistant will then point their flag at a 45-degree angle to their left or right, depending on which team is awarded the free-kick.
Interestingly, there used to be a separate signal for assistant refs to indicate whether a foul took place inside the penalty area and would therefore result in a penalty kick.
However, most soccer governing bodies have now scrapped this signal as it drew unnecessary attention to the assistant and would often result in players running over to argue with them.
This signal was exactly the same as it currently is for a free-kick, but if the assistant thought it was a penalty, they would hold their flag across their chest to indicate it to the head referee.
The final signal that assistant referees have to make during a game is to indicate that one team wants to make a substitution.
This signal simply involves holding the flag up sideways, above the assistant’s head, with one hand on the handle and one hand on the other end of the flag.
However, just because this signal is given, it doesn’t mean the head ref will allow the sub to take place. For example, if one team wants to restart play very quickly, the head ref might instruct the coach to make their substitution at the next stoppage in play.
Other types of signaling
The flag system that soccer officiating teams use has worked brilliantly for many decades but it still doesn’t allow the team to communicate completely effectively.
There are still some other ways that assistants will signal to and communicate with the head ref during a game.
Quite simply, the head and assistant referees need to make eye contact with each other to communicate more information about a decision.
This way, if the head ref is unsure about a decision like a foul near the touchline, they can look at their assistant, who might shake their head to indicate that a foul has not been committed.
In fact, head referees will always ensure they make regular eye contact with their assistants to maintain open and consistent communication with them in any way possible.
Electronic Beep Signal
This type of signaling tends only to take place in higher-level games but is still employed by some refs at an amateur level.
This is a system where the assistant referees will have a button on the handle of their flags which, when pressed, will make a beeping sound or vibration on the head referee’s watch.
This avoids the common issue of the head ref not noticing a flag signal and provokes them to look over at their assistant straight away.
At pretty much every professional soccer match, the officiating team will have earpieces and microphones that they use to communicate with each other verbally.
At this level, a lot of communication is required to make sure every inch of the field is covered by an official’s eyes and that decisions can be discussed and made promptly.
Of course, this is another type of signaling that tends only to take place at high levels of competitive soccer as it requires a lot more financial investment than most amateur refs are willing to make!
Is it easier to be an assistant referee?
Most soccer referees and assistants will tell you that the two roles require very different skill sets and it’s difficult to accurately say whether one is easier than the other.
In general, though, assistant referees will have a somewhat easier game most of the time, simply because they only need to cover one half of the field, while the other assistant covers that other half.
This means that when the ball is down at one end of the field, one of the assistants won’t have very much to do until the ball comes back towards them.
However, what makes their role very difficult is the position they have to maintain on the field. Assistant referees have to run along the touchline, which doesn’t offer them a great range of movement, but they must also be able to keep an eye on multiple things at once.
For example, assistants often have to run at full speed towards the goal line, watch the players on the ball behind them to see if a foul is committed, whilst also watching defenders on the other side of the field to see if an attacker is offside.
For all these reasons, plenty of people believe that the role of the assistant referee is much more difficult, though it’s still up for debate.
Hopefully, you now have a pretty clear understanding of what the assistant referee is signaling with their flag during a soccer match.
Don’t worry if you still don’t understand all of the rules and signals, it takes everybody a bit of time to get used to it all.
Next time you watch a soccer match on TV, keep a close eye on the assistants and head refs to see how they put this communication into action.