Soccer fans are probably all aware of the fact that most professional matches have four officials. These are the head referee, two assistant referees, and the appropriately-named fourth official.
However, if you’re new to the sport, it’s not immediately clear what the assistant referees or ‘linesmen’ do during the match.
They’re easy enough to spot thanks to their brightly-colored flags, but what are the flags even there for?
In this article, we’ll be answering all of these questions about assistant referees and more.
Table of Contents
History Of The Assistant Referee In Soccer
The first assistant referees were introduced in the late 19th century when referees were first given the power to make influential decisions in the game. Before then, it was pretty much left to the players to work it out themselves!
The 1891/1892 season saw the first referee operate from the center of the field and the umpires that used to stand on the sidelines became assistant referees.
Of course, back then, there were no flags, uniforms, yellow cards, red cards, or any of the standard equipment we expect from officials in the modern day.
Main Roles Of The Assistant Referee
As the name suggests, the main role of an assistant referee is to assist the head referee when they need help with making decisions on the field.
FIFA (the governing body of international soccer) has a book called ‘the laws of the game’, in which law 6 indicates all the assistant referee’s duties.
According to this law, the duties of the assistant referee are to indicate when:
- The entirety of the ball leaves the field of play by crossing the entirety of the touchline or goal line.
- An attacking player receives the ball or interferes with play from an offside position.
- A substitution is requested by either team.
- At a penalty kick, if the goalkeeper moves forward from the goal line before the kick is taken.
This might not seem like a lot of responsibilities, but the actual job of the assistant ref is much harder than it seems.
As well as keeping an eye on all of these different events, they’re there to help the head referee out with his or her job. This is often only when the ball is close to one of the touchlines where the assistant has a better view of the ball than the head ref.
In these circumstances, the assistant has to look out for fouls, handballs, and any other kind of misconduct, while still watching to see if the ball goes out of play.
Can The Head Referee Overrule The Assistant Referee?
Yes, at the end of the day, the head referee is still the one in charge of the match. This means that the head ref can overrule any of their assistant’s signals and tell the players to continue with the game or make a different ruling.
However, the assistant famously runs along the touchline of the field because it gives them the best position to see whether the ball leaves the field of play and to judge offside decisions.
For that reason, it’s quite rare for the referee to overrule their assistant on one of those decisions!
Assistant Referee Signals
The assistant referee uses a brightly-colored flag to indicate a series of signals to the head referee and the players throughout the game.
Let’s go over exactly what all of these signals are and what they mean:
- Throw-in – This is indicated by the assistant holding their flag up at a 45-degree angle, pointing in the direction of the defending team’s goal.
- Goal kick – The assistant holds their flag out straight in front of them.
- Corner kick – The assistant holds their flag at a 45-degree angle, down towards the corner flag.
- Offside – The referee points their flag straight up above their head until the head referee blows their whistle. Then, the assistant lowers their flag to indicate how far from the touchline the offside offense was. A 45-degree upward angle indicates the far side of the field, a horizontal flag indicates the middle of the field, and a 45-degree downward angle indicates the near side of the field.
- Fouls – The assistant will raise their flag and shake it above their head at a level of severity that matches the severity of the foul (a light shake of the flag for minor fouls and a vigorous shake of the flag for more serious offenses).
- Free kick – The assistant holds their flag upwards at a 45-degree angle in the direction of the defending team’s
- Substitution – The assistant places a hand on both ends of the flag handle and holds it up horizontally above their head.
Assistant Referee Positioning
Just like the head referee, the assistants on the touchlines have their own strategies to think about in terms of their positioning along the touchline.
The assistants will only cover one half of the field but will operate on opposite touchlines from each other.
In general, each assistant should always be in line with the second-to-last defender in their half of the field. This is because any attacking player that strays beyond the second-to-last defender will be in an offside position.
The assistant will also have to think about how they move along the touchline. Most of the time, they will use side steps to make sure they always have a good view of the action on the field.
However, when the ball is moving quickly, they have to sprint normally, with their head turned towards the field of play and their flag unfurled, so the head ref can always see it.
Is It Harder To Be An Assistant Referee?
Many referees consider the job of the assistant to be even harder than the head referee during a high-level, competitive soccer match.
Indeed, in terms of the types of decisions that assistants have to make, there are much finer margins for error.
For example, the ball may only be a couple of inches over the touchline or an attacker could be a couple of inches offside, but the assistant has to be able to see it and indicate it straight away.
However, one benefit the assistant referee has is being on the touchline and out of the firing line for player abuse. It is the head referee’s job to control the match and make sure things don’t get too heated and, as a result, they’re often the center of attention for controversy.
That being said, it’s impossible to determine completely which job is harder because both sets of responsibilities are so different.
If you want to find out for yourself, you’ll have to contact your local soccer governing body and apply to take an officiating course!
Video Assistant Referees (VAR)
If you’ve been watching soccer for a while, you’ll be aware that the introduction of the video assistant referee was a slow and controversial one.
The video assistant referees have been used in some European leagues since around 2012. They use high-definition cameras to watch replays of goals, penalty kicks, and other incidents during games.
These officials then give advice to the head referee about whether the original call should be overturned.
In the Premier League, if the head referee does not agree with the VAR’s ruling, they may ask for a second opinion from another official or go to a pitch side monitor screen to see the replays themselves.
In addition to this, there are also two people who work alongside the VARs. One person watches the live feed of the game and can communicate with the VARs via radio. The other person sits behind the VARs and relays information to them verbally.
It’s important to remember that the VAR has the same level of power as the other assistant referees and that the head referee still has the final say on all decisions. In fact, in the English Football Association, the VAR is only allowed to assist the head referee when there is a ‘clear and obvious error’ or a ‘serious missed incident’.
The assistant and video assistant referees aren’t the only other officials that operate in professional soccer matches.
The fourth official has their own set of roles and responsibilities that are set out by law 6 in the laws of the game.
These include all the administrative and organizational responsibilities that are required of officials like timekeeping, record keeping, and score keeping.
They are also required to act as a medium of communication between coaches and the head referee.
This reduces the extent to which managers will scream their opinions at the head ref during a match and gives them someone to talk to more calmly instead. However, it doesn’t always work out that nicely for the officials!
In general, the fourth official kind of acts like a teacher in a school, keeping all the coaches and substitutes on the sidelines in check and making sure nobody misbehaves.
In some other competitions, there may also be an additional assistant referee. These officials will stand on the goal line, right next to the goal.
Their main role was to monitor incidents that took place inside the penalty area. Because this is such a significant part of the field, it will often be crowded with players and the head referee can’t get too close without getting in the way of the game.
The additional assistant referee can help the head ref out in these situations, as well as see clearly if the ball crosses the goal line, inside the goal.
Hopefully, you’ve learned a lot about the different types of officials that operate in soccer matches today.
There are many roles that each official plays throughout a match, but most importantly, they’re there to make sure that everyone stays safe while playing.
Next time you’re watching a soccer match, keep an eye on the assistant referees and see how they help the head ref out in all the ways we’ve talked about, here!