Soccer Referee Duties

The ref is there to enforce all the laws of soccer, to ensure that all players on both teams have fair conditions to play the beautiful game.

However, you might be wondering how the refs actually do that. What does their job look like to a casual observer? What are some of their lesser-known duties?

These are all the kinds of questions we’ll be answering in this article.

Soccer Referee Duties

Pre-Match Duties

Believe it or not, referees in a soccer game has work to do before they even arrive at the field. Well, at least this is the case for professional refs.

At the highest level of the sport, referees will research the players on both teams in the match, finding out which ones might cause trouble and how to manage certain individuals.

It’s unlikely you’ll see an amateur or low-level ref carrying out this kind of stringent research, though.

Arrival On Match Day

Once the day of the match has arrived, the referee then has a lot more duties and responsibilities to carry out. This is why good refs will always arrive at the field at least 30 minutes before the game is scheduled to kick off.

The first thing the ref needs to do is check the playing surface. This means making sure everything is up to the right standards and that there are no hazards for any of the players.

You’ll often see the ref walking to each goal before a match to check if the nets have any tears in them and that the goalposts are secured properly to the ground.

The pre-match inspections also include having a quick walk over the whole field to make sure there are no hazards like rocks, broken glass, or any presents left by local dogs!

Even at the highest levels of professional soccer, the ref will check the playing surface before the game kicks off, despite the fact that professional groundsmen have already done it themselves.

Another thing the ref needs to consider the playing surface is how it’s affected by the weather. Ultimately, it’s up to the referee to decide whether to abandon a match because of heavy rain, snow, fog, or even heat.

Basically, any weather conditions that make the playing environment dangerous for players and officials should result in the match being called off.

Player Inspection

Once the referee has established that the playing surface is acceptable to be used for the match and that the weather is appropriate, they must then turn their attention to the players.

All players’ kits and equipment must be up to the right standards for the ref to allow them to participate in the match.

The main things most refs will look for are any jewelry the player might be wearing (which needs to be removed) and their cleats.

Players have gotten into trouble in the past for wearing extra-sharp cleats to a match to try and inflict some damage to opposing players. This is why refs will check players’ cleats before the match.

Again, this is something you won’t see as often in professional soccer matches because these players are held to a higher standard than amateurs.

Enforcing The Laws Of The Game

The holy book that all soccer referees adhere to is FIFA’s ‘The Laws Of The Game’. This book outlines all the rules of soccer that need to be followed to ensure that everyone in the world is playing the same, fair game.

Soccer Referee Duties (1)

Local leagues and soccer organizations will also have their own specific set of rules, but these do not often influence the actual gameplay itself, rather they tend to concern administration and sanctions for misconduct.

One of the ref’s primary duties during a game of soccer is to ensure that all players are adhering to the laws of the game. This means indicating throw-ins, corner kicks, goal kicks, free kicks, and just about every other decision you see a ref make during a match.

As you might expect, players regularly get argumentative with referees about decisions they make against their team, regardless of whether the correct decision has been made or not. For this reason, refs need to be strong-willed and stick to their decisions, regardless of how much players might argue with them.

Man Management

As well as enforcing the rules, referees have a duty to control the flow of the game and ensure a ‘sportsmanly’ environment for everyone.

Referees have two ways of calming players down when they get heated: verbal communication and cards.

The first thing a soccer referee will do when tempers flare between players is to stop the game and talk to the offender(s).

Often, it doesn’t really matter what the referee says to the players, the simple act of stopping the game and giving everyone a chance to breathe is often enough to calm things down.

However, if players have already been spoken to about their conduct by the referee, and they continue to misbehave, yellow and red cards must be resorted to.

In total, there are 6 reasons a player at any level of soccer can receive a yellow card:

  1. Deliberately delaying the restart of play
  2. Dissent (expressing disagreement) by action or word
  3. Entering or leaving the field of play without the referee’s permission
  4. Failing to respect the required distance at a set-piece
  5. Persistent offenses
  6. Unsporting conduct

The last item on that list is where referees have to use careful decision-making skills and good judgment to determine what the correct sanction is for misbehavior.

Unsporting conduct could be using rude language towards an opposition player, or it could be something like committing a reckless foul on another player.

There are also 6 reasons a player could be shown a red card and dismissed from the game:

  1. Committing a foul or handball offense to deny an obvious goal-scoring opportunity
  2. Serious foul play
  3. Biting or spitting and any other person
  4. Violent conduct
  5. Using offensive or abusive language/actions
  6. Receiving two yellow cards in the same match

Red card offenses tend to be much more clear-cut than yellows and a player has to have done something pretty bad to be shown a red.

It’s important that the referee uses red cards when appropriate to keep the game safe for all players and ensure that anyone who puts someone else’s safety in danger isn’t allowed to participate further.

Whatever the offense, referees will try to use their cards out as a last resort and deal with players verbally first.

Ensuring Player Safety

Despite all the coaches and physios you’ll see on the touchlines during a professional soccer match, the main person responsible for maintaining player safety is the referee.

We’ve already looked at how refs can use verbal communication and sanctions to ensure players are operating in a safe manner, but referees have other ways that they can keep everyone safe.

For example, referees will stop the game at any point if they think a player is seriously injured, even if no foul offense has been committed. Most commonly, this will happen if a player has a clear head injury, which can be very serious if not treated quickly.

The referees themselves don’t have an obligation to treat players and get them back to health, rather this is the role of coaches and physiotherapists for each team.

Instead, it is the duty of the referee to ensure that these coaches and physios can do their job properly in keeping players safe.


When it comes to officiating a soccer match, communication is key. Referees have three different ways that they communicate with players and spectators during a match: verbal communication, gestures, and whistling.

Verbal communication is fairly straightforward. The referee has a duty to clearly communicate what their decisions are to the players on the field. This way, everybody knows what’s going on and the game isn’t slowed down by any confusion.

Refs also use hand signals and gestures to indicate a variety of decisions. We won’t go into what they all mean now but these signals are the same everywhere in the world, which means that even if you can’t hear the referee speaking, you can still see the decision that they have made.

Finally, referees are all equipped with a handy whistle. This is every official’s most important piece of equipment because it is the most immediate and authoritative way of communicating with players.

Soccer referees will blow their whistle to stop play when an offense has been committed or a player is injured. They will also blow their whistle to restart play when some organization of players is required.

Good refs will also change the way they blow their whistle depending on why they’re blowing it. For example, to kick off the game, the ref will often use a short, sharp burst of the whistle.

However, if a serious foul has been committed, the ref will use a longer, louder whistle to indicate the severity of the offense.


In summary, referees are there to make sure that the rules of soccer are followed. If a player commits an offense against another player, then the referee must decide what sanctions to enforce and how to enforce them.

It takes a lot of practice and experience to build up a referee’s judgment abilities and to keep all players safe during a match.

This is why the top officials have often been doing their job for decades.

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