Referees on many occasions are free to use their discretion : the law allows that. When we examine Law 5 (The Referee) it says:

Decisions of the referee

Decisions will be made to the best of the referee’s ability according to the Laws of the Game and the ‘spirit of the game’ and will be based on the opinion of the referee who has the discretion to take appropriate action within the framework of the Laws of the Game.

This is supported in Law 12 (Direct free kick).  For example it says:

Direct free kick

A direct free kick is awarded if a player commits any of the following offences against an opponent in a manner considered by the referee to be careless, reckless or using excessive force.

So it’s down to the judgment or the opinion of the referee, like so many aspects of the Laws of the Game.

However with some aspects of the law there is no leeway or discretion.

In the first play, from the game between Montreal Impact and Philadelphia Union, the play is deep inside the Union half when a long ball is played out of defence, up to Union forward Cory Burke, who is beaten to the ball by Impact keeper Evan Bush, who illegally handles the ball outside his penalty area.

When the play first starts deep in the Union half, referee Kevin Stott plays an advantage but does not read the defender’s intentions to play the long ball and is left stranded behind play. He should be anticipating the long ball and this would have gained him perhaps 10 to 15 yards.  He would still have been somewhat behind play but he may have been able to create a better angle. Fortunately AR Jeremy Kieso keeps up with play very well, has a good view of the handball, correctly signals and points to his pocket to indicate to the referee that Bush should receive a yellow card. This is great work by the AR who is covering for the referee who doesn’t have a clear view. Stott gives the free kick but does not caution Bush.

This play does not quite meet the criteria of DOGSO due to:

  • the general direction of play – he is not moving towards goal, he is moving towards the goal line on the extremities of the penalty area
  • location and number of defenders – there are two covering defenders

However it certainly meets the criteria for stopping a promising attack. If we examine Law 12 (Unsporting Behaviour), the law is specific:

Cautions for unsporting behaviour

There are different circumstances when a player must be cautioned for unsporting behaviour including if a player:

  • handles the ball to interfere with or stop a promising attack

Therefore the referee had no discretion or leeway here : this should have been a mandatory caution for the keeper.

In the second play from the Portland Timbers v Seattle Sounders rivalry game, otherwise known as the Cascadia Cup, the game seemed to be heading for a goalless draw when Sebastian Blanco scored a late dramatic goal for Timbers. You could see that Blanco had already planned his celebration as he appeared to be looking for something behind the goal. You could then see him put on a Chucky mask. You could argue that this is a bit of harmless fun and in reality it is but the law again is specific.

Law 12 Fouls and Misconduct

Unsporting Behaviour

Celebration of a goal

A player must be cautioned for:

  • covering the head or face with a mask or similar item

Referees are often seen as ‘pantomime villains’ for brandishing yellow cards in these circumstances.  However they don’t make the law but they have to carry it out and referee Robert Sibiga or at least one of his crew should have seen this and Blanco should have received a caution.

In summary, referees can exercise discretion (within the framework of the Laws of the Game) in many situations.  However when the law is specific they have no choice but to apply law.

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