How Many Referees In a Soccer Game? 

Possibly the most unpopular position in sports, but equally one of the most vital, the referee is the person who keeps players in check, keeps play flowing, and the one person everyone loves to hate.

As unpopular as they are, a good referee can be the difference between a great game of soccer, and a complete shambles where players rule the roost. 

Due to the speed of the modern game, referees have a much harder job than ever before, and because of that, more eyes on the game are needed.

Ultimately the referee has the final call, but the need for assistant referees, linesmen, fourth officials, VAR (Video Assistant Referee), and even assistant VAR, means the chances of missing something important becomes less likely every year.

Let’s take a look at how many officials take part in every major soccer game. 

The Referee 

The boss, the final word on the pitch, the referee has to control a game by allowing it to flow as seamlessly as possible. The perfect soccer match for a referee is when they are invisible, with very little to do, be that through the players keeping within the rules of the game, or by the referee making the right decisions so that play may continue smoothly. 

Very few people go into soccer dreaming of becoming a referee, but without one, and especially without a good one, a soccer game becomes a free-for-all that barely resembles the game.

For every foul, every indiscretion, the referee has to be close enough to the action to be able to make a snap judgment, sometimes which can be to stop play for a foul, but equally, a good referee knows when to do nothing. 

Modern soccer is end-to-end stuff, making it tougher than ever for a referee to keep pace with it, not only that, but the money involved at the higher end of the soccer pyramid means one wrong decision can cost a team millions of dollars. Because of that, more help has been given to referees than ever before.

The Assistant Referees (Formerly the Linesmen) 

The assistant referees, one on either side of the pitch, are there to make the referee’s life easier. That also means four extra eyes on the players during the game, so anything the referee misses the assistants should pick up. 

Each assistant referee has multiple roles the need to provide for the referee, as they are on opposite touchlines, the assistant referee can monitor for a ball crossing the line for a throw-in, and also run along the most forward line of play to check for offside decisions. 

A referee has to be close to the action, but a long ball through the center of the pitch to an attacker can mean a referee is suddenly 30 yards behind where they need to be. An assistant referee on each side has one direction covered, if the ball is played into an offside plate, they can alert the referee. 

An assistant referee is also a thankless task, getting it right is to be expected, get it wrong, however, and the fans and opposing team are quick to voice their outrage.

Even an assistant referee can sometimes be left behind in the passage of play, unable to be completely sure of which decision is the right one.

Thankfully, or maybe not, depending on your point of view, there have been developments in soccer over the past few years that offer even more eyes on the ball. 

VAR Referees 

If you thought referees and their assistants were disliked, say hello to the Video Assistant Referee (VAR). One of the most polarising developments in soccer since the abolishment of the two-footed tackle.

In its earliest form, the VAR was supposed to check for offside decisions using video cameras that supposedly meant a wrong decision was impossible. 

After all, if it’s on tape, who can argue, that the proof is right there for the referee in the VAR room to see, and then be able to relay that information to the on-field referee. Issues quickly arose when errors were still being made by the VAR.

Players being declared offside for an errant elbow that the cameras showed to be 1-centimeter offside caused riotous outrage in the soccer world. 

After several high-profile, and often embarrassing VAR issues, the technology and how it has been used have seemingly improved. Fans and players, managers and pundits, all are now becoming used to VAR and how it can work well when used alongside common sense. 

Referees locked away in a room watching live games in order to potentially rule goals out, or to stop serious foul-play being missed during games will probably;y never be popular, but soccer has to move with the times, and clubs will probably secretly welcome VAR if it means the right decisions are made.

Fourth Officials 

If you’ve ever wondered what the job title is for the guy who holds up the numbered board to indicate which player is being substituted on or off is called, well, it’s the fourth official.

That’s not their only job though, as a fourth official has the unenviable role of standing between each team’s dugout during a game. They help out the referee when needed, offer an additional pair of eyes on the game, and mediate the decisions of the referee with the dugouts. 

A decision going against a team can often have substitutes, coaches, and the manager, all flying out of the dugout, baying for blood. The fourth official is expected to calm proceedings, explain a decision to the managers, and ensure players and officials alike all behave properly.

An off-field altercation can’t be spotted by the referee, but the fourth official is in the prime position to be able to see everything and then inform the referee. 

Additional Assistant Referees 

Everyone makes mistakes, human nature means that even the most attentive person will walk into a door, or fall over the dog, at least once.

As accidents are just that, accidents, it’s no big deal. But during a Champions League semi-final, a referee that misses something vital in a crowded penalty box could cost a soccer club many millions of dollars. 

And clubs, governing bodies, fans, and players alike, can’t bear the thought of the backlash if the referee misses a blatant handball in a soccer game that potentially millions of people saw, and the one person who counted didn’t.

So for just such an occasion, the additional assistant referee (AAR) was brought in. Similar to the assistant referees that patrol each wing, the AAR camps out behind each set of goals, watching for infringements. 

Any foul or fight, handball or tackle, in the 18-yard-box, is the domain of the AAR as well as the referee. The chances are the referee will spot the same things that the AAR will, but to cut out any chance of things going wrong, an AAR is positioned behind each goal to spot things from another angle without getting in the way of the players. 

Are There Any More Referees? 

Believe it or not, there can be several more referees present during any one soccer game, including a fifth official, who acts as a reserve in case any other referee becomes ill, or as is usually the case, injured.

With the amount of running a referee or assistant referee does, inevitably every so often one pulls a hamstring or twists an ankle, making a backup quite useful.

VAR assistant referees as officials who work alongside the main video assistant referee, with more eyes on the screens, they can help the VAR to make the correct decision for the on-field referee. 

As the finances increase year on year in the soccer world, so too will the importance of every decision. From prize money to league table positions, from gambling to player bonuses, every action on the soccer field makes a huge difference. A referee is under enormous pressure to get everything right, every time while being mercilessly abused by fans, players, the media, and the managers. 

Having as much help available as possible makes sense, and it will more than likely only continue like this, soon cameras will have referees making judgments on every decision, the referee may not even be on the field one day, but behind a screen somewhere, directing play over the pitch speaker system. Hopefully not though.

Refereeing at Lower Levels

Refereeing soccer matches at lower levels usually means fewer people paying attention to the game. In anything from high school and up, the goal is to still have three people work in the game. There is still the head referee, and then the two people on the lines.

Some scenarios pop up in low levels of play where two referees or even just one single referee is necessary. No one likes to be in this situation, as it’s impossible to see everything going on.

However, the alternative is not to play at all, and that leaves a lot of players frustrated. Lower levels attempt to make it work as much as possible, even if it is just one referee watching everything.

The Future of Refereeing in Soccer

Whether people are for or against video replay, there’s no denying that it will help get calls correct. It does cause delays and kills a little bit of rhythm, but it’s better than having to live with a split-second decision that could make a huge difference.

Referees must do a lot during a soccer match. Even the best can’t be perfect. Video replay is coming into other sports as well, so it’s not like soccer is on an island by itself.

It would take a lot for there to be fewer referees actually on the pitch calling games. There will always need to be some level of interaction between humans and players, so video refereeing will never completely replace actual referees.

Connor Smith

I'm Connor, the guy behind SoccerPrime. I'm a former NCAA Div 1 college player that retired at the age of 21 due to injuries - which led me into a new career as a soccer coach.

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