How Do Referees Communicate in Football?

Officiating a football game at the highest level of the sport is certainly no easy feat.

As fans we are often guilty of berating some of the controversial decisions that referees make, without a shred of appreciation for the scope of difficulty that the job entails.

These guys come under the microscope for even the smallest of actions that they undertake on the field of play, and this very thought caused me to reflect on the topic of today’s article.

How do referees communicate in football?

The job that match officials perform is often taken for granted and I thought it would be good to talk about exactly how they make decisions and liaise with their pitch-side assistants.

Hopefully this will be quite insightful for the newer generation of fans who may not fully understand how referees go about their duties.


Why is communication important for a referee?

A fundamental part of football involves the game being played fairly, with both sides adhering and abiding by the rules and regulations set out by the relevant associations and governing bodies.

Communication for a referee is therefore of paramount importance, as they need to strictly enforce the letter of the law so that the game is played safely.

Referees also need to be able to tell players when they make dangerous plays, as well as needing fluency of language to explain why they ruled decisions in favour of or against players.

With the importance of communication now established, I’ll kick this off with the most obvious way in which referees communicate…


1. Verbal speech

how do referees communicate in football - verbal speech

Picture Celtic skipper Scott Brown flying into a dangerous tackle and winning the ball cleanly.

Then imagine referee Mike Dean blowing the whistle to halt the passage of play, before proceeding to have a word with the captain.

Brown is likely to feel aggrieved as he would be adamant that he won the ball without fouling his opponent.

The responsibility to convey the message of why the tackle fell into the category of being dangerous would fall on Mr Dean as the referee officiating the match.

A good referee would be approachable and be able to speak to players in a way that isn’t condescending, by offering – for instance – a simple explanation as to how the player won the ball by going through the back of the opponent’s leg first.

Referees adhere to a similar standard set out by FIFA themselves, as they must be able to speak English to a good standard along with another of either Spanish, German or French.


2. Body language cues

how do referees communicate in football - body language cues

Referees are required by the Laws of the Game to master the use of body signals to indicate for changes or stoppages with regard to certain match events.

The list of scenarios that require the use of body language cues as reference points includes things like:

  • Play on advantages
  • Direct free kicks
  • Indirect free kicks
  • Corner kicks
  • Goal kicks
  • Penalty kicks

Referees also use body language to point out when foul infringements or offside calls have been committed, along with clarifying which team has gained a throw in.  

Using their hands and arms to signify on-pitch decisions is such an effective way for them to convey the necessary instructions so that the flow of the game remains as smooth as possible.

Here’s a great video that helps to put the aforementioned points into perspective…

It’s also very important for the players themselves to be familiar with all the body signals that referees make use of in order to avoid confusion on the pitch.


3. Yellow and red cards

how do referees communicate in football - yellow and red cards

Another method which even the most causal of football viewers will be familiar with is the yellow and red cards.

The cards are used to discipline players for general misconduct and bad behaviour during a football match.

A player that receives a red card has to leave the field immediately and is forbidden from playing for the remainder of the match, regardless of what the score line is or what physical state the team is in.

What also happens is that the player sent off misses the next game through suspension as the red card sentencing carries over to future fixtures depending on the severity of the offence.

The red card is the referee’s way of telling a player that they’ve committed a foul or offence that severely endangered the opponent and they therefore must be dismissed in order to preserve the spirit of fairness and justice within the game.

Conversely, referees hand out yellow cards for aggressive or non-deliberate violent acts and an accumulation of a certain amount of yellow cards over a season usually leads to a one game suspension.

The yellow card is what referees use to give players a formal warning or caution, and you’ll often hear commentators making use of the phrase “booked” to signify the fact that the referee has noted down a certain player’s name for committing a yellow card offence.


4. Radio kits

Technology has come on leaps and bounds.

In the distant past, a basic whistle was all that referees had to show that they were making a decision.

They would blow into the whistle, which would then emit a high-pitched sound to indicate that, for example, a foul had occurred or a stoppage in play needs to take place.

Back in the day, the sound of the whistle was all that match officials had to go by.

However, now things are very different, as referees are able to keep in touch with the linesmen and fourth officials through radio communication.

Even the addition of video assistant refereeing (VAR) has been seamless, as the referee on the pitch is able to easily communicate with the team in charge at Stockley Park.

The open mic technology which the referee can use to talk to his fourth official and assistants appears to have been introduced in the 2007 football season.

Samuel Waihenya
Share on: