How Many Referees Are There in a Soccer Game?

In whichever sport you spectate or take part in, you will notice that participants must adhere to certain rules in order to keep the game as equitable as possible.

When it comes to football, match officials have been shouldered with the responsibility of ensuring that play is fair throughout the entirety of the 90 minutes.

In a standard professional soccer fixture there are a total of 4 officials, consisting of a head referee who judges on-field events, two assistant referees situated on either side of the touchline who mainly assess whether the ball has left the field of play and make offside calls, as well as a fourth official – routinely stationed near the team dugout areas – that oversees substitution requests and performs additional duties as instructed by the head referee.

Much more recently however, there has been a new addition to the list of people who preside over football matches.

Now, a video assistant referee – coupled with his or her own assistants – resides at a remote location away from the ground where the match takes place and aids the head referee with pivotal match situations.


Roles of match officials

Let’s now look at the specific duties that each type of match official performs.


Head referee

how many refs in a soccer game - one head referee

With 22 adrenaline-infused athletes jostling for a football on a grass pitch, it’s easy for verbal outbursts and physical altercations to break out as the sport is an uber-competitive one.

A referee is needed to watch over all aspects of the game and enforce principles of fairness by way of discharging the following duties:

  • Yellow and red card sanctions for dangerous or offensive play
  • Assessing fouls and penalty appeals
  • Halting and terminating games as a result of risk factors such as severe weather conditions

More so, centre referees at the heart of the action are also held accountable for accurate timekeeping, which is why they often wear two watches when officiating.

I conducted a thorough analysis of the best soccer referee watches, and the roundup article even provides options for beginner referees who are new to the world of match officiating.


Assistant referee

how many refs in a soccer game - two assistant referees

These are the people that make the head referee’s job a much simpler one.

According to Law 6 of the International Football Association Board’s Laws of the Game, assistants – formerly referred to as linesmen – play a part in controlling the match even though on-pitch decisions are decided upon in finality by the main referee.

Their multi-faceted role mainly comprises of:

  • Indicating when players have strayed offside by raising their different-coloured linesman flags
  • Signalling when the ball has left the field of play for a throw-in, goal kick or corner kick
  • Determining whether a goalkeeper moved off of their goal line prior to the taking of a penalty kick

The head referee clearly would not be able to handle all of the aforementioned tasks in addition to their own, so assistant referees complement the main match official quite well.


Fourth official

This position within football was introduced in 1991, primarily as a replacement for any of the other match officials in cases where the latter are unable to continue for reasons like physical injury.

They also work to keep a check on managers who often get quite animated in their technical areas when decisions aren’t given in favour of their team.

Here’s an interesting video which showcases former Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola arguing for an extension to stoppage time with Bibiana Steinhaus in a past game against Borussia Mönchengladbach:

The fourth official did well to consistently maintain her composure, especially considering the stature of the manager that she was in direct discussion with.

Some of their other responsibilities entail:

  • Supervising player substitutions by forwarding requests to the referee to stop play when the ball leaves the field
  • Inspecting each substitute’s equipment
  • Indicating for additional time at the end of each half

Ultimately, it’s clear to see that fourth officials are also quite involved in various aspects of the game that sometimes go unnoticed by spectators.

Now before I wrap up this article, I wanted to tackle an important question.


How many referees are needed for a game to take place?

The answer here depends on the professional level that the game is being played at.

Within the upper echelons of the sport and particularly across Europe’s top 5 football leagues, a minimum of 5 referees will be present at each match.

This includes the head referee, his two assistants on the touchline, the replacement/backup referee (fourth official) and finally the video assistant referee.

However, as you go further down the footballing pyramid of divisions, this number will decrease from 5 to 3.

At a semi-professional level, it makes sense to just have the on-pitch referee and two accompanying linesmen who make offside decisions.

And lastly on the flip side, if you go even further down to the amateur and Sunday league levels of association football, usually only 1 referee is needed to keep the game orderly and minimise disruptions to its overall flow.


Final thoughts

In summary, this article has covered how many referees there are in a soccer game and it has highlighted some of the roles and responsibilities of each type of match official involved.

But just as a reminder, a soccer game will usually comprise of 4 referees – the head referee, two assistant referees and a fourth official.


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Samuel Waihenya
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