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July 2021

How to know the ref’s decision before anyone else, and become the smartest fan in the ground

By Walter Broeckx

I wrote yesterday about my meeting with an up and coming Fifa ref.  Now the story continues…

Before and during my game with the Fifa ref I had the chance to keep my ears and eyes wide open and listen to the things he told me. He gave me a nice insight in how the way top refs act and work together with their assistants. And how even the 4th official is working together with the ref during a game.

And he gave me the story of the help Fifa refs have from technology.

The most used and oldest help they have is the buzzer. This is very widespread by now and even in the lower leagues we have refs who have bought the buzzer flags to do the games. It is a rather simple device. The ref puts a band around his arm with the buzzer and the assistants have a flag with a button hidden in the handle. So when the assistant wants or has to make a signal when the ref is standing with his back towards the assistant he can raise his flag and press the button.

And so the ref knows that one of the assistants is trying to get his attention.  He then can look at the assistants and within a fraction of a second blow the whistle when it is needed. The most important use is of course when there is a fight behind the ref’s back. But it is also used when the assistant gives an offside when the player is coming back from an offside position and at first sight there is nothing wrong when the player receives the ball.

In the old days the ref had to look at the assistant to see if there was an offside but while doing that he could miss a foul right under his nose. Now the assistant just raises his flag and the ref knows that he has to make a (offside) decision and so it doesn’t matter if there is a foul or not. He can just give the offside decisions.

A rather more new system is the communication device between the 4 (or 6) officials. All the refs and assistants are wired up with a system where they can talk with each other. For those who have seen the documentary ‘Kill the referee’ they have seen how the refs communicate with each other.  It is of course a very helpful system for the team of referees, but as always there are still a few ifs and buts.

In my country the top class referees get such a system from our local FA.  The cost for such a system is around 4.000,00 euro. The refs get it for free but if they lose it (or if it gets stolen – has happened) they must pay that sum to our local FA. So the refs are very precious about it and handle it with care. And certainly after it had been stolen from one of the top refs they know that our local FA means business when they lose it and have to pay for it.

Another problem is that the technology does not really work in all circumstances. Sometimes the sound quality is bad. And in the big stadiums when there is a lot of noise they sometimes cannot communicate in a proper way. Or worse…they can stop working. Or the battery can go flat. Last season our Fifa ref was doing a top game of the future champions. There was a counter-attack and there was a foul. But from his position he could not see if the foul happened inside or outside the area.  Now before the communication device was used the refs and assistants had a way to know if it was in or outside the penalty area. They could communicate that without speaking. Later more on that how they did it.

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But when working with the ears for so long they are used to just say to each other:  “it was inside“ or “it was outside”.  But at that game they had been having troubles before and during the game. And at the moment the ref blew the whistle for the foul and then waited for the assistant to say in or outside. He didn’t hear him.

He looked at him and the assistant looked back at him. He saw the assistant saying something but the communication was lost. He could see his mouth opening and closing but no sound. Another desperate look and again the assistant said something.  But with the whole stadium waiting for the decision the ref really didn’t know what the correct decision was. And so he  just did what he thought it was.

But it took him so long before he could make the decision that it looked as if he didn’t knew what he was doing and this is always a bad thing for the ref. At a moment like that you want to throw away the communication device because it is not helpful at all. But most of the time it is rather helpful and a great way to make better decisions and to know what the ref or the assistant have seen.  So the system is not really 100% at times but most of the times it works rather well.

To finish this article about the help they have from technology I just want to explain how the refs and his assistants communicate without words or open signals in a case where the ref has seen the foul but doesn’t know if the foul was inside or outside the penalty area.

The assistant has to inform the ref about it without the communication device.  And if you now go to a game where the ref doesn’t have these devices you can see yourself how it works.

So we have a counter after let us say a corner at the other end. The ref is running as fast as he can but as the striker is like Theo, as fast as lightning, so the ref has no chance to come closer. The striker is brought down just at the moment he is about to enter the penalty area. The assistant who is running at the same height as the striker and the defender can see if the foul is outside or inside. The ref sees the clear foul and blows the whistle. And then looks at the assistant who knows that from the moment the ref blows for the foul makes eye contact with the ref.

If the ref himself makes the decision he will just point straightaway to the penalty spot if he thought it was in or his arm in the air if he thought it was outside the penalty area.

But if the ref only blows and looks to the assistant the assistant has to decide : in or out. If it was in the assistant will run towards the goal line and place himself at the edge of the penalty area where he has to stand when a penalty is given.  If he is sure it was just outside he will stop his run and walk a few steps back in the direction of the middle of the field.  And then the ref knows what the decisions should be. Unless you have been watching at the assistant (and apart from myself and other refs nobody notices the assistant at such a moment because the rest is looking at the ref waiting for his decision) you don’t know how the decision was made.

Experienced assistants will still do it that way even when they can just say the word in or out with the communication device as they are used to doing it like that in the past.  And if the assistant of our Fifa ref had been an older one he surely would have done it that way to help the ref when he realised the contact was lost.

So next time you go and see a game you can check the assistant and tell the other people around you what the ref will decide when there is such a  decision to make.

If you accompany this with a knowing nod and a slight chuckle combined with a know-it-all smile and a roll of the eyes you will either look like a total prat, or you will be seen as the smartest guy in the ground – knowing what the ref will do before everyone else.

Indeed, get it right three or four times in a row and you will have have the stand turning to look at you each time the whistle goes.  Offers from broadcasting companies will follow within weeks.


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What is it like being a Fifa Ref?  The inside story.

17 comments to How to know the ref’s decision before anyone else, and become the smartest fan in the ground

  • TheSKAGooner

    Interesting, Walter. Good stuff. 🙂

  • Steve Palmer

    Nice one Walter.
    Nice to know how some of the ways of comunication are transmitted. In my days of playing when we only had a ref if he wasn’t sure he went in favour of the defender. Now i have always thought that the earpeices that they wear were for the FA to tell the ref who they want to win, so thank you for putting me right.:)

  • Arvind

    Ha Ha super super stuff Walter. I loved this article and the previous one. Thank You for all your insights.

  • Domhuaille MacMathghamhna

    Great stuff Walter……in the NASL we used to use hand or flag signals, the assistant would point the flag, held at his hips, in the direction where he thought the ball should be placed. To his or her right, when facing the ref would mean a penalty or indirect inside the area, to his or her left would be outside the area. the NASL didn’t want the assistants seemingly determining where the kick should be taken so it told us to use clandestine signals. We were always told to check what the referee did BEFORE signalling anything other than offside and even throw-ins were included in the ¨follow the referee’s lead¨ instructions. It made sense at the time as the fans would jump all over us if the referee and the linesman seemed to visibly disagree.

  • MJB

    Always a good read on this site! 🙂

  • epl referees hater

    Walter u are a great man ,I LOVE ur article always. thanks

  • LRV

    Very good information, Walter. It just becomes irritatingly annoying sometimes when the Refs just ignores the linesman, sorry, assistant; which they tend to do sometimes.

  • LRV

    Sorry, I mistyped my email address –

    Very good information, Walter. It just becomes irritatingly annoying sometimes when the Refs just ignores the linesman, sorry, assistant; which they tend to do sometimes.

  • Matt Clarke

    Thanks Walter – I will look out for that now.


    At The Emirates, in the case of a possible penalty decision in favour of Arsenal, it has already been decided how the call will go, so no stress for anyone there 😉

  • nicky

    All we need now are honest,unbiased,efficient humans totally
    incorruptible, dedicated to the game of football.
    Where are they and can you help?

  • Stuart

    Thanks for a good read Walter, I had often noticed some things during games. I have seen on the odd occasion, assistants holding a certain number of fingers up just about waist height before as some form of a signal to the ref. I suppose they can agree to certain things before the game to help each other communicate.

    I am with Steve Palmer however in that my synical side makes me think the earpieces are to control the ‘agenda’ set by EPL Control HQ.

  • rantetta

    Great article, Walter.
    I watched England v Holland, women’s footy. (For strictly footballing purposes).

    Anyway, England got a free kick just outside the Dutch area – Yankee checked with the ref if she could take it quickly – the ref said “yes”, and Yankee curled the ball into the net. One-nil England.

    But the thing that got me is that I used to see Arsenal score goals from quickly taken free-kicks, and the last one I remember was circa. 2005, (maybe 2006).

    Not only do refs appear to absolutely make sure that Arsenal do not ever take quick free-kicks – they’ll allow other teams to take a “quicky” AGAINST Arsenal. (There was the classic one in the Champs Lg where the “ref” decided Sol had passed back to Fabianski. The ref even demanded Fabianski gave the ball to him which he immediately gave to our opponents, who duly scored. But that was one of many “bent” performances!

    And so it seems to me that refs are still allowed to let free-kicks be taken quickly, and after all, the offending team shouldn’t be allowed to hold up the game/rhythm – because of infringements by the defending team.

    Its got to the point where the refs have learned to just IGNORE some of our oppositions’ “tackles”, whilst awarding “ghost” free-kicks and penalties against Arsenal.


    Any thoughts?

  • Adam

    @Walter. I thought an assistant had to hold the flag across his/her chest to signal a penalty. Why are you not doing things according to the rules? What gives you guys the right to make a change from whats written, or are the rules just guidlines?

  • WalterBroeckx

    Adam, you are right that is when an assistant takes over from the ref and makes a penalty call. A very rare sight in fact.
    He first makes the alarm signal (waving the flag above his head from right to left) and when the ref blows the whistle he then puts his flag across his/her chest to signal a direct free kick.

    That is of course a slightly different situation than the one I described in my article where the ref gives the foul himself but needs the assistance of the assistant to know if the foul was in or outside.

    So each situation has its different signals…

  • WalterBroeckx

    the quick free kick is not allowed in the very close neighbourhood of the penalty area or in the penalty area. The Porto quick free kick goal was an absolute mistake from the ref.

    There are a few other things that needs to be in order before a ref can give a quick restart of the game after a foul. But the most important thing of course is to apply the rules in the same way for both teams… oh yeah… er…

  • rantetta

    Walter, Thanks.

  • Adam

    @Walter, Sorry for going on, But surely if the ref is looking at the assistant for a decision then the assistant not signalling means the foul happened outside the area. Where if the assistant places the flag across the chest then the foul happened in the area. Surely the assistant can see the ref in need of help in coming to the correct decision within a few seconds, through the absence of the referee signalling. If in doubt the ref can always approach the assistant. I don’t understand the need to guess.