Some questions about interchangeability of referees and assistant referees:

  • Are referees exclusively referees and assistant referees exclusively assistant referees?
  • Can assistant referees officiate football games under normal or under some special circumstances, and vice-versa?
  • Is there a difference in rules of how referees and assistant referees are chosen / appointed between countries or level of competition? Or is this governed by FIFA and standardized?

I'm asking this because I never saw an assistant referee in the role of the main referee or vice-versa. This obviously watching the top-level leagues only, so I might be missing something - let me know if that's the case.

  • Please try and keep to just one question per post.
    – Philip Kendall
    Jan 4, 2016 at 17:49
  • 1
    @PhilipKendall All the questions target interchangeability of referees and assistant referees, so I thought to sum them up into one. Do you suggest I post a separate question for each of the above? I can do that if that would be better. Jan 4, 2016 at 17:52
  • @steadyrain see this for a general guideline
    – user527
    Jan 4, 2016 at 19:01
  • Thanks @mastermind_ed - I've move some parts of my original question into this. Jan 4, 2016 at 20:23

1 Answer 1


Just going from what i've seen happen so far and what's common to my knowledge:

In Belgium and most countries/top leagues a normal game has 4 officials: 1 referee, 2 assistant referees and 1 extra assistent referee handling the subsitutions, keep coaches in their box,... The extra assistant referee here in Belgium, at top level at least, is always a normal referee. So if something happens(=injury) to the main referee he is the substitute. He will also be the substitute if something happens to an assistant referee. So they are somewhat interchangeable.

But mostly, referees are more or less fixed trios where everyone has his fixed assignment as either referee or assistant referee. These will not change. The league will then appoint an additional fourth member that has no other game to officiate that day.

As for assistant referees taking over a referee's position, yes it is possible, but not common as in professional games their would have to happen at least 2 injuries before it would be up to one of them. They would also know the rules ofcourse. So they should be able to pick up the role in rare instances. But AFAIK I've not seen it happen. Somewhat the other way around, by means of the extra 'main referee', I have seen happen in both instances. These being replacing a main referee or an assistant referee after them being injured.

So, yes they are. But as you may guess, it won't be optimal as the assistant referee has no/less experience in the main referee's role and the main referee will probably be less trained in offside situations (and is less used to waving a flag instead of blowing his whistle).

  • Actually, I believe there will typically a fifth designated replacement referee in case one of the other four becomes incapacitated and they do not actually "rotate through". It may depend on the level of play, though. During the European Championship and the FIFA World Cup that's definitely the case. Jan 7, 2016 at 13:06
  • Never seen it, even on European Championship/ FIFA WC. For Belgium and similar divisions I'm pretty confident there is no fifth referee present, just because they do not have that many manpower to do so. But not saying it could not be the case for big tournaments like the forementioned ones. There are already two extra referees present there too. And if there are games where the needed manpower would be available it's these ones. ;)
    – Don_Biglia
    Jan 7, 2016 at 13:46
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    I just found this: wikipedia.org/wiki/… So, apparently, that was only the case in 2006. And I was half wrong: the fourth official is indeed the intended replacement for the head referee, whereas the fifth referee is the intended replacement for an assistant referee. Also, he doesn't act purely as a replacement, he also assists the fourth referee. Jan 7, 2016 at 13:51

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