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In association football, after a foul, the referee lets play continue but the team benefiting from the advantage immediately stop playing anyway, either because they would rather have a free kick or because they knew it was a foul and anticipated. This happened to me as a ref.

Does the referee award the initial free kick, or are players not allowed to decline advantage given by the referee?

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The other answers quote the relevant section of the Laws. It's not entirely clear from the Laws that advantage is a discretionary decision, but the following from IFAB's practical guidelines [pdf] clarifies that this is the case:

The referee may play advantage whenever an offence occurs but should consider the following in deciding whether to apply the advantage or stop play:

  • the severity of the offence – if the offence warrants a sending-off, the referee must stop play and send off the player unless there is a clear opportunity to score a goal
  • the position where the offence was committed - the closer to the opponent’s goal, the more effective the advantage can be
  • the chances of an immediate, promising attack
  • the atmosphere of the match

In your specific example, you need to simply decide whether, during the period you were attempting to play advantage, the team ends up in a better position than they would have been if the free kick had been given. Once this benefit occurs there is no going back to the free kick, regardless of whatever happens next.

For example, if a foul occurs near halfway and the ball ends up say 20 metres up field in the possession of a teammate of the fouled player, who has a promising attacking opportunity, they can't simply leave the ball and expect to get the free kick - the anticipated advantage has already ensued.

If however, the ball ends up with a player who might be able to do something with it, but at no point do they end up with a better opportunity than the free kick would have provided (i.e. a benefit), if they choose not to play the ball, they're effectively forcing your hand into giving the free kick (which you should go with and simply award).

It can be very difficult in these situations to avoid double-dipping - where a team ends up in a better position than the free kick, makes a mistake, then attempt to con the referee into giving the original free kick. This should be avoided where possible by not looking for advantages that are never going to occur, or by failing to signal early enough when the advantage actually ensues.

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The players have no say in it and the referee is the sole judge of whether to play advantage or not.

The referee needs to decide in each instance whether the team who has been fouled will get more out of a free kick or if play continues.

You will rarely see advantage given in a team's defending half as taking a free kick is of greater value to get the ball up the other end of the pitch. Likewise, you rarely see advantage played on fouls around the penalty area (unless there is an immediate opportunity for a shot on goal) as a team would rather setup for a free kick and have their specialist take it.

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Advantage can only be attained if it benefits the non-offending team.

In the case where a foul is made by Team A and the players of Team B have a chance to develop play, if Team B were to stop playing the ball (or in the extreme cases, kick it directly out or to an opponent on Team A) an aware referee will not claim this to be advantage given, and award the free kick.

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Law 5 of the Laws of the Game: The Referee: 3. Powers and duties clearly favors the non-offending team:

Advantage allows play to continue when an offence occurs and the non-offending team will benefit from the advantage and penalises the offence if the anticipated advantage does not ensue at that time or within a few seconds.

So, if the non-offending team can't benefit from the advantage no matter why within a few seconds, then the referee should penalise the offence.

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