In football, players often argue with the referees.

What is the upside in allowing players to argue with referees in football? What are the incentives, for whoever makes the rules, to continue to allow this in the game?


3 Answers 3


Actually it is not allowed to argue with the referee. Most referees just tolerate it up to some extent and start cautioning players when they go too far.

The FIFA refereeing guide explicitly mentions this:

A player who is guilty of dissent by protesting (verbally or nonverbally) against a referee’s decision must be cautioned.

The captain of a team has no special status or privileges under the Laws of the Game but he has a degree of responsibility for the behaviour of his team.

Objective is to avoid erosion of authority and the likelihood of the dissent spreading.

But instead of just enforcing this rule the refs use common sense, because they know about the psychology of players (stress, adrenaline, ...) and cautioning every word against their decision would probably end up in a lot of cards.

A good ref knows how to calm the players down in most cases without penalizing them. Controlling a situation earns the referee more respect than a bunch of cards. Therefore the goal is to calm down tricky situations by talking and explaining.

A good communication is the key. If that fails, you can still caution someone. It's like "you called it wrong." - shows card - "Why you hate me?! Now it's two bad calls!" .. Wouldn't it be better to explain the previous call instead of fighting off the players with cautions?

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    Tell me if I'm summarizing correctly. The refs themselves have an incentive to not prevent argument, because by allowing the argument, they get more respect, and respect is important to the refs. (I see you also say that there is an incentive against giving a lot of cards, but you don't really explain this... why is there an incentive against giving a lot of cards... who does this come from? Or is that all part of the same "respect" reasoning?)
    – En Dubbs
    Jun 27, 2018 at 15:43
  • I also don't get the counterfactual to your reasoning? You say "controlling a situation [without penalizing] earns the referee more respect than a bunch of cards". But, what if the ref just gave a bunch of cards... then they'd get less respect, and then what.... why is the outcome of that bad, or rather, who is it bad for?
    – En Dubbs
    Jun 27, 2018 at 15:45
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    Cards slow down the game; fans and players don't like that, and prefer to "play on" after minor incidents. From the players' point of view, if a ref warns a player after the first incident, and then gives a yellow to that player after the second time, players will learn to respect the ref's warnings. If a ref gives many yellow cards over minor rules infractions, after a certain point players will begin getting ejected from the game.
    – sam
    Jun 27, 2018 at 15:58
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    @EnDubbs if a ref tries to calm down a game by giving more cards the players would almost always show the opposite and get even more aggressive, because they feel even more disadvantaged. Therefore the goal is to calm down tricky situations by talking and explaining. A good communication is the key. If that fails, you can still caution someone. It's like "you called it wrong." - shows card - "Why you hate me?! Now it's two bad calls!" .. Wouldn't it be better to explain the previous call instead of fighting off the players with cautions?
    – dly
    Jun 27, 2018 at 17:08
  • @dly That's the missing point that I think needs to be fleshed out in your answer then. I don't see how you come to the conclusion that this talk-back would escalate instead of disappear after a few games under the system where this was enforced more strictly. It would be better if this was clear in your answer. "Wouldn't it be better to explain the previous call instead of fighting off the players with cautions?" -> I don't know; that's my question. And if it is better, why is it better? And for whom?
    – En Dubbs
    Jun 27, 2018 at 17:21

In no sport are players permitted explicitly to argue with the officials, and in most, including football, they are specifically disallowed from doing so.

The laws state that a player guilty of dissent must be cautioned - this is a mandatory discipline. However, what counts as dissent is for the referee alone to determine - providing the space for good officials to manage the situation as an interpersonal relations exercise.

The best officials work with players and understand their attitudes and responses, frequently because they are or were players themselves, and sometimes at the same level they officiate. Developing this rapport makes it much more likely that future decisions will be respected.

Especially as football does not often see red cards (sent off) and scores are quite low, these decisions can change the game; FIFA even calls them "game-changing decisions" in its documents and videos and public release material. Thus, understanding and accepting the emotions around these situations is important.

If the objective is to minimise dissent and encourage a flowing game, they can achieve that by making decisions as transparent as possible and encouraging players to understand the decisions, and showing empathy for their emotional side.

TLDR: As long as the referee establishes a clear line between requesting clarity and stating dissent, and enforces warnings or additional discipline for crossing that line, ignoring a little argument on occasion is not a problem.


It is already illegal for players to protest a decision (dissent), or use offensive, insulting and/or abusive language or gestures.

Law 12 - Fouls and Misconduct, Section 3 - Disciplinary Action:

A player is cautioned if guilty of:


  • dissent by word or action


A substitute or substituted player is cautioned if guilty of:


  • dissent by word or action


A player, substitute or substituted player who commits any of the following offences is sent off:


  • using offensive, insulting or abusive language and/or gestures

Law 5 - The Referee, Section 2 - Decisions of the Referee:

The decisions of the referee regarding facts connected with play, including whether or not a goal is scored and the result of the match, are final. The decisions of the referee, and all other match officials, must always be respected.

Laws of the Game - Glossary [pdf]:


Public disagreement (verbal and/or physical) with a match official’s decision; punishable by a caution (yellow card)


Offensive, insulting or abusive language

Verbal or physical behaviour which is rude, hurtful, disrespectful; punishable by a sending-off (red card

Now to answer the question as to the incentives as to why it occurs, based on my experience refereeing various levels of football.

  • At the lowest levels of the game (i.e. low-level amateur football), referees may lack the necessary training or strength of character to deal with dissent. They may not like to take strong action as it may lead into unfamiliar territory, so they just ignore it and try to get on with the game.
  • At the highest levels of the game (i.e. professional football), referees are reluctant to caution and send players off for behaviour that does not impact the opponents and that they believe they can manage, as they feel it may reflect poorly on their player management abilities. They are also reluctant to verbally admonish / warn players, as players know dissent is ignored so widely, so such a warning would have no effect.
  • In the highest levels of amateur football, dissent generally is not tolerated as referees at this level don't have spectators to impress, know how to deal with it and know that failing to deal with it could reduce match control and their enjoyment. Players are regularly cautioned for dissent at this level, and send-offs for a second caution are regularly for being cautioned twice for dissent.
  • In other sports, referees, umpires and officials have a wider range of sanctions that can be applied for dissent - e.g. in rugby a penalty can be awarded without a card, in (field) hockey a free hit can be advanced towards the goal. In football, it is all or nothing - the referee can either apply the second most severe sanction (which might end up being a send-off if the player has already been cautioned), or simply give warnings, which may be seen as pointless depending on how dissent is managed at that level of the game.

If referees at the highest levels took stronger action on dissent, it would only take a few competition rounds before new expectations were set, and dissent was reduced. Unfortunately, there would be significant public and media pressure on the football authorities to drop referees who had taken stronger action (think about all the hit pieces that already are written with comments such as "the referee ruined the game", "the referee was hungry for attention", "referees are taking passion out of the game", etc.)

An alternative solution that would allow referees to keep all 11 players on the park, yet disincentivise dissent would be allowing referees to award free kicks or advance free kicks for dissent that is low-level, i.e. not public, personal or persistent without requiring a caution (yellow card). However, I don't see IFAB making such a change anytime soon. A similar initiative was trialled in 2000 and had positive feedback from referees:

Statistics from the Auto Windscreens Trophy this season show that in 40 games, there have been 850 free kicks and 16 'advancements'. The FA say that its real value is as a deterrent to bad behaviour, however. One referee reported that 'dissent was non-existent 30 metres from goal,' another that players 'ran away like scalded cats'.

In the end this experiment failed, possibly because referees still had to show a card before the advancement or awarding of a free kick could take effect, and mostly because FIFA did not like it.

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    The 10-yard advancement rule is such a brilliant idea! The reasoning that "the countries which are not familiar with rugby wouldn't get their heads around the advancement rule" is so wrong. I come from a country where no one has any idea what rugby is, yet this rule seems so intuitive to me.
    – gdrt
    Jun 28, 2018 at 9:35
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    @gdrt Yeah, I'm scratching my head as to why it's not done. I spend probably 99% of my sporting time watching football, and whenever I watch other sports, I'm amazed at how well the officials are treated, possibly due to the threat of this rule. Jun 29, 2018 at 1:50

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