Recently, in Dutch amateur football, a linesmen died after being attacked by players. This terrible news was directly the reason for the Dutch football association, KNVB, to apply some rules with respect to protesting a lot stricter after the winter break in the professional leagues.

I've been annoyed a lot when watching soccer on television (Champions League for example), when I see a bunch of soccer players protesting against the referee in a quite agressive manner. When watching rugby matches, it doesn't happen as far as I've seen. What is the reason that is does happen in (professional) football, but not in rugby?

  • This is a great question. As a US college rugby player I had mostly great refs. But learned early on you never say a word to the ref. I also had some mildly drunk refs that were terrible and nobody said a word to him either. Not only did players not backtalk the refs but the players on the sideline even kept the fans from complaining.
    – Coach-D
    Commented Mar 15, 2016 at 14:56

5 Answers 5


I think it has to do with the traditions. I believe originally rugby was played by the higher class, with a certain upbringing. I have a colleague who works as a part time rugby ref and he's puzzled as to why the ref doesn't send off half of the players in a football game. I, on the other hand, am often puzzled as to how the refs command so much respect in rugby.

Another point of view could be that football's expansion to take over the world is based on the fact that one really doesn't need much to play football. Compared to some other sports (e.g. ice-hockey), it's cheaper and easier to play football, all you need is a ball (or something that you can use as a ball) and a good imagination (to define the field and goals). "What does that have to do with anything?", you might ask.. Well, if anyone and everyone can play football, however they like, you might argue that people take their local manners and traditions and incorporate it into the game. I play football on amateur level, and the "quality" of the game especially with regards to manners and temperament has been very closely related to which nationalities were present on the field.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, football has become such a huge money-maker so that football associations do not dare/want to impose serious penalties for inappropriate behavior. I mean there isn't a single person in the football world that could imagine giving a 10 match ban to Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, for diving. Or a seasonal ban to whatever player for shouting at the ref's face. I believe the situation has gotten this bad because bad behavior has been tolerated for just way too long.

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    I would add that in rugby, the ref can and is allowed to tell the player who are about to commit a foul (of any kind) to leave the place, release the ball, roll out, etc. Making the decisions he take more clears, and allowing him to show yellow cards for team fouls is also a good point to make it more clear. Football left to much for interpretation.
    – gbianchi
    Commented Dec 26, 2012 at 14:53

I agree with the accepted answer but there is something else pertinent to point out. In Rugby, the ref has a very simple and commonly used option when a player backchats or abuses him for giving a penalty, which is to march the position of the penalty 10 metres closer to the defenders tryline. This provides a meaningful bonus in territory, or assistance in making a penalty goal kick easier, but isn't a huge additional advantage meaning it can be used lightly without the ref worrying about appearing to over-react and unbalance the game with a big call.

I have seen this occur 2 or even 3 times in succession if a player continues to abuse the ref, however usually it is a very effective way of silencing a player quickly and maintaining respect from the players.

There is no equivalent in Football and it wouldn't work anyway since territory is not nearly so important as it is in Rugby (or at least 10 metres either way makes little difference).

In Football a yellow card is too big a penalty to apply for backchat, but that leaves the referee with no options at all for dealing with it. Hockey (field hockey) has a green card that is used amongst other things for backchat, with multiple green cards leading to a yellow. This might be one way to give the referee some protection from abuse in Football.

  • +1: good point I have not thought about that :)
    – posdef
    Commented Dec 26, 2012 at 14:17
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    In a Super XV game last weekend a penalty was changed from a short arm to a long arm due to back chatting. It's a great rule that should be implemented in other codes
    – Greg
    Commented May 5, 2014 at 11:47
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    I disagree that advancing the free kick would not work in football. It only takes a couple of free kicks being advanced to the edge of your penalty area before you quickly learnt to cut out the dissent / delaying ther restart / failure to respect the required distance. Commented Jun 25, 2014 at 5:52
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    This was experimented with (and abandoned). theguardian.com/sport/2015/sep/25/…
    – Mormegil
    Commented Mar 14, 2016 at 20:41
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    It was abandoned because it was poorly implemented. The advancement was not optional, there was no ability to advance free kicks on the edge of the area, and a caution was mandatory, making the punishment too harsh. The experiment was destined to fail. Commented Mar 18, 2016 at 2:12

I'd say something rarely mentioned about the sports themselves : scoring is low in football, but high in rugby and basket and many others sports.

Thus, a small mistake can rarely change the complete outcome of a game in rugby or in basket : to make a team win, the referee generally has to be partial during the whole game ; but in football, a very tiny error and the winner can change.

And this, I think, explains a lot.

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    Good point; however it doesn't explain how refs don't get abused as much in hockey which is more or less on par in number of goals as in football.
    – posdef
    Commented May 12, 2015 at 14:14
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    Because they are way to busy punching the opponents to punch the referees. Plus when this occurs, in most of the case there is no assistant referee, and there is a feeling of injustice from the player. I could add that the conversion rate for penalty kicks in football is way higher than in hockey... (Roughly 80% vs. 40%) which could explain the nervosity when the referee has to make a decision.
    – LeReferee
    Commented May 12, 2015 at 14:35
  • We can even take in consideration the face that in football, the interpretation is more important than the rule and the players will always tend to interpret fouls differently and so will the referees... And a tiny interpretation change can let to a different score even without refereeing error : there is almost never one only good decision in football.
    – LeReferee
    Commented May 12, 2015 at 14:35

In rugby, the ref always comes over to meet the captains of each team before the game so he can identify them on the field. When I first started playing all the older members on my team gave me crazy looks before our first game and ordered all the rookies to never, ever, EVER speak to the ref. If you need to tell him something your captain should relay the message. This year a player got sin-binned (like hockey's penalty box, usually only used for dangerous repeated fouls) for cussing on the field. Additionally, all of our refs are unpaid volunteers at the high school and college level (at least in Texas), so everyone is just grateful that we have a ref at all.


Having refereed both sports, I'd like to offer another possible answer. The laws of rugby support the referee as being the sole 'judge of law and fact'. This places the referee in an esteemed role which is backed up (at least most of the time) by the administrators of the game. Football (soccer) does not have such an explicit status and protection for referees (or, at least, does not enforce it). If football administrators drew a line in the sand of referee abuse, it would all change. Until then, players will continue to have a free regin. This does show that football is more ambivalent about the role of referrees than in rugby.

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