The 17 Laws of the Game and the Enforced Silence of Koman Coulibaly

Two years ago, I had the great pleasure to interview Ian Blanchard, Head of National Referee Development at the English FA, for Soccerlens. Mr. Blanchard sets the training standards for all professional English referees and evaluates them after each Premiership match. I would like to provide two excerpts from that interview:

In your opinion, what are the key attributes that a modern-day referee must have to be successful domestically and internationally?

“This same discussion came up in a workshop I was running in Malaysia for AFC Elite Referees.

It’s interesting that wherever you go in the world the general characteristics crop up as being essential to be a top quality referee.

You need to be a good communicator, not just of decisions made but equally important have the ability to get your message across to players, managers and spectators. You need to be a salesperson, just like selling a cart. You have to convince people you are confident in your ability to control the game and that your decision making is accurate. A high level of confidence is required, coupled with good knowledge on the laws of the game as well as the dynamics of football.

I also think you need an inner strength to cope with the pressure and expectations of the game. In adversity it is important you shake off negativity and concentrate on the positives of your performance. As I stated fitness plays an important part as does mental fitness. Referees are required to remain calm, controlled and develop high concentration levels to be successful.”


The protagonist of USA vs Slovenia: Koman Coulibaly from Mali
The protagonist of USA vs Slovenia: Koman Coulibaly from Mali

What do you think is the most misunderstood aspect of the refereeing profession by coaches, players, fans, and the media?

“I still think in a lot of cases there is a general lack of understanding of the laws of the game. I have attended pre-season meetings and been totally surprised by managers’ interpretations and mis-understanding of certain laws such as Law 11 covering offside. I think that raising awareness of everyone involved in the game concerning the role of the referee, how they go about their business, would go some way towards developing a degree of empathy.”

FIFA President Sepp Blatter with UEFA President Michel Platini at Ellis Park
FIFA President Sepp Blatter with UEFA President Michel Platini at Ellis Park

The 17 Laws of the Game

  • 1 – The field of play
  • 2 – The ball
  • 3 – The number of players
  • 4 – The players’ equipment
  • 5 – The referee
  • 6 – The assistant referees
  • 7 – The duration of the match
  • 8 – The start and restart of play
  • 9 – The ball in and out of play
  • 10 – The method of scoring
  • 11 – Offside
  • 12 – Fouls and misconduct
  • 13 – Free kicks
  • 14 – The penalty kick
  • 15 – The throw-in
  • 16 – The goal kick
  • 17 – The corner kick

Interpretation of the Laws of the Game and Guidelines for Referees

Laws 5 and 6 detail the responsibilities of referees and assistant referees. I would like to highlight two sections quoting directly from FIFA’s own guidelines:

‘What needs to be seen’ is not always in the vicinity of the ball. The referee should also pay attention to:

  • aggressive individual player confrontations off the ball
  • possible offences in the area towards which play is heading
  • offences occurring after the ball is played away.

Offences committed by two players from the same team:

  • the referee must punish the most serious offence when players commit more than one offence at the same time
  • play must be restarted according to the most serious offence committed

Offences committed by players from different teams:

  • the referee must stop play and restart it with a dropped ball from
    the position of the ball at the time of the stoppage, unless play was
    stopped inside the goal area, in which case the referee drops the ball on
    the goal area line parallel to the goal line at the point nearest to where
    the ball was located when play was stopped.”

Proper Positioning on a Free Kick

FIFA had a special section that might be of interest given what happened at Ellis Park on Friday evening between the USA and Slovenia. On page 72 from the link below, there are four interesting graphical images about referee positioning on a free kick. The first shows where the match official should be for a free kick from the right side. We can’t reproduce the graphics here so please take a look when you have a chance.

Courtesy of, 2009/2010 Laws of the Game, pages 70-72.

The Example of Jim Joyce

Last month in American baseball, a bad call was made that denied a pitcher (bowler) of a rare accomplishment called a “Perfect Game.” The umpire, Jim Joyce (umpires are baseball match officials) reviewed his mistake after the game on videotape. He apologized profusely to the pitcher, his team and to fans. Mr. Joyce received an ovation when he was introduced the next day at the baseball ground in Detroit. Mr. Joyce was not obligated to apologize for his decision. He recognized his mistake and asked forgiveness. Joyce will forever be remembered for this bad decision due to its gravity. A perfect game has happened only 20 times in the history of the sport of baseball. Joyce’s example after the fact should also be remembered for his demonstration of courage, humanity and grace under tremendous pressure.

The Enforced Silence of Koman Coulibaly

The FIFA match official, Koman Coulibaly, does not have to tell us what he saw that made him decide to negate what seemed to be a perfectly valid goal by Maurice Edu of the USA. Was it an offside, pushing offense, grab, hold, dangerous play or something else? And by which American? You will note a few Slovenians on the video who appear in violation of one of the infractions listed in Law 12 that the match officials decided not to enforce. For example, let’s take a look at holding an opponent.


 Landon Donovan with the match officials after the game at Ellis Park
Landon Donovan with the match officials after the game at Ellis Park

Holding an Opponent

“Holding an opponent includes the act of preventing him from moving past or around using the hands, the arms or the body.

Referees are reminded to make an early intervention and to deal firmly with holding offences especially inside the penalty area at corner kicks and free kicks.”

Courtesy of, 2009/2010 Laws of the Game, page 110.

Coulibaly and his assistants do not have to face the media, fans or managers. We are left wondering and have to wait for FIFA’s investigation because the governing body bars him or any match official from making any public statements.

A Learning Experience or the Status Quo at FIFA?

We need to recognize that mistakes happen at the highest levels in professional sports. Governing bodies can make life easier for all concerned. FIFA can learn from the situation at Ellis Park if they so desire. Or FIFA can enforce the status quo of silence.

Steve Amoia is a freelance writer, editor and translator from Washington, D.C. He writes the World Football Commentaries blog. He has written for AC Cugini Scuola Calcio (Italian soccer school), Football Media, Keeper Skool and Soccerlens.

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