This question often surfaces in the mind of officials, recently licensed or experienced, who aspire to become one of those “good referees.” One thing that immediately comes to mind is that the referee must act to control the game before the players control it. It is far easier to lose control of a game than regain it.
How do the “good referees” get and keep control of a game? Most referees are aware of three elements:
However, what is not consistently recognized is that the order of importance of those three elements varies between referees, coaches, and players. The order will also change with the age and experience of the players.
For referees, the order of the priorities with young players is Safety, Equality, and Enjoyment. Young players, however, view the priorities as Enjoyment, Equality, and Safety. Young players have not developed any safety concept—if they did, they would not climb trees or run across the street.
For coaches and older players, the order becomes Equality, Safety, and Enjoyment. To have successful game control without excessive interference, it is important to recognize these priorities and referee accordingly. To emphasize the idea of this order, a few years ago, FIFA introduced the slogan “Fair Play, Please,” which can be seen displayed on uniforms and signs around the world.
The referee needs to look beyond calling fouls and misconduct in adult and older youth games. To achieve a well-controlled game, where problems and acts of gamesmanship decrease, they need to look at what is fair or not.
In other words, change the focus from the wrongdoers to the player who has been wronged. If a player is fouled enough to affect their ball control, a referee needs to take action, or sooner or later, the wronged player or a teammate will. When that happens, the players start to take control of the game.
Your “justice” does not always have to be a stoppage and a free kick or the showing of a card. Often a word or some action directed at the wrongdoer that the wronged player can witness may be enough. The action may even be applying the advantage; however, make sure not to overuse the advantage as many less experienced players prefer the free kick. Justice needs to be seen to have been served.
The focus on an unfair play requires the officiating team to be in the right place at the right time. That requires the team to be well trained, in good physical condition, and have good game mechanics.
Suppose the referee focuses on looking for fouls and misconduct, which will occur in most plays between opponents. In that case, the game will suffer from excessive stoppages or be under marginal control.