Proper substitution procedure: why can’t referees get it right?!

We watched several local games over the past couple weeks.  It boggled our mind that all of the refereeing crews in all of these games failed to observe and enforce a proper substitution procedure. Unfortunately, this was not something out of ordinary. Over the past several years, we have noticed that referees consistently fail to adhere and enforce the substitution procedure that is spelled out in the Laws of the Game.  For example, referees regularly let substitutes to enter the field of play before substituted players exit it.  Or, the substitutes were allowed to enter the field of play from the area next to their team’s bench and not from the halfway line. We also saw the referees allowing substitutions to take place before their assistant referees were even informed that a team wanted to substitute a player or before a substitution slip was completed.

Given that the substitution procedure is quite simple to understand and apply, there is really no good excuse for not following it.  However, given the widespread failures that we observed, we thought that a short primer on the substitution procedure is merited.

According to the Laws of the Game, in order to replace a player with a substitute, the following conditions must be met:

  • the referee must be informed before any proposed substitution is made
  • the substitute only enters the field of play after the player being replaced has left and after receiving a signal from the referee
  • the substitute only enters the field of play at the halfway line and during a stoppage in the match
  • the substitution is completed when a substitute enters the field of play
  • from that moment, the substitute becomes a player and the player he has replaced becomes a substituted player
  • the substituted player takes no further part in the match
  • all substitutes are subject to the authority and jurisdiction of the referee, whether called upon to play or not.

In addition, the IFAB issued the following pertinent guidelines with respect to the substitution procedure:

  • A substitution may be made only during a stoppage in play
  • The assistant referee signals that a substitution has been requested
  • The player being substituted receives the referee’s permission to leave the field of play, unless he is already off the field for reasons that comply with the Laws of the Game
  • The referee gives the substitute permission to enter the field of play
  • Before entering the field of play, the substitute waits for the player he is replacing to leave the field
  • Permission to proceed with a substitution may be refused under certain circumstances, e.g. if the substitute is not ready to enter the field of play

The USSF reiterated the importance of following the substitution procedure.  In particular, it pointed out to some of the pitfalls that may befall those who do not follow the proper procedure. It stated in its Advice to Referees that:

Referees who deviate from the formal process by which a substitute becomes a player – whether in the interest of saving time or because the steps are thought to be too complex and cumbersome – do so at their peril and will eventually discover that the Laws of the Game specify the procedure for very good reasons. Deviations may lead to situations that the referee cannot settle within the Law.  For example, a substitute might commit a violent act after being allowed to enter the field before the player being replaced has left. Then the referee must decide whether the act was misconduct and, if the guilty party is dismissed, whether the team plays short.

Importantly, the Laws of the Game provide appropriate enforcement mechanisms to ensure the compliance with the proper substitution procedure.  Indeed, the Law 3 provides that if a substitute or a substituted player enters the field of play without the referee’s permission:

  • the referee must stop play (although not immediately if the player in question does not interfere with play or if advantage can be applied)
  • the referee must caution him for unsporting behavior
  • the player must leave the field of play

These widespread failures to follow the substitution procedure are surprising. We are not quite sure what their cause is. Perhaps there is not enough emphasis or instruction during referee training sessions on the subject. But whatever the reason is, the Laws of the Game clearly spell out what the procedure is and all referees should follow it.

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