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-= To Play or Not to Play ? =-
To Play or Not to Play? That is the Question!
by Brian Goodlander - (published in Referee Magazine) - 12/01
A Referee for Soccer Association for Youth (SAY), USSF, college and high school in Cincinnati.
He is a USSF assessor and instructor. Additionally, he is a board member of the...
South West Ohio Soccer Officials Association (SWOSOA).

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The beauty of soccer is that it is played in almost any weather conditions. The athletes and officials must be in good condition and properly prepared to play in some of the more foul weather conditions. However, the same two over-riding principles hold fast in all aspects of the game – safety and fairness. These principles apply to weather and field conditions as much as they due to whether a tackle is an excellent play or a free kick..

A simple review of the various soccer organization rulebooks demonstrate that the referee has the authority and responsibility to suspend or terminate a match if the playing conditions warrant it.

  • FIFA – Law 5 – The Referee. IFAB DECISION 1 - …a decision that the conditions of the field of play or its surrounds or that the weather conditions are such as to allow or not to allow a match to take place.
  • USSF - Advice to Referees 5.11 TERMINATING THE MATCH. The referee may terminate a match for reasons of safety (bad weather or darkness)
  • NFHS - Rule 1-7 FIELD CONDITIONS. Once the game begins, and until it ends, the determination of whether or not a game may be safely continued shall be made by the referee.
  • NCAA - Rule 5-5 DISCRETIONARY POWERS. The referee has the discretionary power to: a) Suspend the game whenever, by reason of the elements, interference by spectators, or other cause, such action is deemed necessary… Approved Ruling (A.R.) 63 states: “The game is started in good weather, but conditions rapidly deteriorate and both teams insist on continuing the game. RULING: The referee has the authority to suspend a game for reason of the elements.”

The intent of these rules are clear but the specifics of when and how are vague. Do we stop if I hear thunder? How much rain is too much? What is too cold and what is too hot? What about lightning or ice or fog? Are there hard and fast rules or do they vary from league to league, age to age? Does the referee always make the decision? What if the field proprietor decides not to play a game because of the possible damage to the pitch? These are very difficult and complex questions that are often thrust into the lap of the referee.

Preventative Measures – There are some things that the referee can do prior to a match to make sure he or she is armed with as much knowledge as possible.

These include:

(1) Know the Rules – Make sure that you are aware of the applicable rules for the competition. The NFHS states that the home school athletic director can deem the conditions acceptable to play or not to play up to the beginning of play. Until you start this match, you can not suspend or terminate a match. In some state high school associations, waiting periods have been pre-set by the state. For example, in Ohio there is a set number of minutes that must be waited after the last lightning strike or thunderclap. These are rules that the referee is obliged to follow. It is always wise to consult the match or tournament director on their policy for weather conditions and safety.

(2) Pre-game Field Inspection – An early arrival to the field is even more important than usual if there is currently or threats of foul weather in the course of the match. Is this a pitch that tends to pool water in certain areas. Always take the time to inspect the goal areas. They are usually the hardest beaten and most suspect in the event of bad weather. Discuss with you assistants and fourth official about how to signal to you when they see lightning or believe that the match should be stopped. If there was play on the field earlier that damaged areas of the field, what is there condition now. If the temperature has dropped to below freezing, those same ruts can not be frozen into razor sharp edges that can cause deep cuts on thighs and arms. Don’t forget to look at the touchline areas. They are often one of the least maintained areas on the field. Some venues have benches or stands close to these areas that under normal conditions are sufficiently far away but under slippery conditions can be dangerous. What conditions will your assistants be working in? Should you consider a reverse diagonal to provide them some relief? Understanding the field conditions before the game can provide you with critical information about the safety and well-being of the players as the game nears.

(3) Weather Forecasts – Weather prediction and technology has made tremendous strides over the last 5 years. Check the weather before you leave for a match. This can be done by phone, Internet, or television. I have a pager and a cell phone that can receive weather emergency information automatically. This is important information for determining if there is any point in starting the match or how to long to wait for a small pocket of foul weather to pass.

(4) Detection Devices – Many schools, parks, and tournaments are equipped with detection devices for foul weather, especially lightning. All of us have seen these things work both excellently and poorly. I can remember a detection device go off at a field that was bathed in warm summer sun and perfect playing conditions. We played the entire match without any dark clouds, rain, thunder or lightning. That night I checked the radar on the Weather Channel and nothing was detected with 200 miles of that field. Similarly, I was working a game under fair conditions when the detection device sounded and the storm moved so quickly, we barely made it to cover before multiple lightning strikes blanketed the area. These are just another tool to use to help you make a very difficult decision.

(5) Age of Players – Young players need to learn to play under less than optimal conditions but they also have to learn to enjoy the game first. Albeit cute, we have all suffered through watching two teams of 10 year olds stand around a puddle of water carefully kicking at the ball stuck in the center of the puddle. With young kids, temperature is a key condition to watch. Very hot conditions or very cold conditions can be dangerous to young players. Include a couple of water breaks to assure that the kids don’t dehydrate. Encourage them to drink water when they are not on the field. Adults know the dangers of not wearing sufficient clothing on cold days and can make the choice to wear those gloves or not. Young players do not always realize the dangers and the adult supervision may be caught up in the game too much to realize what’s happening. Older players kick the ball harder and farther than younger players. In foggy conditions, will you be able to follow the flight of the ball and be able to see the landing zone to look for fouls or misconduct? This is an important consideration for fairness and safety.

(6) Traveling Teams – As players get older, teams begin to travel. A college team that has traveled for 3 hours to reach a game site will be very reluctant to not play due to some inclement weather. These situations require some consideration before suspending or terminating a match for foul weather. Can this game be played safely and fairly or do you just not want to get muddy and cold? Be more lenient with traveling teams than local matches but never risk the key principles of safety and fairness.

(7) The Impact – Another factor to consider is the impact of not playing this match will have on the players, teams, standings, and/or league. Many tournaments are forced to stay on schedules or play finals in poor weather and field conditions because of potential interference with league play or inconvenience to traveling teams. Some games are not as critical to standings as other games and the league will likely not replay the games. Other games are critical to standings or are big rivalries. Patience is important here. Player, fans, tournament officials, school administrators are anxious to play and are frustrated by the weather or other conditions that may result in the game being suspended or terminated.

(8) The Score – If the game is a blow-out, the choice is easier than if the game is a draw or a close hard fought battle. That said, the principles are the same. Is it fair to end a match when you may not normally just because one team is losing badly. Those teams, players, schools deserve to play the game. The game score is a contributing factor but should be given less weight than many of the other factors previously discussed.

(9) Back-up Plan – If you decide to play in questionable weather, always make sure that you have a solid, well thought-outback-up plan. Are the bleachers metallic? How far away are the cars? The locker rooms?

We have discussed the why, but what about the how? How do I know when to consider the conditions unplayable? Here are some ideas for making that decision.

  • Heat – In general, this is not a reason for terminating a match. Youth players may need a water break mid-way through a half. Humidity and smog are greater safety concerns. High humidity and bad smog can cause allergic and asthmatic reactions. Many areas have smog alerts. Be aware of these situations and be patient with players having difficulty due to allergies, asthma or dehydration. One more point is that at higher level games the number of substitutions are limited so the players exposure to the high heat is more intense and warrants closer attention.
  • Cold – Extreme cold can be very dangerous. Pay attention to the weather forecast and understand the signs of frostbite. Blue lips or extremities are signs of reduced circulation and overexposure to cold. Fingernails can be could indicators of internal body temperatures. If you are warm, it is likely that the players are doing okay as well. Typically, you should expect to chilled or cold at the very beginning of the game. You should warm up as you exert energy to stay with play. Assistant referees are particularly susceptible to these conditions as they may stand still for longer periods.
  • Rain – Rain, in and of itself, is not a big deal. However, rain combined with other factors can be very dangerous. Cold and rain mixed can result in hypothermia. Rain accompanied by thunder and lightning can create vary dangerous conditions. The impact of a heavy rain is really dependent upon the pitch on which the game is being held. If it drains well, play on. If it becomes a muddy, slippery mess, use your best judgment. Personally, I like to watch how the players are doing. Are they slipping or are they upright? If they slip, do they fall awkwardly and risk serious injury or do they just get muddy. Can the keeper perform their job? Is one end of the field different than the other?
  • Fog – I was involved in a game this last year where as the sunset, fog seemed to appear out of the ground. In the first half it was kind of fun. It reminded me of one of the B horror movies that play at the drive-in. At the start of the second half, however, there was a cross to the area and I could not see the goal or the keeper. At this point, I signaled the referee and terminated the match. Fairness and safety are the keys here. If you stand in the middle of field, can you see the goals? Is one end different than the other? Will your assistants be able to call off-sides?
  • Snow – Snow is a real inconvenience. The touchlines and markings disappear. Players slip and fall and become wet in cold conditions. A slight dusting is harmless but if it impedes the progress of the ball or the safety of the players, terminate or suspend the match.
  • Ice – Ice is perhaps the worst condition for the ground. Rather than a soft landing on grass the player now lands on frozen turf. This can result in serious injury. Damaged areas of the field are now more like a bunch of small knives ready to cut any one that may slip. If the players are older and seem to be able to control themselves and the ball, then play. But if they fall and they complain of injury due to the conditions, end the misery.
  • Thunder & Lightning – Always stay on the conservative safe side of this danger. Lightning strikes are extremely dangerous and a soccer pitch is a prime area for being struck. Large complexes have vast open areas with few trees and typically the players, officials, fans, and coaches are the highest items in the opening. If lightning strikes it will be attracted by these higher items. We recently had a meteorologist at one of our association meetings. He reiterated, using a number of humorous yet frightening stories, that where there is thunder, there is likely lightning. If you hear thunder, look at the sky and see if things are moving quickly or if there are any bright flashes on the horizon. If the game is near completion, you may be able to complete the match. If you or anyone sees lightning, stop the game and get to safety immediately. As a general rule, wait at least 20 minutes after the last lightning was seen before restarting the match.
  • Wind –Generally wind is not a major reason for stopping a match. However, if you are located in area where tornadoes can occur and the conditions are favorable for their formation, wind can tell you a lot about any impending trouble. If you have any reason to believe that severe weather is close by, terminate or suspend the match and get yourself and everyone else to appropriate cover.

It is very difficult to know when a game should be terminated or suspended due to weather or field conditions but with some preventative measures and a watchful eye you can avoid these problems and make the right decision. Remember that safety and fairness are the paramount principles to live by.

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