For many years, just three individuals were tasked with keeping law and order in a football game: the referee and their two linesmen. The lexicon changed when the likes of Wendy Toms and Sian Massey-Ellis were promoted to the professional ranks; changing the game and the name of their role from linesman to linesperson. By 1996, the position was renamed as assistant referee – reflecting the its non-gender specific status.
⚽️ HOW FOOTBALL HAS CHANGED?
In 1996 ‘Linesmen’ were re-named ‘Assistant Referees’ to reflect their important role in football and to recognize the growing number of female officials.
— The IFAB (@TheIFAB) October 3, 2019
Around that same time, IFAB – the organisation tasked with updating football’s rules – introduced a new position in the sport’s chain of command: the fourth official. Acting as everything from a second referee to a sort of nightclub bouncer patrolling the technical area, the fourth official is now ubiquitous in the professional game. But, what do they actually do?
The Role of the Fourth Official
There is an entire document published by the Football Association as to the role of the fourth official, which you can download from their website. But if you’re not currently battling insomnia, we can simply streamline the role and responsibility of the fourth official into one bullet point: they are to assist the match referee in any way that the man or woman with the whistle sees fit.
When watching a game on TV, you will typically see the fourth official hovering in and around the two technical areas of the opposing teams – one of their primary functions is to intervene in any argy-bargy between the rival coaches on the sidelines.
The fourth official has something of an administrative role, checking the teamsheets when they are submitted before a game and confirming that all of the players listed are present and correct. They will also check the players’ equipment, ensuring that boot studs and goalkeeper gloves conform to the standards expected. Perhaps their most common function – certainly their most ‘visible’ task is to wield the electronic board, which shows the number of minutes of injury time to be played as well as the shirt numbers of players being substituted onto and off of the pitch.
Interestingly, it’s the fourth official who actually decides how much injury time will be added to each half of the game, proposing an amount that the referee can agree or disagree with based upon what their own watch says. The fourth official does have some power to wield – if they spot an infraction that is missed by the referee, such as some kind of incident involving coaches or substitutes on the touchline, they can inform the main official and advise on a punishment to fit the crime.
What Happens If a Referee Gets Injured?
Even though referees are incredibly fit, they can still pick up injuries just like any other top-tier athlete. In this case, they have to be replaced – for many years, one of the assistant referees would take the whistle and somebody else would be tasked with running the line; incredibly, that can even mean a fan out of the crowd taking the flag if they are suitably qualified to do so.
These days, and certainly at the top levels of the game, fourth officials are qualified and experienced referees in their own right, so they will usually take over the whistle should the match official succumb to an injury.
What Is an Additional Assistant Referee?
For a number of years, UEFA ran a trial in which another pair of match officials – the Additional Assistant Referees (AAR) – were employed. Their primary duty was to patrol the byline next to each goal, checking to see if all of the ball had passed over the line to signal a goal, goal kick or corner.
Just as pertinently, an AAR was told to watch out for pushing, holding and shirt pulling in the penalty area at set pieces – a scourge of the modern game that is almost impossible for the referee to detect at the high speeds that football is played at.
UEFA rolled out the trial at the Euro Under-19 tournament in 2008, with some games of the Europa League during the 2009/10 season also using AAR officials. The journey continued at the Super Cup game of 2011 and Euro 2012, and that very same year IFAB ratified the use of these extra officials in UEFA sanctioned competitions.
Pierluigi Collina, a man not to be trifled with when he was a referee before he retired and became chief refereeing officer at UEFA, commented:
Two extra pairs of eyes focusing on the penalty areas are of valuable assistance to the referee, and strengthen the refereeing team in confidence and numbers, while allowing the game to flow.
However, AARs have since fallen out of popularity – due partly to the fact that some of their functions have been taken on by the advent of VAR officiating.
What Is a Fifth Official in Football?
No, that is not a typo – in football today, a fifth official joins the fourth and the main officiating team in overseeing games at the highest level. It all started at World Cup 2006, with FIFA opting to name five officials for each game. The fifth official would basically assist the fourth official in their duties, while also being qualified to replace either of the assistant referees should they suffer an injury.
They have little in the way of power over the game, although Marcelo Lippi – the then Italy head coach – claimed that the fourth and fifth officials were responsible for the infamous red card shown to the Frenchman, Zinedine Zidane, in the 2006 World Cup final. FIFA denied that was the case. Today, the fifth official has a rather less jazzy title: Reserve Assistant Referee (RAR), with no duty other than to replace an assistant referee should they get injured and be unable to continue.