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Ken Aston - the referee who change history in soccer

12 years ago, on October 23, 2001 the world of soccer and the referee community experienced the great loss of a man who was responsible for important changes in officiating history. We would like to remember Kenneth George Aston and share his story with all of you.

Special thanks to for allow the use of their pictures.

By Francisco Davila, USRC

Kenneth George Aston

(1 September 1915 – 23 October 2001)

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Ken Aston’s  early life and career

One cannot imagine modern soccer without yellow and red cards, terms that are now even used in the proverbial sense. They were "invented" 47 years ago by Ken Aston, an Englishman who sadly passed away having made invaluable contributions to soccer and to the art of refereeing in particular.


Teachers must perform many roles in their profession and not just within the confines of the classroom. In England, where sport has always been an important part of the school curriculum, teachers often assume the role of the referee. Kenneth George Aston did just that in Essex in 1935. He had just turned 20 and was new to the world of teaching, when he was asked to take charge of a soccer match. It is probably fair to say that his pupils were more disciplined than the players at the 1962 FIFA World Cup in Chile or in England in1966. He first became a soccer League assistant referee (or linesman)  and then a League referee in  1949-50.


In World War II he was rejected by the Royal Air Force because of an ankle injury. He  subsequently joined the Royal Artillery before transferring to the British Indian Army where, by war’s end,  he had the rank of lieutenant-colonel and served on the Changi War Crimes Tribunal.

Ken Aston at Wold Cup 1962, Chile vs Italy.

This game was know later as the "Battle of Santiago"

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On his return from military service in 1946, Aston became the first League referee to wear the black uniform with white trim which became the standard for referees. The following year he introduced bright yellow linesmen's flags in place of the pennants in the colors of the home team which had been used previously.  In 1953 he became head teacher at Newbury Park School, London, and progressed to refereeing senior League matches.


But that was to change dramatically at the 1962 FIFA World Cup in Chile. Aston was given the honor of refereeing the opening game between the host nation and Switzerland , a game that he controlled impeccably. Impressed by his performance, FIFA decided to name Aston in place of the original referee for the match between Chile and Italy, as they saw the Englishman as an experienced and reliable figure.

Aston was not exactly overjoyed by FIFA's decision, as the build-up to the match suggested the game would be a volatile one. Chilean newspapers claimed that Italian journalists had penned articles that cast doubt upon the beauty and morals of Chilean women. The emotionally charged game had now become a matter of honor, and  football itself was only a secondary issue in the now infamous "Battle of Santiago".


"I wasn't officiating a football (soccer) match, I was acting as an umpire in military maneuvers," he was to remark in later years. He was no stranger to conflict, having served in World War II. But the nature of the game in Santiago merely confirmed everybody's worst fears. Armed police had to enter the field on three separate occasions to help the referee restore order. Aston sent off two Italian players, and had to break up a number of scuffles and fights on the pitch. The host nation eventually emerged as 2-0 winners.


In 1963, Aston refereed the FA Cup Final, and subsequently retired from officiating matches. Three years later, FIFA came calling, and invited him to join their Referees Committee, which he chaired from 1970 to 1972. His new role at FIFA would see Aston involved yet again in one of the most controversial moments in FIFA World Cup history. In 1966, host England met Argentina in the quarter-final at Wembley, and Aston, who was in charge of refereeing at the tournament, had to use all of his diplomacy and powers of persuasion to calm down the Argentine captain Rattín after his sending off, and to prevent the match being abandoned.


Red and Yellow Cards

Following an incident in the England vs Argentina match in the 1966 World Cup, Aston became aware that Jack Charlton had been booked by the German referee, Rudolf Kreitlein. Charlton called the press office, where Aston was located (as Head of World Cup Referees), in order to confirm the information that he had read in the newspaper that Kreitlein had booked him. Aston, driving from Wembley Stadium to Lancaster Gate that same evening, had Charlton's situation on his mind during the trip.


On the way, as he stopped at a traffic light at Kensington High Street, Aston realized that a color-coding scheme based on the same AMBER/YELLOW (Caution) - RED (Stop) principle as used on traffic lights would traverse language barriers and clarify to players and spectators that they had been cautioned or sent off .Another contributing factor was the controversy over Argentine player Antonio Rattín's dismissal in the same match, as Kreitlein sent him off for thinking the player was insulting him, despite not understanding a word of Spanish. Thus was devised the system whereby referees show a yellow card for a caution and a red card for a send off, which were first used in the 1970 World Cup.

Ken Aston with the BBC team that covered the World Cup 1966 in England

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American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) Involvement

FIFA referee prime instructors have played a major role in AYSO  by advancing youth referee skills. The first FIFA ref instructor invited by AYSO was Diego DeLeo in the 1960’s. He  not  only  instructed  but he also demonstrated by officiating a few AYSO games for his students.


Ken Aston, as a  FIFA referee instructor,  took AYSO one step further. While conducting AYSO referee classes, Ken became involved in studying the growth of AYSO and the AYSO philosophies that make AYSO successful. While most of the USA affiliated youth soccer programs were also successful, they lacked the logistical means to seek out and develop un-approached gifted players.

In 1966 Aston also introduced the practice of naming a substitute referee who could take over in the case of the referee being unable to continue for any reason (this eventually evolved into the practice of having a designated fourth official).

He also successfully proposed that the pressure of the ball be specified in the Laws of the Game.


In 1974 he introduced the number board for substitutes, so that players could easily understand who was being substituted.

Ken Aston teaching in AYSO, his prase: "Refereeing is thinking"

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Identifying gifted soccer players was a natural by-product of AYSO with their “Everyone Plays” on “Balanced Teams” philosophies. Ken often re-visited AYSO and developed an affinity toward the AYSO youth soccer organizational and growth procedures that were capturing the American public’s attention and involvement.


Ken Aston was enamored by the statistical growth of AYSO and the volunteerism of parents to be coaches and referees. Ken knew that with increasing numbers of AYSO players , coaching and refereeing skills would soon reach into the multitude of  AYSO graduates. In addition, Paul Harris, Larry Harris, and Joe Bonchonsky demonstrated the “three referees on the field” (TROF) system at the professional and youth level for Ken Aston to evaluate. Ken had the best of compliments for the fluidity of play and improved scoring when each player knew that there was a pair of referee eyes in nearby proximity and a pair of ref eyes in front of and behind them. . The TROF referee system of officiating not only had a major impact upon Ken Aston but also on  the  expansion of AYSO.  The goal of never having a new referee all alone on the field via TROF during a youth soccer game was of prime importance in attaining “Fair Play” within AYSO.


To avoid having an inexperienced referee by himself, the three referee on the field system would have the learning ref in the center with one experienced ref leading and one experienced ref trailing with appropriate communication signals to avoid  having  a learning ref “botch” a game for which both teams had trained hard . There is nothing more disadvantageous then to have teams play their hearts out only to find that a critical intentional foul that may impact the game’s  outcome  was not seen because the one ref missed it. Paul Harris, Larry Harris and Joe Bonchonsky have officiated approximately 2,000 soccer games each, at the AYSO youth, international youth, high school, college, and professional (coach Terry Fisher’s pre-season NASL  LA Aztecs) soccer games.  Ken Aston experienced the best of officiating performance not because the referees were qualified but because the Three Referee on the Field system allowed the players to perform to the best of their abilities. TROF studies revealed that more goals were scored when the TROF system was employed simply because the players were aware that negative tactics did not succeed. The major benefits of the TROF system are not only in training referees but because the levels of soccer where “ruffians” dominate are in dire need of fairness.


One of the major benefits of the Three Refs On the Field system is acknowledged when the One Ref system is compared to the TROF system. In the One Ref System, the ref is usually a younger man and therefore limited in experience. The one ref must run at least seven miles to fulfill his field coverage responsibilities in a quality game. The historical evidence of missed calls (Maradona, Henry, etc.) have seriously impacted  those teams which have trained for months if not years to be turned back by the use of “tradition” instead of “fair play” in the world’s sport of soccer. It is not the fault of the solo referee simply because he would have called those intentional fouls, if seen. The financial economics of the One Ref system keeps it alive but the cost is too high.


AYSO is fully occupied in not only teaching the playing skills of soccer but also in the preparation of youth in learning to play a sport were fairness is of prime importance. The fact that AYSO is not conflicted with affiliated tradition and, most importantly, developing the foundation of skills in achieving the highest quality of play, the TROF system of refereeing has been tested at all levels and the results are magnificent not only in the quality of play but the improvement in fluidity in a non-stop contest.

The criticisms of the TROF System are listed by the traditionalists who will not even test it. The statement that three different referees have varied interpretations of some fouls is valid. However, with the experience of three older refs, the decisions were most compatible and appropriate; the difference was far superior to the one ref with lesser experience. The statement that the TROF system will initiate time interruptions is also “potentially” true. The “traditionalists” are entitled to their energy to preserve the “old country ways” but in America the cry for more goals will not be made by the traditionalists who fully accept the 0-0 tie. True, the cost of three referees on the field is higher but the price for soccer’s success in America does not impact AYSO where the three refs are volunteers and “crime does not pay” is taught at the earliest of ages. The numbers of games that are “tainted” by the one ref system are usually the result of poor referee mechanics and not the abilities of a single referee.


The two-referee system dominates the American college scene but with the older more experienced players, the TROF system will provide the most important ingredient in college soccer, “players decide the end result of American soccer, not tradition, nor referees out of view.” 

Ken Aston provided an excellent example of studying AYSO youth soccer and its influence on traditionalists who took the time to witness the American interpretations of procedures that would succeed in America. In experiencing the TROF system being illustrated even at the professional level, Ken Aston not only praised the fluidity but also the ease of a working relationship by three experienced referees who were not influenced by tradition.  True, the three men, in the TROF demonstration to Ken Aston had worked together for many years as a team and the soccer mechanics of their location on the field of play with respect to the action of play was influential not only in the officiating of the game but also the impact on the player who wanted to perform at his best.


Ken Aston was honored by his induction into the AYSO National Hall of Fame not only because of his high stature in the world of soccer referees but also that he instructed his FIFA associates about the AYSO success story. Ken Aston stood firm on instructing his FIFA colleagues about the AYSO PHILOSOPHIES that he appreciated in AYSO’S growth of youth soccer that was capturing the American public. Ken Aston is a classic example of men and women who honored AYSO with their foresight and attention, and we honor Ken Aston as an AYSO PIONEER HONOREE.


If you want to see more pictures or learn more about Ken Aston life, we invite you to visit a website dedicated to Ken Aston.

We want to thanks them for let us use some pictures.

Ken Aston at AYSO explain the origins of "Offside"

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Ken Aston at "The Battle of Santiago" World Cup 1966

Ken Aston at AYSO explain the origins of "Offside"

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Ken Aston... 1963 FA Cup Final Manchester United vs Leicester City
Wembley Stadium the - hand sake

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