Trickery?

Joe, a U13 – U19 player, asks:

I was coaching a game this week and the following occurred: center back receives a pass with his foot, flicks the ball into the air and heads it back to his goalkeeper. The goalkeeper picks up the ball and punts it. Was that a legal back pass? I was under the impression that this constituted some sort of illegal trickery, but I don’t see this in the Laws of the Game.

Answer

It’s there, you just have to know where to look.  In the current edition of the Laws of the Game (2018/2019), the following bullet point is included in the list of specific offenses which are considered misconduct (not a foul) as “unsporting behavior” (Law 12):

uses a deliberate trick to pass the ball (including from a free kick) to the goalkeeper with the head, chest, knee etc. to circumvent the Law, whether or not the goalkeeper touches the ball with the hands

In this case, the cautionable offense is committed by the (in your scenario) center back, not by the goalkeeper and, if whistled, would not be a “passback” violation.  A straight “backpass” violation (first appearing in the Law in 1992) is an IFK offense by the goalkeeper and only if he directly handles a ball deliberately kicked by a teammate.  This misconduct (labeled as “trickery” when it was added to Law 12 in 1993) is an offense which is attributed to the teammate who last made contact with the ball in a certain way regardless of whether or not the goalkeeper actually handles the ball.

First of all, many referees will miss either scenario (backpass or trickery) entirely because neither of them is a common event — the latter even more rare than the former.

Second, because trickery is misconduct, it falls squarely into the grey area of “in the opinion of the referee” and that, in turn, means referees can differ in their judgment on the core issue of whether the center back  played this specific way to “circumvent the Law” (which means guessing why the center back did what he did).  He could have simply passed the ball back to his goalkeeper (not illegal) who could then have played the ball with his foot, head, chest, or knee  (also not illegal).  If the judgment is that this action (popped up with the foot and headed back) was done deliberately to evade the restriction on the goalkeeper’s ability to handle the ball, then it is a caution for the center back and an IFK for the opposing team where the center back performed his pop/head maneuver.

Third (and here is where it gets into an even greyer area), the judgment should be based principally on asking the more critical question of whether there was an opponent in the area of the play who might successfully challenge a goalkeeper who came into possession of the ball if the goalkeeper were limited in his control options (no hands).  In short, looking at the issue this way, the misconduct offense should be ignored as trifling (not worth calling because it made no difference) if the goalkeeper was under no pressure, i.e., there was no threat of being dispossessed of the ball, because there were no opponents even close to this play, much less close enough to actively interfere in it.

Remember, a trifling offense is still an offense, just not one worth stopping the play.  A simple warning to the center back and the goalkeeper that the offense was seen but was being ignored.  If it had made a difference (an opponent would/could have actively competed for the ball as it came to a goalkeeper who wouldn’t have been able to handle the ball if the ball had come from a teammate’s deliberate kick), then the offense can’t be ignored.  And if the ball had come to the goalkeeper only from off the head of the center back, there would have been neither a backpass nor a trickery offense.

Injury Issue and Absent ARs

Chris, a U13 – U19 player, asks

Two questions.  The first one is, if a coach yells from the sideline and the ref thinks he heard him say injured player, should he stop the play dead, give away our advantage, and then say, oh, I am sorry, I thought you said someone was hurt?   The second question is, for a u15 game, if the ref was the only official on the field, can he refuse any ARs?

Answer

We can only respond to what you have asked above, even though both scenarios are rather vague, but we’ll try, based on what we think are the real issues involved.

First, regarding the issue of an injury, the Laws of the Game lay the responsibility for stopping play solely in the hands of the referee.  It doesn’t matter what anyone might be yelling about an injury even if the message is totally explicit, concrete, and clear.  At most, it might result in the referee deciding to take a quick scan of the field.  People yell all kinds of things from off the field which in most cases the referee simply must ignore and should not ever by itself constitute a reason for the referee to actually stop play.

The referee should be aware of what is going on everywhere on the field (assisted, preferably, by two ARs who definitely can and should get the referee’s attention if there is an injury someplace where the referee is not naturally looking).  Where the referee is alone, hearing something that may or may not be an injury alert coming from a sideline (whether it is the coach or anyone else) should result only in the referee attempting to ascertain for himself what might be going on.

This is then followed by the even more pertinent decision (assuming that the result of this is seeing what might be an injury) as to whether the injury is serious or not.  The Law requires the referee to stop play only if he determines that there is a serious injury (keeping in mind that “serious” is a judgment call which is highly dependent on the age and skill level of the players).  If the injury is not serious, play continues.  “Advantage” is never an issue in the case of a serious injury – no player should want anyone on his team who is seriously injured to be ignored even if his team appears to be only moments away from scoring the game-winning goal … and this same attitude should apply equally to players on the opposing team.  This is one of the reasons why faking or simulating an injury can (and should) be harshly punished.

As for the second question, it all depends on the local rules of competition.  If ARs have been assigned to the game, the referee has no basis for refusing to use them and any attempt to prevent their use would and should be reported to the assignor or local referee association.  However, if no ARs are assigned (or if two ARs are assigned but one or both don’t show up), there is no requirement in the Law that ARs must be used.  In fact, the Law is very specific that anyone brought on to assist the referee in the absence of one or both official ARs (meaning certified and assigned in accordance with local rules) comes with two significant limitations: (a) the referee agrees and (b) their role is limited to signaling only if and when the ball leaves the field.  Such a person is called a “linesman” and they are limited completely to this one responsibility.

So, the issue comes down to the basic question – were one or two ARs officially assigned to the game and were they present?  If so, they must be used – and the Law is clear that the referee must take their input into account in his decisions.  If not, and in the absence of local rules to the contrary, no one has to be used.  It has long been customary in lower level games (youth/recreational) to allow, but not require, the referee to request assistance in the absence of appointed ARs but the most assistance that any unofficial AR can provide is indicating if the ball left the field.  Some local rules provide for what is sometimes referred to as a “step-in assistant referee” which refers to a program which requires each team in the league to have at least one person on the sidelines who is a certified official who can and is willing to “step in” if an AR has been assigned but is absent.  In such programs, although the step-in AR is not limited to the ball leaving the field, it is quite common to not allow the step-in AR to signal fouls.

Interesting DOGSO Complexities

Anthony, a High School and College referee, asks:

I have a scenario and am interested in the correct interpretation:
A6 is in Team B’s penalty area in an offside position.  A Team A teammate passes her the ball. The defending  goalie fouls A6 in a reckless manner in pursuit of the ball.  Wondering if the offside takes precedence or if the foul takes precedence? Does the interpretation change if the ref blows the whistle for offside before the goalie fouls the attacker in the box because now it is a dead-ball foul?

Answer

You’ve already recognized the core issue in the scenario but didn’t explore it.  Let’s clear away some underbrush first.  There is no “precedence” here.  It’s not a matter of hierarchy but timing.   What happened first?  That is what determines precedence here.  It also doesn’t matter when the referee whistles — play is considered to have stopped when the referee makes a decision and the only question that matters is what was it that caused the referee to stop play.  The reason for the stoppage occurred during play … anything after that happened when play was stopped.

Now we can get to unraveling the core issues (yes, issues because there are several of them).

Remember, an offside position is not an offside offense by itself so the referee needs to sort out whether there was an actual offside offense before the goalie’s action or whether, in fact, the goalie’s action actually prevented an offside offense from occurring.  Also, your scenario doesn’t identify the specific foul the goalie committed recklessly — e.g., tackle, charge, kick, push, trip, etc.  This is will be important later on.

As we said, the initial decision as to which came first is critical because it directly impacts the restart.  If an offside offense (e.g., the attacker in an offside position interfered with play by making contact with the ball, or interfered with an opponent) occurred first, then the Law provides for an IFK restart at the offense location for the goalie’s team (prior to which the goalie is cautioned for USB for what he/she did to the attacker).

If there was no offside offense or if the referee determines that the goalie’s reckless DFK foul occurred first, then the restart would be a PK for the attacking team because the first decision automatically stopped play at that moment , determined the restart, and negated any apparent offside offense that might have occurred afterward.  In this case, there is a second decision to be faced.

The second decision is whether, given all the facts and circumstances, the goalie’s foul denied an OGSO.  If all the OGSO requirements were not present, then that’s the end of the story.  PK, and the GK still gets cautioned for the reckless action.

If all the OGSO requirements are met, then there is a third decision that has to be faced and that is whether the GK’s action, recklessness aside, constituted a valid attempt to play the ball (your phrasing “in pursuit of the ball” is not specific enough and could include either a realistic play of the ball or the goalie was merely in pursuit of a ball which, at the moment of the reckless foul, was too far away to be realistically playable by the goalie).  If the goalie’s action was a realistic play of the ball (performed without violence), then the PK stands but, despite the OGSO, the goalie is only cautioned.

However, if there was not a realistic attempt to play the ball (and here the earlier question about what the foul was becomes important because the Law considers such fouls as holding, pulling, pushing, or tripping from behind with the ball on the other side of the player being tripped as not attempts to play the ball), then there is the PK but the goalie is sent off and his/her team plays down.

Touching versus Pushing

Henrik, a U13 – U19 referee, asks:

I have often experienced in my games that players say “Hey, referee! He touched me with both his hands in my back!”  But is it really true that a referee should always punish this?  I don’t think that two hands TOUCHING the back of an opponent is careless. If he pushed him, then yes of course it could be a foul, but if he just touches the opponent, then why should I always punish it, if it’s harmless?

Answer

First of all, never say “never” (or “always”) when it comes to refereeing.

Second, in the large majority of cases, merely putting a hand (or even both hands) on the back of an opponent would not constitute a foul.  After all, as you implicitly note, the foul is called “pushing” for a reason – if there is no push, there is no foul … usually.

Third, even the gentle breeze on the back of a player could, under some circumstances, be considered a foul if done by an opponent rather than weather conditions.  The critical question is, why did the opponent put a hand (or hands) on the player’s back?  What was the player doing at the time?

Consider the following scenario.  A15 is at a location where she judges a ball struck high in the air is likely to descend and believes she is in a good position to gain control of that ball.  Unexpectedly, she feels a hand (or hands) on her back with just the smallest amount of pressure.  She was not aware of anyone there, much less close enough to have touched her, and, so far throughout the game, no opponent had touched her on the back in the normal course of play.  She briefly turned her head to see who it was and, as a result, was distracted enough that, in fact, an opponent coming in from the side was able to get a foot on the ball before she could.

Now, was the touch on the back innocent … or was it deliberate?  While not exactly a usual pushing foul, was it done for an unfair and otherwise unsporting purpose?  Did all this occur under circumstances in which it would be an entirely normal, though unwelcome, response to be distracted … and particularly at a critical moment?  What was her reaction to the event and to its consequences?

The older and more experienced the players, the less likely it is that events occur by accident.  If you judge the contact was innocent, ordinary, and performed with no unfair intent (and particularly if it did not have the result of distracting the “touchee”), a simple comment in passing to the toucher to keep her hands off opponents would be sufficient.  If you judge otherwise, and particularly if it had what you believe was the intended result (and advantage would not apply), call a pushing foul — it wasn’t strictly “careless”  but it was certainly intentional and unfair.

As you move up the competitive ladder, your sense of what is a foul (and even whether it should be whistled or not) has to become more complex.  It will need to take into account a number of questions that may not have occurred to you earlier in your officiating career.  Mastering this change will get you recognized as capable of moving into more challenging games.  It also means that you will need to recognize when there is a potential for the sort of game situation we just described above and will have moved into a position to see what most needs to be seen at that moment.

Injuries and Type 1 Versus Type 2 Errors

Ken, a U12 and under coach, asks:

If a defending player is injured (non head injury) in a youth game and goes down to a knee, does the referee have to stop play right away? I had this happen where my left back was down and the attacking team continued to press and then score. The referee disallowed the goal when he saw the injured player was on the ground. We did not have an advantage at any point.

Afterwards he came up to me and said that the hardest part of his job is when he knows a player is injured and there isn’t anything he can do about it. Why would that be?

Answer

Stopping play for an injury is a referee decision and does not depend on anything the player may or may not do.  All experienced referees have heard the sideline call “if you’re hurt, go down.”  That is a bunch of (we’re going to use a technical term here) hooey.  “Going down” does not necessitate a stoppage, nor does not “going down” mean that play cannot be stopped.  Injuries come in all shapes and sizes — heatstroke, for example, can and should be recognized as serious with play stopped even while the player is standing up.

In the statistical analysis of data, there is something called the “type 1 versus type 2 error” — simplified, the first involves saying something is false when it is actually true while the second is deciding something is true when it is actually false.  Refereeing, plus a lot of other things in life, involve error.  Mistakes happen.  Given that we can be wrong either way, the intelligent referee has to decide which mistake has greater negative consequences and that, in turn, depends on the level of the game — U6 recreational game versus a World Cup final being an extreme range.

In general, stopping play for a possible but eventually not serious injury can produce less negative impact than not stopping play for a seemingly minor injury which turns out to be serious (at least from the point of view of the player’s health).  It also turns out that, again in general, the first mistake would be considered more tolerable in the U6 recreational game but could be career ending if made in the World Cup final.  You should take away from all this two principles.  One is that the decision depends critically on the age and experience of the players.  The other is that it is better to be safe than sorry.

Indeed, it is not unheard of that, for players under the age of 12 (nothing magic about that age break point), the greater danger of not stopping play if Johnny appears to be injured is that Johnny’s mom is likely to come running onto the field anyway, thus making stopping play mandatory.  (Our apologies to all “Johnny’s moms” — we love you but you can be very excitable.)  The higher the level of play (and experience of the players) the greater is the likelihood that you would be led into serious mistakes because “going down” is not unheard of as a player tactic to get you to stop play for the advantage of that player’s team (i.e., faking/simulating).  It’s bad enough to  make a Type 2 error but the decision is even more consequential when players themselves want you to make that mistake and are feverishly trying to help you make it.

Given your scenario, it would be even worse for a referee to decide to cancel a goal that was scored before the referee became aware of a player injury that was only then judged serious enough to stop play.  It would be ludicrous for a referee to decide that he or she wasn’t aware of the injury when it occurred and then, after the fact, decide it had been serious enough that he or she should have stopped play when it occurred, and then, to top it all off, negate anything that happened between the injury and the actual stoppage.  We don’t know of any experienced referee who would, for example, apply the same rationale for canceling a foul and/or a card! Unless there are facts related to play making it unassailable that the goal was scored only because everyone else on the field was affected by the player being on the ground, the goal should stand.

We don’t have the slightest idea what your referee meant when you report him saying “the hardest part of his job is when he knows a player is injured and there isn’t anything he can do about it.”  The fact of an injury is not the issue, it is the seriousness of the injury that has to be judged.  Furthermore, assuming the referee understands this part, it is not in the slightest way difficult to know what to do about it.  We train referees to exercise their judgment, which they must do throughout the game anyway, on situations involving possible injury.  The issue of concussions has been made very easy (a good thing) by declaring that ANY contact between the head and a hard object or surface constitutes a potential serious injury for which play must be stopped no matter the age or circumstances.

AR Involvement in Decisions

James, a U-12 and under referee, asks:

During the game an attacker kicked the ball directly at a defender who was in the penalty area. The ball hit her hand. My initial reaction was to continue play because I saw that her hand was close to her body and felt the hand ball was inadvertent. The AR put his flag up and started yelling “hand ball”. I stopped play and went over to him. He had a slightly better vantage point and he said that he was certain that the hand ball was deliberate. I awarded a penalty kick to the attacking team. My question is, if I had decided that the AR was incorrect and I was not going to grant a hand ball, what would have been the appropriate restart?

Answer

First, beware of ARs who shout out things like that.  An experienced AR would have found another way to deal with the issue.

Second, it is always a good idea during your pregame to gauge the level of expertise and experience of your crew and act accordingly.  ARs should “interfere” only if and when it is 100% clear that you had (a) made an error and (b) the AR’s position was clearly better than your position/angle.

If you are positioned properly with a good angle and believe you saw the event, simply wave down the AR (who should then “retreat”) and the event can be discussed during some future stoppage of play, during the midgame break, or after the game.  If you feel that the AR’s position was better and the AR was sufficiently experienced to be relied upon to not signal differently unless this was the case, then you stop play, go to the AR, and privately discuss the matter.  You make your decision taking into account all the facts and circumstances and either restart with the PK or decide otherwise.  In the case of “otherwise,” your only restart option is a dropped ball.

In either case, the AR should be advised to not shout out things that simply call unwanted and unnecessary attention to the moment and create a potential appearance of “discord” within the officiating team – just raise the flag straight up, make eye contact with the referee, waggle the flag briefly, and then signal a recommended PK restart (all of this is standard mechanics – the failure to follow this speaks volumes to us about this AR’s experience or lack of training).  If you disagree, simply wave it down – which the AR should promptly do unless … (see (a) and (b) above).

Extra Player Scenarios

Rinku, an adult amateur Referee, asks:

If in case I discover that a team has 12 players by mistake, what should I do if I am the referee?

Answer

Well, in general, you correct the situation as soon as you become aware of it.  However, what you do also depends on what substitution rules you are using (e.g., standard Law 3 or some local variation) and whether there is a goal scored that can complicate the matter.

The best solution, of course, is to not let it happen in the first place … which means don’t rush through a substitution without following, as closely as possible, the requirements of Law 3.  There are only two scenarios that can result in an “extra player” getting on the field: one is an error in a substitution (allowing two substitutes to come on) and the other is that a substitute simply enters the field during play.  The first is definitely the fault of you and/or the bench-side AR and is easily preventable. The second is something that can happen any time, but all members of the officiating team should be aware fairly quickly when it does.

Where the problem arises more commonly is when the rules of competition don’t adhere to Law 3 and allow unlimited substitutions with “the right of return” (which is often the case in youth recreational matches).  Law 3 is strict — a team gets only a certain number of substitutions and, once substituted, a player cannot return to the field.  This means that you can easily keep a record of which players started (by jersey number, for example) and then update this by noting which player left and which substitute replaced that player. If you follow this practice faithfully, you will always know who is a legal player and who is not.

Youth recreational play seriously muddies the water and you simply must keep track at least by not restarting play without someone (you or an AR) counting the players on the field before signaling that the substitution has been properly completed and play can be restarted.  Too many referees get sloppy and pay no attention to the details of a substitution.  Normally, you can get away with this but the problem is that, when an “extra player” results, the correction can become complicated.

Still, however it happens, you are faced with 12 players on the field for a team and it must be handled.  In the simplest case, if play is going on and you can catch the “12th player” quickly before he or she becomes involved in or interferes with play, you can verbally order the person to leave the field without stopping play and, assuming the person follows your order, just allow play to continue with no further action needed.  If you do not become aware of the existence of a “12th player” until after that person actually becomes involved in or interferes with play, you must stop play, order the “12th player” to leave after showing a yellow card for illegally entering the field, and restart with a direct free kick or penalty kick (depending on where the player was at the time).

The issue of “interference” is key.  A substitute, for example, might enter the field for some reason during play, realize the illegality of this (or have you or an AR shout to him or her), and quickly leave the field. This does not call for either stopping play or issuing a caution. Stop play only in the case of involvement/interference, thus triggering the need for a card and the proper restart.

Where things get complicated because you haven’t been following proper procedure and don’t know which person on the field is the “12th player,” then you have to try to figure it out.  You can check with the ARs (if you have them) and get their input.  If no information comes to you (from rerunning through your mind the most recent substitutions or using information from an AR), then you can only do one of two things – simply order that one of the 12 players leave the field and chalk it up to your error or you can tell the captain (or the coach) to pick which of his team’s players must leave but whomever he picks is also going to receive a yellow card for illegally entering the field. By the way, note that neither of these two options is supported by the Laws of the Game because the Law assumes you did what you were supposed to do and would therefore always know who the extra player was!  They are entirely our own, decidedly unofficial, practical advice.

There is one seriously complicating factor if you discover the extra player at a stoppage resulting from a goal being scored.  Now, you have an additional problem – what to do about the goal.  The Law says that the goal counts if the team that scored had the correct number of players on the field at the time but does not count if it was scored by the team which had the extra player.  If the goal is cancelled, the restart is a direct free kick from where the extra player was at the time play stopped for the apparent goal.  Unfortunately, if the continued existence of that extra player is not discovered until after play was restarted with a kick-off, the goal is counted.  The best way to prevent this from ever happening is to do a quick count of the players, both at the time the goal was scored and again before the restart (in case an extra player entered during the stoppage). In any event, the presence of an extra player after a kick-off must still be handled as described above even if it is ultimately determined that the extra player was on the field prior to the goal being scored.

Finally, note that everything described here applies equally to any extra person on the field, including team officials.  However, if the extra person is an outside agent (e.g., spectator), any stoppage requiring a restart must use a dropped ball instead.

Field Conditions and the Referee

David, a U-12 and under player, asks:

Referee called a foul in the penalty area. Walks over to the coaches and says the match is terminated due to unplayable field (rain). Should he allow the PK to continue?
Should he allow players to remain of the field?

Answer

This will be one of our shortest posts in at least the last year and a half.

For the first question, Yes.  The only “maybe not” is if the field generally is unplayable (meaning, not safely playable) but, at one end of the field, there is a penalty area which is safely playable (relatively speaking).  If this is the case, the penalty kick could be taken but under “extra time” rules — meaning that the kick ends either in a goal not with, in the latter case, no further play and an official termination.

For the second question, of course the players can remain.  Once the referee terminates the match, the referee’s authority effectively ends.  Others might take over — e.g., the field owner, the coaches, etc. We dislike putting it this way but, absent someone else stepping in, the players can do whatever they want.  Even in the case of dangerous weather conditions (e.g., lightning), the referee’s direct authority stops once the match is terminated (not merely suspended) and the officials would have no responsibility to do anything more than encourage the players to leave (along with getting out of there themselves!).

Interfering with Play or An Opponent

David, a U13 – U19 referee, asks:

The recent interpretations about the location of restarts for offside infractions seem to need clarification. Sure, if multiple attackers are running onto a through ball, we must wait until we know who reaches the ball first, an onside attacker or an offside attacker. The restart would be at the point that the offside player touches the ball or becomes involved in play or interferes with an opponent.

However, in the case of a through ball pass by an attacker to 30 yards from the half-way line with a lone attacker running onto it, and perhaps. a defender in pursuit, ARs have previously flagged the attacker as offside as soon as the offside attacker indicated that s/he was going for this ball. This is still the case we have seen recently in professional games, world-cup games, and college games. Some referees, and instructors, are taking the position that ARs must still wait until the attacker touches the ball before raising the flag, even if this causes an unnecessary long run by the attacker and defender.

It would seem that as soon as an offside attacker runs toward the ball, especially with a defender in pursuit, that s/he has become involved in play, or interfered with the opponent, and the offside infraction should be flagged and the restart would be at that point, not another 20 yards closer to the goal line when a touch might eventually take place. It’s this latter scenario that needs clarification for the majority of referees for youth games.

Answer

An outstanding (if rather long) question that is not easily answered.  Remember, the Laws of the Game were never intended to be exhaustive regarding every possible permutation of what happens on a soccer field.  Thank goodness for that!  So, here goes.

For ease of reference, we have divided your original single paragraph scenario into three sections.

Everything you say in the first section is correct and, as you state, is now the current Law regarding the restart location for an offside offense.  There is one correction, however, which might be thought minor but actually isn’t — Law 11 (Offside) states that the offense consists of becoming involved in active  play, not just “play.”  The second section is a factual description of the difficulty some referees have had in understanding this change, applying it correctly, or reacting to offside offense scenarios that are rather uncommon in youth play but are more likely seen in highly competitive levels of play.  The third section lays out a concrete scenario for discussion.  It is the more speculative last part of section 2 and all of section 3 that we will focus on.

Remember when we said that the Laws of the Game don’t cover everything?  One of the reasons for this is that the International Board (IFAB) assumes we will incorporate into the current Law various earlier statements they have made on Law topics.  In other words, have there been any prior decisions or interpretations that are relevant here that have not been specifically overridden?  There are.

The two scenarios below assume that Player A is in an offside position (i.e., the ball was last touched/played by a teammate of Player A and Player A meets all relevant offside position requirements).

In scenario 1, Player A runs toward the ball and the AR/Referee judges that, though no contact with the ball or interference with an opponent has occurred as yet, the movement of both Player A and the last defender is such that a collision, with resulting injury, is likely.  In this case, call an offside violation with the restart location being the position of Player A when this judgment occurs.  Given the speed at which this sort of play develops, the decision needs to be made quickly in order to forestall the collision.

In scenario 2, Player A runs toward the ball and the AR/Referee judges that there is no other attacker who is not in an offside position with a realistic opportunity to reach the ball before Player A,  In this case, call an offside violation with the restart location being where Player A was when the AR/Referee made this decision.  It is important to remember that the intent of this scenario is withhold judgment until it is clear that only Player A’s pursuit of the ball is clear and likely to continue.  After all, Player A should be given at least some brief opportunity to recognize (or hear teammates shout about) his situation and cease his potentially illegal pursuit.

Scenario 3 below has become a subject of strenuous debate and no official interpretation has yet been announced which resolves the issue (same assumption as above regarding Player A being in an offside position).

Player A is several yards away from the ball (at the edges of what would be considered “playing distance”) with an opponent (either the original “last defender” or some other defender who has moved into a competitive distance as the play has developed) also in a position to challenge for the ball when Player A makes a sliding tackle toward the ball,  This would be an obvious offside offense if contact with the ball (or with the defender) is made, but some referees argue that the mere attempt to “slide tackle the ball” itself constitutes an offside offense even if no actual, discernable contact with the ball is made.  They base this response on the argument that this is a form of interference with an opponent even though the similarity with any of the stated examples of “interfering with an opponent” are tenuous and, at best, arguable.  We express no opinion as to the correct solution, only note that there is a difference of opinion that has not yet been resolved.

The above scenario has become one of those situations where the ultimate question – so far answerable only on an individual referee basis and only in an actual (as opposed to theoretical) game situation – is “what would soccer want?”

Goalkeepers and “Challenging for the Ball”

Steve, a U13 – U19 coach, asks:

In open play, goalkeeper saves the ball in his area. To restart play does the ball have to go outside the area or can the keeper roll it to one of his defenders who is inside the area so he can dribble up field taking the ball out of the area?

Answer

Let’s clear out some underbrush in this scenario before getting to the central issue of your question.  There is an important distinction in the Laws of the Game between taking a ball out of play and taking a ball out of challenge.  The simplest way to take a ball out of play is to kick the ball off the field — the ball is automatically out of play the moment it entirely crosses the field’s outer perimeter lines (touch line or goal line, including the part of the latter which is between the goal posts).  Players can also take the ball out of play by becoming injured or committing an offense, for either of which the referee stops play.  Finally, the referee can take the ball out of play simply by whistling for a stoppage for any reason (weather, outside interference, or any other reason).  Obviously, if a ball goes out of play, it means that no one can play it until there is a formal restart (unless the stoppage is when the final period runs out of time).

This is completely (and importantly) different from taking the ball out of challenge.  This is the chief difference between a goalkeeper and any other player on the team because only the goalkeeper can do this but they can only do it within their own penalty area (anywhere in that area) and only by taking hand possession of the ball.  “Out of challenge” means that, from the moment the goalkeeper takes hand control of the ball until the ball is fully released from hand control, no opponent can challenge the goalkeeper for the ball!  The ball is still “in play” during this whole time, but an opponent cannot attempt to tackle, charge, or otherwise challenge for the ball.

Having “hand control of the ball” is operationally defined as the goalkeeper holding the ball with a hand (including having the ball resting on the hand, usually but not necessarily on the palm) or between both hands or between one or both hands against a surface (the ground, the body, a goal post, etc.).  Once hand control is achieved (in the opinion of the referee), all challenges must cease.  Period.  Any attempt to challenge could result in the referee stopping play, issuing a caution, and restarting with an indirect free kick for the goalkeeper’s team.  Referees understand that, in general, goalkeepers prefer for this not to happen,  They are, at heart, egotists who firmly believe they are far more capable of getting rid of the ball their own way and for their own purposes than via an indirect free kick and so referees understand that (a) they should try to prevent interference from occurring in the first place and (b), if it is so blatant as to be unavoidable, the added punishment of a caution should be given.

The interesting part of all this groundwork is determining what constitutes releasing the ball back into challenge.  Basically, it means getting rid of it — throwing it, kicking it (punt, dropkick, etc.), or setting it on the ground and kicking it.  The Law allows the ball to be tossed up in the air and then to catch it or to bounce it on the ground and catch it, all without losing hand control (tossing it up, allowing it to hit the ground, and then catching it on the rebound, however, is a second possession offense — don’t do this, goalkeepers, just kick the ball on the rebound).  All of these actions are considered part of “releasing the ball into play” and are as protected from challenge or interference as is simply holding the ball.

OK.  That’s the groundwork.  Now to your scenario, which basically has nothing to do with everything we just talked about.  You asked about “restart play” and now we know that play never stopped in the first place!  What stopped was the ability of an opponent to do what he or she would normally do while the ball was in play — challenge for it.   Accordingly, there is no restart issue here.  There are special things to remember about restarts from within a team’s own penalty area and the issues you raised involve that, none of which are relevant to how a goalkeeper puts a ball back into challenge.  Most players, coaches, and spectators (plus many well-paid commentators) commonly call this “putting the ball back into play” but this is incorrect.  Referees know that this is “putting the ball back into challenge” because the difference is crucial.  Except for leaving the field or the referee stopping play or time ending, the ball is always in play.