A Clarification Unrelated to Any Question

From time to time, we become aware of an authoritative clarification of some element in the Laws of the Game and it is our intention to make sure that this website’s readers are informed.  This posting relates to a relatively brief, somewhat unexpected, and a bit confusing new sentence that was added in 2016 to Law 12 immediately following the list of those seven actions (a.k.a. fouls) for which a direct free kick should be the response if the action were careless or reckless or performed with excessive force.  Here is the sentence (p. 82 in 2016, p. 95 in 2017):

If an offence involves contact it is penalised by a direct free kick or penalty
kick.

Among the seven offenses in the list prior to the above sentence were three which explicitly included the attempt to perform the action (striking, kicking, or tripping).  Attempting to do something like striking, kicking, or tripping normally implies that, being unsuccessful, the action missed — i.e., did not involve contact.  Adding a bit of mystery to this issue was the introduction into the 2016 edition of the Laws of the Game (continued in this year’s edition) of the first specific and concrete distinction between impeding involving contact and impeding not involving contact with the added admonition that the former was an indirect free kick foul while the latter, because of the contact, must be considered a direct free kick (or penalty kick) offense.

The explanation in 2016 did not clarify the reason or purpose of this sentence and was primarily a simple restatement of its language.  It has now been clarified.  We thought that the positioning of the new sentence was unusual (right in the middle of Law content related to direct free kick offenses).  It turns out that the reason the sentence was added was because a disturbing number of Referees (no numbers, no indication of where they were, etc.) were treating a “dangerous play” event involving the so-called “high kick” as still an indirect free kick offense even if the kick was not only high but also made contact with the opponent!  To disabuse Referees of this notion, the sentence was intended to advise all Referees that an indirect free kick offense can become a direct free kick offense if it includes contact with an opponent.

This was abundantly clear given the International Board’s Law revisions involving impeding (with and without contact) but, for some reason, the Board handled the application of this concept differently in the case of dangerous play.  We personally felt that that the principle the Board was setting forth here (an eminently reasonable one which has been part of USSF training for years, we should add) might have been more clearly understood if the sentence had, for example, been located in the section on IFK offenses or if each of the IFK offenses that might involve physical contact with an opponent could have been rewritten (as the Board did with impeding) to emphasize that an IFK foul which included physical contact raised the level of the offense to that of the DFK/PK offense.

Impeding (of course) and now dangerous play have this contact/no contact distinction but the principle could just as well be extended to interfering with the goalkeeper’s release of the ball into play.  It seems to us reasonable, for example, to treat kicking the ball out of the goalkeeper’s hand(s) as a DFK offense since a ball in the goalkeeper’s possession is an extension of the goalkeeper and therefore kicking a ball held by the goalkeeper is the functional equivalent of kicking the goalkeeper — ergo, a DFK restart (with possible misconduct punishment levied the same way as would be considered appropriate if the kick had been delivered directly to the goalkeeper’s body).   This also, by the way, has been the guideline used in USSF Referee training for more than 20 years.

Referee Discretion

Jonathan, an adult amateur fan, asks:

In a match between Chelsea and Watford, a Watford player got a yellow card for kicking the ball away.  Later in the match, a Chelsea player kicked the ball away but didn’t get a yellow card.  The Watford players challenged the referee about no yellow card for the Chelsea player.  So why would one team’s player not get a yellow card for doing exactly the same thing that the other team’s player did get a yellow card for?

Answer

First of all, we reiterate that we do not evaluate any specific Referee action in any specific game (see our “rules of engagement” under the About tab).  Fortunately, you did ask the question in general enough terms that we do feel comfortable providing at least some insights into situations of this nature (aside from Chelsea v. Watford).

The key to both the question and our answer lies in the phrase “doing exactly the same thing ….”  Every event on the soccer field (a broad statement, we know, but we are comfortable making it) has a context within which the event must be evaluated as regards the Referee’s response.  In the first few years of refereeing, this may not be obvious because the new Referee is awash in input crashing in on him or her calling for action and so the new Referee falls back on their most recent training — usually the entry level course — where things are black and white.  There is little or no nuance.  This happens, you do that.  Those first few years (with 50-100 games minimum), the Referee’s focus is on recognizing the “this happens” by comparing it to what “the book” says as taught by the instructor.  The equation is pretty simple: “A happens” so “do B” in response.

With experience (and hopefully some expert mentoring) comes the realization that “A happens” is not so cut and dried — there is a nearly infinite number of “A” varieties (what we are calling here “context”).  When did A occur in the match?  Where did A occur on the field?  Who committed A?  Why do we think A was committed?  What immediately preceded A?  What followed A?  What was the general “temperature” of the match at the time A occurred?  What had it been up to then?  What do we know was the historical background for A being a subject in the Laws of the Game?  What, as far as we can tell, was the purpose of A’s inclusion in the Law (i.e., what did the International Board hope to accomplish by proscribing A)?  How sure are we that A happened?

We offer the following proposition: no two fouls are ever exactly the same (taking into account their context).  The same is true, indeed arguably even more true, of misconduct actions.  Except for the required “deliberate” requirement built in to the handball foul, the Laws of the Game do not mention “intent” as an element for identifying a foul.  For example, we do not care about the issue of intent as a defining element of “a trip.”  It is true that “a trip is a trip is a trip” but only for basic recognition of the action.  The early years of officiating are primarily aimed at building the ability to recognize an action as a tripping foul … all the rest of our years of officiating are devoted to the question of “what should we do about it?” and, in that sense, every trip is different in some way.  But as regards misconduct, intent is virtually at the heart of each yellow or red card offense (look, for example, at Law 12’s attempt to define the elements of “careless, reckless or excessive force”).  It is replete with statements pertaining to intent.

Now we can get to the point (finally!).  Why does Law 12 include “kicking the ball away” as an action which is cautionable as unsporting behavior?  The answer is fairly simple — because an opponent kicking the ball away following a stoppage of play for a foul turns out to be a very effective way of preventing the offended team from putting the ball back into play quickly, and preventing that in turn might be beneficial for the defending team because they need the delay in order to re-organize their forces.  The caution cannot restore the quick free kick advantage but it does at least punish the defending team.  In other words, without the caution, the crime would go unpunished and the Referee would begin seeing more such behavior.

Since we do not know the contexts of the Watford player’s kicking the ball away and the Chelsea player’s kicking the ball away, we cannot say why the Referee treated them differently.  First, of course, is the possibility of simple error — the Referee saw one but not the other.  Or perhaps the quick restart was actually prevented in the Watford player’s case but not by the Chelsea player’s “kick away” (e.g., the restart could not occur quickly anyway because there was a substitution or an injury).  Or perhaps the Watford player kicked the ball very far away and the Chelsea player’s “kick away” was only a short distance, or in the direction of a Watford player who could regain possession of the ball with relatively little actual delay, or the Referee decided that the Chelsea player was sitting on a caution already and this would result in a red card (always a very shaky reason but, let’s be practical, not far from the minds of many Referees).  Maybe the Referee believed that the first (the Watford player) card for this misconduct had been too hasty and/or was ill-advised.  All kinds of factors could have been at work here — some obvious and some not so obvious, some firmly grounded in Referee discretion and some simply lapses in judgment.

The Plight of Goalkeepers

Kaleb, a U13 – U19 player, asks:

Yesterday during my soccer game I was playing goalie.  I stopped the ball and started to get up so I could kick the ball up the field.  A person from the other team started running full force at me (note, I still had the ball in my hands) so I snapped one arm out in front of my body and the person from the other team hit my arm. The Referee immediately called a penalty on me for using my arm as a weapon.  I didn’t swing my arm at him I just put my arm up to protect myself and he hit my arm.  I would like to know if putting your arm up to defend yourself is a penalty.

Answer

Could be.  This is one of those judgment calls for which “you had to be there” in order to get some sense of what the Referee saw — the decision depends on so many variables.  We will say that, in general, the picture we get when you said that you “snapped one arm out in front of my body” is the classic football (American football) photo of a pigskin carrier running down field with an arm held out to fend off opponents trying to stop him.

Let’s just admit up front that the job of a goalkeeper is, as one observer noted, marked by “80 minutes of boredom and 10 minutes of terror.”  In other words, it’s not easy and every goalkeeper walks a thin line in situations like this between trying to stay uninjured and doing their job, a job which often requires the goalkeeper to get into positions on the ground or in the air which are inherently risky.  Having had some experience with serving in this position, we also understand that some goalkeepers take advantage of the quick, brief dust-ups that are a normal part of the goalkeeper’s life to respond in ways that are, shall we say, unforgiving of opponents.  Opponents, on the other hand, generally are not very forgiving of goalkeepers (except their own, of course) when it comes to a willingness to take their efforts to continue attacking the goal right to, and sometimes beyond, the edge of the goalkeeper’s safety.

All that said, it is the job of the Referee in situations involving challenges to or in the vicinity of the opposing goalkeeper to remember that the Laws of the Gamer require such challenges to cease immediately once the goalkeeper has control of the ball. “Control of the ball” is marked generally by having both hands on the ball or one hand on the ball against any kind of surface (ground, body, goalpost, etc.).  Keeping in mind the need to factor in the age, skill, and experience of the players, Referees should be proactive in safeguarding the goalkeeper where the flow of play appears to include one or more opponents acting recklessly despite the goalkeeper arguably having control of the ball.  In your scenario, the Referee should have begun closely monitoring the actions of the opponent who had “started running full force” at you, repositioning to warn the opponent that his behavior was being observed, and even providing a strong verbal caution against violating the Law, all in an attempt to forestall the impending offense.  At some point, the apparent intent to interfere by the opponent would warrant a preemptive whistle.

On the other hand, you are not warranted in taking actions which go beyond mere “self protection” — after all, a more effective way to protect yourself in a case like this would be to simply sidestep the onrushing opponent.  This often does not appeal to more macho goalkeepers whose mindset is, “it’s his job to avoid me so I will simply stand my ground and maybe get in a bit of mayhem on my own which will probably be ignored or justified by the Referee.”

In short, while we would have preferred to see the Referee in this case act in advance to prevent or stop a rapidly building momentum which, if left unchecked, is only likely to end badly for everyone involved in the likely collision, you had other opportunities besides snapping your arm outward in what could only be termed an aggressive manner.  Hence our answer at the beginning of all this — yes, it could be a penalty (i.e., determined to be “striking” and, since it was by a defender within his own penalty area, leading to a penalty kick restart).

Better for all concerned, however, would have been a whistle by the Referee to stop play as the opponent’s run brought him close enough to justify a decision that there was an intent to interfere with the release of the ball into play, resulting in a caution for the opponent for unsporting behavior and an IFK restart for the defending team.  Better yet would have been proactive officiating aimed at getting it through the opponent’s head that he needed to stop running at the goalkeeper once control of the ball was established.

Thinking About the Unthinkable

John, a U13 – U19 player, asks:

As a goalkeeper, I was wondering if I pick the ball up and one of my players came to applaud me and accidentally hit the ball with his hand, will that be a penalty for handball?

Answer

Shouldn’t be!  Might a Referee make such a call against your teammate for it?  Hope not!

In order to make that decision, that Referee would have to see this contact as a “deliberate act” and even your scenario called it “accidental.”  Further, before whistling, the Referee should ponder seriously the obvious question  — why would a teammate deliberately make contact with a ball held by his goalkeeper?  We suppose there could be circumstances leading to a disaffected teammate, unhappy about something his goalkeeper did or said, coming up and knocking the ball out of his goalkeeper’s hands in a fit of pique (maybe his “applauding” was sarcastic).  We hope not.

One thing we would definitely recommend to you … don’t pick the ball up as that would be a real  violation (second hand contact).  Kick it away as quickly as possible because, technically, the ball is now open for challenge by an opponent.

Advantage vs. Offside Offense

ST, an adult amateur referee, asks:

An attacker is fouled by a late tackle by a defender after the ball was passed to his teammate (foul was not cardable).  The Referee saw the teammate was in good attacking position so he shouted advantage and gave the signal.  What the referee didn’t know was the teammate was in an offside position so, when he received the ball, the AR flagged to signal an offside offense. Should the referee blow the whistle and give a DFK to the attacking team?

Answer

Yes.

To understand why, we have to explore the intersection of advantage decisions and off side offenses.  Law 5 makes it clear that an advantage decision, once given, can be called back if the advantage that was originally thought to exist does not materialize or could not be maintained over the course of the next several seconds.  This normally is the result of such developments as the ball possession being lost or the fouled player being unable to maintain his equilibrium.

Note #1: advantage is a team concept  and applies potentially to the attacker’s entire team so the issue is not always what happens to the fouled attacker but what happens to the attacking team’s overall ability to maintain a credible attack against the opponents.

Note #2, we did not say whether they might be able to score a goal — that gets into “obvious goal scoring opportunity” (OGSO) which, though similar, is a different issue.  The key phrase for advantage is the ability to maintain a credible attack moving forward.  And this, in turn, leads us to include scenarios in which the attacker, though fouled and as a result losing his personal control of the ball, is nevertheless able to get the ball to one or more other members of his team.  All of this must be taken into consideration after the Referee has signaled for advantage.  If this credible attack cannot be kept going forward either by the fouled attacker or by the attacker’s team, Law 5 requires that we stop play and return to the original foul.

Note #3: the Laws of the Game seriously frown on using advantage if the offense involves violence of any kind.  That was not the case here because, as the scenario states, the original foul was not cardable.  If it had been an offense which would draw a red card for SFP or VC or Spitting, stop play and deal with it.

What happened in the given scenario?  Everything looks fine, up to a point.  The foul (late tackle) was called (yes, it was because the advantage signal is a declaration that the foul occurred).  For the next few seconds, we are going to see what happens.  If the attack remains credible, we let that foul go (but come back at the next stoppage if there was any nonviolent misconduct); if it does not, we come back to the original foul.

Here, the Referee judged that the team would be able to maintain its attack if the ball released by the fouled attacker went to his teammate.  Remember, at this time the teammate who was the intended recipient of the pass and who was objectively in an offside position had not yet committed any offense.  For whatever reason, the Referee failed to “read” the offside position status of this teammate but, even so, while we might quibble about whether the Referee should have foreseen the problem, there remained in the several seconds of the “advantage time” the possibility that another teammate might come roaring out of nowhere and control the ball before it even got to the intended recipient — in which case, everything could have proceeded as expected.

That did not happen, the intended recipient in an offside position made the mistake of interfering with play while in that position, an offense which would otherwise have resulted in control of the ball simply passing to the opposing team for an IFK restart but for the fact that the game was “sitting on” advantage time.  Because it was, the Referee should come back to the original foul and restart with a DFK where the foul occurred.  If questioned, the Referee need only reply (if a response were needed) that “the advantage did not materialize.”  Look at it this way.  What the Law did was to say that the teammate in the offside position was, for all practical purposes, not there and could not play the ball anyway.  It was the functional equivalent of having desperately played the ball into space with no chance that anyone on his team would get it (in which case, the return to the original foul would be obvious).  The fact that the teammate did touch the ball is irrelevant because the real issue is that, following a foul, the fouled player’s team could not continue to make a credible attack forward.  This result would have been the same if the teammate, realizing his offside position, simply stepped aside without making contact with the ball.

Hijinks Outside the Field

Sue, a U-12 and under parent, asks:

What are the rules governing the behaviour of parents at a game? Last week my son’s under 12s played a match during which one of our players was quite rightly sent off after hitting one of the opposing players. He has since received a fine & ban. However, the parent of the child that was hit not only went onto the pitch, but threatened our player & his family then let loose with a tirade of the most foul language I have to say I have ever heard. This delayed the game for at least 10 minutes. In addition, more threats were received at the end of the game & missiles were thrown at cars as they left the ground. Should this parent receive a warning regarding his behaviour & should he receive a ban/fine too?

Answer

Oh, my! Parents acting badly.

Asking this question as a parent puts you in a different position than if the question were asked by a referee.  The Laws of the Game, with only one exception, do not control or manage the behavior of anyone other than rostered players/substitutes and team officials (anyone who is also on the roster and allowed to be in the team area but is not a player).  All such persons are termed “outside agents” and are not under the authority of the Referee.  They are, however, under the control of the competition authority (i.e., the organization – league, tournament, etc.) which is responsible for the game.  That authority should have rules governing the behavior of outside agents.  Many leagues, for example, require that an officer or agent of the league be present at or in the vicinity of matches it is sponsoring and it is to that person that the sort of behavior you described should be reported.  Lacking a presence at the field, however, anyone present is free to file a complaint or protest with the league or tournament concerning the behavior of persons associated with a team.  If the game is held in a public place, such as a park or school field, complaints could also be directed immediately to persons representing the game site who possess police authority over the conduct of anyone there.

The only authority the Referee has in this regard (note the “one exception” mentioned above) is to suspend the match where spectator behavior is deemed to be interfering with the game (keeping in mind the ultimate objectives of youth soccer – safety, fairness, and enjoyment) and to terminate any match immediately if, in the opinion of the Referee, outside agent behavior makes continuation of the match a danger to the players, team officials, or the officiating team itself.  Further, the Referee has an obligation, whether or not a match is suspended and/or terminated, to include in the match report full details of any incidents that bear on the conduct of the match, including disruptive behavior of outside agents.

Referees are strenuously advised not to deal directly with obstreperous outsiders.  At early stages of a spectator/parent problem, Referees should work through one or both coaches to achieve a resolution of the interference — which can include a statement that the match could be terminated if the disruptive actions continue.  Where this is unsuccessful (or where the source of the problem is team officials themselves), the “nuclear option” of termination should be invoked.  Immediately contacting the Referee association or assignor is also advised.

Hijinks at a Free Kick

Chris, a HS/College referee, asks:

Scenario – a foul by the Blue team is committed near midfield.  The ball is properly located and a Red player is preparing to take the kick.  Meanwhile, a Blue player who was behind the ball when the foul occurred is moving back towards his goal to the defend. This Blue player is less than 10 yards from the ball but making no attempt to delay the free kick from being taken and is moving away from the ball. The Red kicker takes the free kick, deliberately kicks the ball into the back of the retreating defender, and then immediately turns to the referee asking for a yellow card.

My questions are, first, can you issue a caution to the Red kicker for unsporting behavior if, in your opinion, the player took the free kick with every intention of getting his opponent booked ?  My second question is, could you issue a red card for violent conduct (striking an opponent) if you deem that the player (whom you have already decided had deliberately kicked the ball into the opponent) did so as hard as he could?

Answer

Question 1 — yes, sure, because Law 12 (cautionable misconduct section, unsporting behavior) is written so broadly that it could encompass just about anything that you think deserves it.  We don’t mean to be flippant but “unsporting conduct” is rather general to begin with and “shows a lack of respect for the game” (one of the listed examples of unsporting behavior) is about as limitless as “how high is up?”  A retreating opponent who is closer than 10 yards at the time a free kick is taken has not committed an offense under the general Law 13 guideline that the offended team has the almost unfettered right to take the kick quickly, even with one or more opponents “failing to respect the required distance” and this extends to situations in which the kicked ball might make contact with said encroacher through no fault of his own.  Here, we have an attacker who has the unmitigated hutzpah (look it up) not only to aim the ball deliberately (as given in the scenario) at the opponent but now wants a card shown for the kicker’s lack of judgment.  The act of publicly by words or gestures asking for an entirely unjustified card could also be deemed a form of dissent.  In situations like this one, the real question is not “can you?” but “should you?”  One reason for “should not” is if the action calls for more a more vigorous reprisal.

Which brings us to Question 2 — and here we have to “interpret” your words. “As hard as he could” suggests the familiar “excessive force or brutality or endangering the safety of an opponent” particularly if the kicker were, say, over the age of 16 (though we know of a fellow referee who was almost knocked out upon being hit with a ball kicked by a U12 female player!).  Although a common scenario of this sort of play usually involves a thrown ball, we suspect that the damage from a kicked ball would likely be far worse.  Accordingly, the answer here is definitely, yes, a red card for violent conduct (not serious foul play because the kicker and retreating defender were not competing for the ball at the time) could, and probably should, be given (the expression on the face of the kicker reacting to this turnabout would be priceless).

A caution for UB, even if independently justified in the Referee’s opinion, takes a back seat to a red card for VC.  But the two are linked because the VC card would be a tough sell in the absence of the opinion that the kick was deliberately aimed at the opponent.  With no violence, the kicker’s action could be deemed UB (aided by the attempt to talk the Referee into a caution for FRD).  With a decision that the kick was an avoidable action of violence, bolstered by the evidence that it was deliberate, the send-off is the one to go with.

The restart, of course, is a DFK where the opponent was struck.

Quick Restarts

Rich, a U-12 and under coach, asks:

I coach a U12 boys team, and experienced a peculiar incident with a referee this past Saturday at one of our games. We were winning the game 2-1 and, within the last 10 minutes, our team committed an indirect free kick offense within the goal area.
What was peculiar is that the referee immediately directed the attacking team to place the ball on the goal line and raised his arm, all within seconds, and two attacking players that were directly in the area initiated a kick-pass and solid shot on goal, and subsequently scored. There was no time given for our goalie to prepare, nor any time whatsoever for our defense to establish protective positioning. My concern and following question is this. We are dealing with U12 boys and the safety of the our goalie was my first concern as he was not even looking towards the kick when it was made and, secondly, is there not a rule that puts responsibility on the ref to give the defending team at least adequate time to prepare and/or the right of the defensive team, especially the goalie , to acknowledge preparedness? Although the goalie did not get injured, it could have ended with a much different result. This all seemed very unsafe and unfair for these boys.

Answer

We regret to inform you that the Referee’s mechanics and procedures, as described, were 100% correct and far from being “peculiar.”  The call itself was correct (which you acknowledged), the placement of the ball was correct, and the signal for the restart was correct.  What you are questioning (the quick restart) is also correct.  Indeed, it is entirely consistent not only with the letter but also the spirit of the Law.

Every restart performed by a player with the exception of the kick-off and the penalty kick is, and is intended by the Laws of the Game  to be, taken as soon as the attacking team meets two conditions: the ball is properly placed and stationary.  Being the party aggrieved by an offense that was committed against them, they have the right to take the restart with no delay — even foregoing such ordinary requirements placed on the defending team as “respecting the required distance.”  Here (and we are only theorizing), the attackers exercised their legal right to take advantage of the confusion and disarray of their opponents by restarting play when the necessary conditions were met (stationary ball on the goal area line).  It was a gamble on their part that the likelihood of scoring (keeping in mind that it was an IFK restart) was greater if they did it quickly despite the increased risk of the ball being intercepted by nearby opponents.  They certainly would not be better off by waiting for all the things you wanted your team to be able to do — delay the kick, give us time to regroup, get more of our players between the goal entrance and the location of the kick, and get our goalkeeper primed and ready to defend.

We understand your frustration.  We would feel it also under the same circumstances but with one exception: we would know there was nothing we could do about it and that we were the ones that set up this scenario by committing the offense in the first place.  With very few and rare exceptions, a team which commits an offense resulting in a free kick restart has no rights … and certainly no right to detract from the Law’s award of the ball to the offended party.  Indeed, almost any attempt to interfere with or delay the attacking team’s right to a quick restart would be a cautionable offense.

There is nothing in the Laws of the Game contrary to this nor is there any expectation that the age of the players would affect this basic principle.  The only time a safety issue might be invoked is if a player had been seriously injured and the Referee was obligated to hold the restart until the injury was properly dealt with (not wishing to leave the impression that this might be a good strategy, we remind everyone that a faked injury is also a cautionable offense).  It is one of the core tenets in training referees that they should do nothing to cause a delay in taking throw-ins, goal kicks, corner kicks, or free kicks unless there is a clear, legal, and compelling reason to step in with an order to “Wait!”

“Pass-Back” Offense

Trevor, a U-12 and under coach, asks:

I know the pass-back rule prohibits the goalie from handling the ball if the ball is passed to him by a teammate. But I thought I saw an instance last week during a match where the ball was passed back to the goalie by one of his teammates but, as the ball was nearing the goalie, there was also an attacker going for the ball. The attacker was very close to winning the ball before the goalie had a chance to get it but the goalie ran to the ball and grabbed it up before the attacker won it.

Is that a legal move? Can the goalie pick up the ball if it was passed back to him by a teammate but an attacker is about to win the ball?

Answer

We are so glad you asked this specific question, not so much for the first paragraph but for the second paragraph because this offense is not only not well understood but the lack of understanding also tends to interfere with how it is called.

Not only was the GK’s action a violation of the law but the circumstances made it a violation that cannot be ignored.  Some “pass back” violations, even obvious ones, can be ignored if, in the opinion of the referee, the offense was trifling (just as with any other offense).  Now the root question becomes … why is this violation there?  Knowing the answer to this question enables the intelligent referee to determine whether it was trifling or not.

In point of fact, all four of the IFK offenses which only a goalkeeper can commit are in the Law for one primary purpose – to limit the amount of time during which the goalkeeper can legally withhold the ball from active challenge by taking hand possession of it.  Remember, the goalkeeper’s ability to do this is the single most important “right” the goalkeeper, and only the goalkeeper, has.  It is such a significant advantage the the Laws of the Game made it clear that the right has limits — no longer than 6 seconds (or thereabouts), no direct second possession, no pass back, and no throw back.

Accordingly, one of the prime criteria a referee needs to use in evaluating whether to whistle for a pass back violation is whether the goalkeeper is being challenged before taking hand possession of the ball.  If he is, and he actually takes hand possession under pass back circumstances, then the offense must be whistled.  If not, the offense could be (not must be) ignored (with perhaps a verbal warning) based on a host of other factors (e.g., the temperature of the game, the propensity for a team to commit offenses so far, the general level of friendliness, whether a prior warning had already needed to be given, etc.).

The scenario you offered has got to be one of clearest examples not only of the offense itself but also of one that has to be called.  The goalkeeper under potential or active challenge could always decide to play the ball in some way other than by taking hand possession and thus avoid the punishment but at a very high risk of not succeeding.  This keeper didn’t.