2021 Law Changes

For background, warnings, and advice regarding the following Law changes effective as of June 1 2020, review the opening explanation about the Law changes that occurred in the 2020 edition of the Laws of the Game.  What follows is a summary of the more important topics.  Players, coaches, and spectators (yes, coaches and spectators also) should review this material.

The International Football Association Board (IFAB or Board) met in April 2020 to approve various changes in the Laws of the Game with an effective date of June 1, 2020. Many changes are minor and involve ensuring that a modification in one place (e.g., terminology) is matched by words or phrasing elsewhere in the Law. Some bullet points were rearranged to make the flow of a topic clearer. Some changes, most specifically involving the VAR program, are not covered here at all because they do not impact the overwhelming number of soccer matches which don’t use the VAR system.

The following, in Law number order, are of greatest importance for most referees.

Law 1 (The Field of Play

The crossbar and goalposts may be square, elliptical, round, or rectangular or any combination of these shapes.

Law 10, Section 3 (Kicks from the penalty mark)

Formal warnings or cautions are not carried over to kicks from the penalty mark (KFPM, or “kicks”). A player given a caution prior to the start of kicks who then receives a caution during the kicks procedure will not receive red card for the second caution. A red card for a “second yellow” can only be given during kicks from the mark if both yellow cards were given during the kicks procedure.

Likewise, if a goalkeeper had received an official warning (see below under Law 14) for an encroachment violation, this warning is also not carried forward into the kicks procedure. If, during the kicks procedure, the goalkeeper encroaches under conditions that warrant only a formal warning, that warning will be given even if that goalkeeper had been warned during regular play and a caution is given only if the goalkeeper commits a similar encroachment violation during the kicks procedure.

If the kicker and the goalkeeper each commits an offense, the kick is recorded as missed and the kicker is cautioned.

For more details regarding Law changes involving cautions and warnings (both during regular play and KFPM), see the section below on Law 14.

Law 11, Section 2 (Offside Offense)

An attacker plays the ball to another attacker who, at that moment is in an offside position. However, a defender intervenes and illegally handles the ball which then goes on to the attacker who had been in an offside position. Law 11 now specifically considers that the handling is an example of “deliberate play” which relieves the receiving attacker of the offside position as would be the case with a kick or header by the defender. In most cases, this means that the attacking play should be allowed to continue.

Law 12, Section 1 (Handling the ball)

Historically, a handball violation involved contacting the ball with the hand or with any part of the arm up to the shoulder joint. Now, a handball offense is restricted to the hand or any part of the arm below the bottom of the armpit.

This presents a troubling challenge for referees because (a) there is no medical definition which anatomically pinpoints the “bottom of the armpit” and (b) even if there were any clear, definitive line that settles the issue of where the “bottom of the armpit” is, that line and its surrounding area is almost certainly covered by the sleeve of the jersey. The Board did provide a “picture” of a line of demarcation: since the figure does not correlate the demarcation line with any actual armpit, referees can only use the line as the best estimate for an instantaneous decision and rely on the standard principle that “the decision is a matter of judgment which is not subject to dispute.”

The Board implicitly recognized the above difficulties and, in explaining the change, noted that new change basically removes the shoulder from the arm when it comes to evaluating the physical part of the definition of a handball.

NOTE: The Board provided a basic outline of a player and marked on the figure approximately where the new line of demarcation is.  Unfortunately, for technical reasons, that visual aid cannot be reproduced here but may be found in the official publication of the Law book.

The new definition of what is and what is not a handball applies to all situations or scenarios using the term “handball” throughout the Laws of the Game.

On another matter, the Board noted that, if a goalkeeper deliberately makes contact with the ball a second time on a restart by that goalkeeper and that “second touch” violation stops a promising attack, denies a goal, or an OGSO, the goalkeeper is cautioned or sent off even if the second touch was an illegal handball because the offense leading to the misconduct was the “second touch” rather than a handball.

Law 12 now clarifies the issue of the “accidental handball” as it was initially offered in 2019-2020. The basic premise from the beginning was that accidents happen but an accidental hand contact with the ball should not be allowed to stand if the player who made the contact benefits from it. The clarification involves setting up two scenarios. If the accidental touch is followed directly and immediately by a goal or a goal-scoring opportunity for that player’s team, the contact is deemed a foul. If the contact is followed by several passes involving other teammates or a long pass or there is a notable “time element” between the accidental handling and a goal or goal-scoring opportunity, it is not an offense. The Board stressed that “immediately” is the key word. Of course, none of this applies if, in the opinion of the referee, the hand/ball contact was not accidental.

Law 12, Section 3 (Disciplinary action)

If a player commits an offense normally punished by a card, regardless of color, and advantage has not formally been applied but the offended team takes a quick restart because it has a clear goal-scoring opportunity and the referee has not taken any action which would otherwise clearly indicate an intention to give a card (e.g., has actually pulled the card and visibly drawn attention to the initial steps normally associated with giving a card), the restart is allowed.

However, in coming back to the misconduct at the next stoppage, the referee would show a caution (instead of a red card) if the offense involved DOGSO and would show no card if the offense involved interfering with or stopping a promising attack. If the misconduct offense did not involve either DOGSO or a promising attack, the appropriate card would be shown (i.e., a red card for excessive force or spitting, a caution for unsporting behavior or persistent offenses).

The same approach is used if the referee has applied advantage to an incident.

The offense of “failing to respect the required distance” applies to dropped ball restarts where all players other than the player taking the drop (See Law 8) are required to be 4.5 yards from the drop point.

Law 14, Section 2 (Offenses and sanctions)

The Board revised several aspects of the “dance” between the kicker and the goalkeeper at the taking of a penalty kick (including kicks from the mark), a change which was first announced in an IFAB Circular in August of 2019 and is now incorporated directly in the Laws of the Game. Most of the revisions involve the goalkeeper rather than the kicker and the main thrust of the revisions involving the goalkeeper pertain to goalkeeper encroachment (coming off the line after the whistle but before the ball is in play).

If the goalkeeper encroaches, Law 14 now provides the following different responses for indicated outcomes of the kick

  • Ball enters the goal – the goal is awarded and the encroachment is ignored
  • Ball misses the goal or rebounds from the goal frame – the kick is only retaken if the encroachment (in the opinion of the referee) clearly caused the miss or rebound
  • Ball is “saved” by the goalkeeper – the kick is retaken
  • In all cases where the kick is retaken, the goalkeeper is formally “warned” for a first offense and only cautioned if the offense is committed a second time by the same goalkeeper subsequently in the game or during kicks from the mark

If a teammate of the goalkeeper commits a Law 14 offense (e.g., encroachment) and the ball goes into the net, a goal is awarded but the kick is retaken otherwise. If the goalkeeper and the kicker both commit a Law 14 offense (a rare event), the kicker is cautioned and play restarts with an indirect free kick for the goalkeeper’s team.

The very helpful summary table of penalty kick offenses, outcomes, and referee responses has been expanded to include more Law 14 offense scenarios, including the above changes. This table should be memorized and regularly studied.


Practical Guidelines

If the goalkeeper blatantly encroaches on a penalty kick or kick from the mark which prevents a goal being scored, the assistant referee should notify the referee of this according to pre-match instructions from the referee.

With the safety of players being paramount, the referee should facilitate medical assistance, particularly where the injury is serious and/or involving a head injury. This includes respecting all agreed or required assessment and treatment protocols.

A holding offense should not be called unless, in the opinion of the referee, the holding actually impedes the movement of the opponent. “Minor” holding should not be punished.

Encroachment at a restart should be enforced based on the position of the possible offender’s feet on the ground and not for the location of any body part above that level.

If, at a goal kick or free kick, the goalkeeper flicks the ball up to a teammate who then heads or chests the ball back to the goalkeeper, the kick is retaken. There is no disciplinary action unless this is done repeatedly (to delay active play, for example).


The International Board intends to discuss possible permanent or temporary measures affecting the application of the Laws of the Game to take into account challenges arising from the COVID-19 pandemic and the safety of all participants who are governed by these Laws.

Although there has been no formal announcement as yet (July 1, 2021), referees should note that the wearing of facemasks — whether occasioned for medical, personal or local requirements – is not prohibited even under current Laws of the Game. Law 4.4 (The Players’ Equipment) specifically provides that players are allowed to wear protective facemasks provided they are not dangerous. This provision of the Law should serve to remind referees that, absent a local mandate against it, wearing facemasks is legal but comes under the general mandate to ensure that anything worn beyond existing or standard equipment must be checked for safety. Although the Law does not in this specific regard extend beyond players to include team officials, it would seem sensible to allow team officials (those allowed to be in the team area) to also wear facemasks.