Daniel, an adult amateur fan, asks:
In the penalty area, a defender bends to head the ball at a low level in front of an opponent who tries to kick the ball towards the goal. The attacker hits with the foot the opponent’s head. How should the referee decide?
This is, technically, not a Law question but a Refereeing question. And it is interesting (very helpful also) that you phrased it as “How should the Referee decide?” rather than “What should the Referee decide?” The difference between these two questions is that the second question wants to know the end result whereas the first question wants to know what information is relevant to making the decision.
We can’t answer “what” the Referee should decide because this is one of those situations where “you had to be there” to know exactly what the Referee saw, what further advice from a different angle the assistant referees might be able to provide, and particularly what led up to the described event. Accordingly, we will focus on certain generalizations about this sort of scenario that come from listening closely to experienced Referees and by our own direct experience over many years.
The standard “formula” is that, below the waist, feet are expected to play the ball and a head invading the area below the waist would normally be considered potentially dangerous. Chests and heads are expected to play balls in the area above the waist and an opponent intruding a foot above the waist would normally be considered a dangerous action. Without actual contact in either of these scenarios (i.e., foot on head below the waist) we could have no offense at all or, at most, a dangerous play offense if an opponent is unfairly prevented from playing for fear of engaging unsafely. With contact, there is great likelihood of a direct free kick offense — an offense which, moreover, would hover in the “careless” or “excessive force” misconduct realm depending on the specific circumstances. So, where the ball is clearly above the waist level, safe play presumes the use of chest and head but not feet, and the higher the ball is above waist level, the stronger is this conclusion. The farther the ball is below the waist, the stronger is the conclusion that play should involve feet, not heads or chests.
That said, there are lots of “ifs” and “maybes” that must be considered. For example (and probably the biggest “if”) is the waist area itself – that is a sort of “no man’s land” where either head or feet might be used and in either case could be considered dangerous and worth close attention. Here, we normally advise the Referee to evaluate the potential for danger by looking at the issue of which player initiated the play on the ball. If player A clearly began a movement which involved putting his head down to the area of the waist to make a play for the ball and, despite seeing this occur, player B (an opponent) nevertheless responds with starting to play the ball with a foot also at waist level, we would usually consider that player B has created the danger because player A in effect set the terms of the play and player B now has an affirmative responsibility to avoid raising his foot to the same level as player A’s head. Similarly, if player A had clearly made the first move at a waist-high ball using his foot, player B would be considered the one causing danger by bringing his head down to the waist level as a countermeasure.
But even here, there are problems. First, what if the two players’ movements, one with the foot and the other with the head but both at waist level, occurs simultaneously? Second, what if one player is not positioned to see what the other player is doing? Normally, we tend to not give the benefit of the doubt to players who operate on the “blind side” of an opponent. Third, the goalkeeper is often a complicating factor since goalkeepers more routinely engage in play at lower body levels with their hands, which tend to be accompanied by their head. This is something attackers know and are commonly expected to take into account. Fourth, there is a slight bias in favor of a player who is initiating a play of the ball with the head because, once started, the developing position of the head tends to result in obscured vision regarding what the opponent might be in the process of doing … until it is too late. Finally, in all this, the age, skill, and experience level of the players must be taken into account.
We cannot cite any Law in support of these generalizations — beyond “safety, fairness, enjoyment, and the display of skills” as the ultimate objectives for all officials. They are part of the “lore” of officiating, developed over a long period of time in practical response to real-world player behavior, and passed down in Referee tents all across the world.