A Short Complicated Question

Joe, a U13 – U19 parent asks:

U-13 goalkeeper slides and makes the save on the ground.  The player from other team runs into him and knees him in back of the head. Isn’t that a penalty and isn’t it the responsibility of the offensive player to avoid the contact?

Answer

Only 42 words in 3 sentences and 3 lines of text, but a toughie to answer.  You’re may not like what we end of with here.  First, the simplest issue you raise is “isn’t that a penalty” and the answer is no.  Penalty kicks are awarded if and only if a direct free kick offense is committed by a defender inside his own penalty area.  In this case, if whatever happened is determined to be an offense, it would be the attacker (“the player from the other team”) who would be charged.  No, if there is an offense here and the Referee stops play for it, the restart would be given to the goalkeeper’s team, not the attacking player’s team.

But the crux of this scenario is whether it is an offense in the first place.  Before we hear audible gasps from most readers and angry vows that we don’t know what we’re talking about, let’s establish that it probably was and that, as such, it would likely result in a direct free kick (but remember, for the goalkeeper’s team!).  How could it be anything else?  Because soccer is a competitive sport that, as the age and skill level of the players goes up and game results become much more important, things happen and those things can lead to injuries — hopefully not severe — even with the best of intentions by those involved.

Let’s tick off the relevant facts: (a) U13 age level, (b) goalkeepers are more likely to be sliding on the ground to play/save the ball than anyone else, and (c) an opponent runs into the goalkeeper.  One thing to keep in mind is that, other things equal, it is no more the responsibility of the opposing player to avoid contacting the goalkeeper than it is for the goalkeeper to avoid contacting the opposing player.  All players have a responsibility to avoid contacting anyone (opponent or not) in a dangerous, threatening, careless, reckless manner or using excessive force.   How is the fact that these players are U-13s affect our evaluation?  Because they are not old enough or experienced enough to perform in a safe manner many of the awesome maneuvers  on the field that they might see on television, at a U-19 game, on a high school or college pitch, or during a World Cup match.  How does the fact that the goalkeeper is the object of the action?  Because goalkeepers more readily engage in behaviour which is inherently more potentially dangerous than is the case with any of their teammates.

What “sells” the likelihood that this should be considered at least careless or potentially reckless behavior by the attacker is the “knees him [the goalkeeper] in the back of the head” addition.  Yes, the attacker should have avoided running into the goalkeeper, if at all possible, but sometimes it is not possible if each player involved commits himself to a course of action so late that there is no turning back and contact of some sort becomes inevitable.  Yes, goalkeepers usually get the benefit of the doubt in such encounters if they are sliding on the ground and are not the ones initiating contact with the opponent and the opponent didn’t make any effort to leap over instead of run into the goalkeeper.  And, yes, U-13s are usually considered too young to have been foolhardy enough to act in this manner.  So, DFK coming out where the contact occurred looks very easily explained.  Have older, more skilled players, have the speed prior to contact low rather than high, have each player involved both equally attempting to challenge for a ball which is not yet in the possession of the goalkeeper, have the goalkeeper not on the ground, etc. and the case for a DFK offense begins to look weaker.

It is the Referee’s job to job to take all the above elements into account (plus others we don’t have the time or space to include) and arrive at a decision which protects the safety of players, the enjoyment of the game, and the fairness of the play, and thus to arrive at a decision which promotes these objectives for these players, today, in this game.