All About Correct Decisions

Ben, a competitive youth coach, asks:

A ball is kicked into the penalty area on the ground.  A striker is the first to react and runs to the ball. The keeper is closer and runs to the ball to pick it up but misjudges the speed of the attacker. The attacker and goalkeeper are both running at the ball. The attacker reaches the ball about a yard before the keeper who has jumped at the ball when the attacker takes her touch. The touch goes into the goalkeeper as the keeper’s momentum takes her headfirst into the legs of the attacker and trips the attacker (the attacker had no chance after touching the ball to avoid being tripped).  What is the correct call?


You’re going to get tired of hearing this here but, “You have to be there!”  Equally important in understanding what follows is “There is no ‘the correct call’!”

No matter how detailed the description of the event, there is still a lot of potentially critical information missing here.  For example, had anything like this happened before in the match?  How did that turn out?  What do you know about the individual players who were involved?  What has been the temperature of the match so far?  What is the competitive skill level of the players (e.g., U19/D1 or U13/D5)?  Where were you — on the spot?  Trailing play?  At an angle to see space between the players or were you straight on?  We could go on and, at some point, you would probably get exasperated and start wondering if we are ever going to get to the point.  The problem is that this is the point.

OK, some answers.  So far (right on up to the final sentence which asks the question), everything described would be considered normal play in a competitive match between skilled, experienced players.  It starts to look a bit dicier if the players are young, coached by volunteers, and have low to moderate skills.  At these two ends of the spectrum, the answer to the question should probably be different without even getting into all the other pertinent factors listed above.  At both ends of the spectrum and for all points in between, the referee should be moving with play and bearing to the left to keep play between the referee and the lead AR instead of slowing down at the top of the penalty arc and having only a straight-on look.  Every sentence describing the build-up to this critical event screams “collision!”  The referee must be there in order to “sell” whatever decision has to be made.

Now, on to the other issue.  Is there any single one that can be called correct?  No.  At the skilled end of the spectrum, the likely “most correct” course of action is for the referee to be close and for the players involved to know that that the referee is close.  This course of action would likely include an understanding that each player (the striker and the goalkeeper) is doing what is expected of her.  Strikers kick balls.  Goalkeepers dive for balls.  Additionally, goalkeepers are more likely to put themselves into more dangerous positions.  Experienced players know these facts (strikers and goalkeepers better than most) and are willing to take risks.  We might hope that an aggressive striker, while pushing the envelop as regards her distance from the goalkeeper, would pull back and perhaps not attempt her usual explosive attempt to volley the ball.  We might hope that an otherwise fearless goalkeeper would, despite her being the last line of defense against being scored upon, be very careful in a diving save so as not to overturn the onrushing striker.  But then, weighed against safety, we must also recognize that our job includes enabling players to demonstrate their skills.  The wise referee at this end of the spectrum should judge the ensuing collision to be simply a part of the game and, though prepared to stop play quickly if there is an injury, be otherwise prepared to let play continue.

At the inexperienced, unskilled end of the spectrum, safety trumps all other concerns and we neither want nor expect such close judgments and risk-taking to be made by either player.  At this end of the spectrum, the wise referee will not only be close but perhaps even talking to the players as the play unfolds.  The wise referee will also recognize that, when the collisions occur (the ball being struck at the goalkeeper and the goalkeeper’s dive upending the striker), the burden of avoiding recklessness falls on the striker in this case.  A close evaluation must be made as to which player pushed the envelop too far first and, here, the answer is, on balance, the striker.  Depending on the force of the striker’s kick, the offense could be judged at least careless and perhaps reckless.  However, regardless of the striker’s burden, the goalkeeper might also be guilty of misconduct (even with the restart going to her team) if the referee judges that the particular manner of her lunge to the ground increased the danger to the striker (e.g., having feet up with cleats exposed).

In between these ends of the spectrum, the wise referee must judge how soon the goalkeeper made her play for the ball on the ground, how long the striker waited to make the final play on the ball before the goalkeeper made her inherently dangerous lunge toward the striker’s feet, and the extent to which either player attempted to avoid contact with the other.