Walls and More Walls

Aaron, a High School and College referee, asks:

On a set play (free kick), if the defending team sets a wall five yards from the ball and the center official tells them to move back, but does not say “on my whistle,” the attacking team takes a quick kick straight into goal, should the referee allow the goal?  The center said, “Move back, the law states ten yards. Come on, move back.”


A referee intending to talk to the opponents about their positioning vis-a-vis the ball on a restart against them should first state “wait for my whistle” and then take care of the problem.  It is unfair to both sides for the referee to be talking without ensuring that the restart will not occur because both sides are having their attention turned toward the referee and the attacking team could take advantage of this by kicking the ball.  Unfortunately, many referees are not aware of this.  Referees talking to players should not occur in these circumstances – if something is wrong enough that you plan on ordering players to adhere to the Law, then you have the obligation to visibly and audibly hold up the restart.  After all, this is one of the reasons why you have a whistle.

In doing anything like this even with the best of intentions, you are still interfering with the game.

Keep the following in mind:

  1. It’s the players’ game, not yours.
  2. Except for very young kids, allow each team to make mistakes … and then apply whatever the Law demands for the mistake.  They’ll learn not to make the mistake.
  3. Read the teams – is the attacker nearest the ball clearly ready, willing, and able to restart, even though one or more opponents might be within the 10 yards minimum distance?  Let the kick proceed – remember (1) above.  If the kicker sends the ball to an opponent nearer than 10 yards with that opponent, at the moment, in the process of backing away, keep quiet and let the play happen as the attacking team wanted it even if they ultimately messed up.
  4. Step in immediately, including the use of your whistle, if one or more opponents are so obviously close to the restart location and are making no meaningful effort to back away (including such tricks as walking across the probable path of the probable kick direction).  This changes their offense from “failing to respect the required distance” to “delaying the restart of play” … and show a yellow card to the opponent.
  5. Insert yourself, after clearly stating “Wait for my whistle,” and then proceed if the attacking team clearly requests enforcing the minimum distance but if and only if there is one or more opponents within that minimum distance.  Whistle play to restart immediately if, in your opinion, the opponents are already at least 10 yards back: don’t engage in backing opponents away if they are far enough back.
  6. An opposing team has no right to set “a wall five yards from the ball” nor does the referee have the right to be caught in this trap of wasting time (which helps the opposing team) – 7 or 8 yards maybe, but not 5!

The International Board has now made the referee’s life more difficult (as of 2019-2020) by allowing the appearance of a second “wall” consisting of one or more attackers.  Law 15 now provides that one or more attackers are permitted to set themselves at least one yard away from the defending team’s “wall” if that wall consists of 3 or more opponents.  If only one or two opponents are defending against the restart, there is no restriction against an attacker joining the party.  However, if there is a three-defender wall, any attacker nearer than one yard at the moment of the kick (e.g., by lunging closer in the last moment), the result is a whistle and the award of an indirect free kick for the former opponents, now having become the attackers!

Although all this may sound interesting, there are several hidden dangers here about which, as yet, the International Board has not provided advice.  For example, suppose at a ceremonial restart, the whistle has been sounded for the commencement of the restart and only two defenders plus an attacker are constituting “the wall” (all perfectly legal).  But, before the kick actually occurs, another defender suddenly joins the wall, thus making the once legally ensconced attacker now illegally in a wall of three defenders.  Then we have the issue of what constitutes a “wall” in the first place.  How close do three or more defenders have to be to be considered a “wall”?  Arms linked?  Shoulders touching? Standing with no body contact but objectively being within, say, five inches?  Six inches?  By the way, the International Board has yet to define “a wall,” apparently assuming  that everyone knows what it is.

Also by the way, the above two paragraphs apply, as of 2021, to NCAA (collegiate) matches as well.…

Accidental (or Not) Handling

Russ, an adult amateur referee, asks:

An attacker at the top of penalty area, with their back to the opposing GK receives a pass which deflects from her foot to an outstretched arm. The ball lands directly in front of her. She is able to shield the defender and take a shot or pass for a great chance to score.
Would this fall under goal scoring opportunity?
I understand some say it has to be immediate…
It seems unfair to reward the attacker when there was handling, intentional or not.
If this occurred at mid field, play on, unless there’s a direct shot on goal.


It’s a little more nuanced than that.  The IFAB stated its clear intention that, if an accidental hand contact occurs, this should not result in an offense based on three decisions made in the opinion of the referee:

  1. The contact occurs above the shoulder (i.e., accidental or not, hand contact above the shoulder is per se suspicious and, in the Board’s language, is taking a risk).  This issue applies regardless of what follows.
  2. The attacker whose hand/arm made accidental contact with the ball gained control and scores a goal directly (i.e., immediately and without intervening play by that player’s foot, chest, head or any combination thereof) has committed an offense.
  3. It is also an offense if the initial contact is accidental but, immediately following this, the player or a teammate immediately scores or creates a clear goal-scoring opportunity.  The International Board clarified the meaning of this scenario by declaring that the accidental contact is not an offense if the ball travels “some distance” and/or there are “several passes” before the goal is scored or the goal-scoring opportunity exists.

We suspect that, even with 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 explanations by the Board, there will still be debate and what it comes down to is “what soccer wants.”  We don’t mean this facetiously but the further clarification provided in the 2020-2021 edition of the Laws really does emphasize that accidental (which is the decision of the referee) hand contact is not an offense unless it leads quickly (which is the decision of the referee) to a goal by the accidentally-touched attacker or a subsequent transfer of the ball to a teammate of the accidentally-touched attacker.  The span of time between accidental contact and a goal or goal-scoring opportunity is the decision of the referee.  “Immediate” and “several passes” are the decision of the referee.…

When Do Cards Get Given?

Taz, an adult pro parent, asks:

Is there ever a situation where a cautionable offense doesn’t require a stoppage of play, other than advantage?

Example:  Player on Team A commits an unsporting behavior while their team has the ball, but they do not commit a foul.  Is it required for the ref to stop play to issue the caution, or can the ref hold till the next stoppage of play?


Regarding your initial question, yes.

The 2019-2020 Laws of the Game, Law 12, provides that the usual procedure in a card situation is that the card is given at the very next stoppage – whether that is coincident with the commission of the misconduct or, if advantage is used, at the first stoppage following the misconduct either upon deciding that the advantage was not maintained for at least several seconds or, if play proceeds because the giving of advantage was successful, at the next stoppage whistled for any reason.  The International Board long ago, though, advised referees that this should be a very rare occasion if the offense was a red car, the misconduct was violent, and there was little or no likelihood of an immediate goal being scored by the non-offending team.

There is a new “however” however – if (a) the non-offending team is ready, willing, and able to restart quickly; and (b) allowing the restart involves a clear goal-scoring opportunity; and (c) the referee has not taken any overt action (by word or deed) indicating that the restart may not be taken, the restart can be allowed to occur, the card remains as a punishment,  but giving the card can be delayed until the next stoppage.  (a) and (b) are entirely based on the judgment of the referee while (c) includes such things as the referee pulling out or otherwise displaying a card as concrete evidence that the card is about to be given or the referee saying anything in a sufficiently public way as to be heard by members of either or both teams in the immediate vicinity of the restart location.

Another way of explaining (c) is that, if the referee shows any public indication that a card will be given and this is understood to require that the restart will be delayed, thus inducing either one or both teams to back away from taking or defending against the restart, then the card must be given immediately even if the team in possession of the restart would objectively had wanted to restart quickly in order to take advantage of a goal-scoring opportunity.  In short, the referee was not reading play correctly or had done something to lead players to believe that the referee was going to show the card and thus cause players to “back off.”

Now, your “example” actually raises two different questions.  First, can a referee ignore an offense (foul or misconduct) and not give a card at all?  Yes.  It’s not generally advisable but is entirely within the referee’s scope of authority and may be entirely warranted (e.g., the offense was trifling or “iffy”).  Second, can a referee decide that a card is to be given but waits quietly and without notice the next stoppage?  Not in accordance with standard protocol unless advantage is being applied.  Standard protocol calls for fouls and/or misconduct be called and punished accordingly upon their occurrence unless the referee invokes advantage.  It is considered incorrect mechanics to “secretly” decide a misconduct has been committed and then do nothing about it until play stops, either by the referee’s whistle or by the ball leaving the field.…

Being Substituted

(The following inquiry from Heibel could not be answered directly — our private response was rejected as undeliverable)

Heibel, an adult amateur player, asks:

During the match, one of my players was subbed out and was leaving from the far side of the field, referee cards him a yellow, we ask for an explanation, ref doesn’t give one. Later in the game, I get called to sub out, I take a couple steps to leave the field from the far side but remember what happened to the other play so I immediately change direction and go towards the center of the field where the oncoming player is, I ran off at slightly less than a sprint. The ref cards me my second yellow saying i was wasting time. Now I have a red card, can’t play in the final. Should I argue it? Or was it a right call?


The Law requires (as of this year) that, with certain exceptions, players being subbed out to leave the field must exit at the closest point relative to the field’s perimeter lines (e.g., touch or goal line).

As for a card, well, it seems ill-advised.  A caution could be given if the referee decided the departing player was deliberately and clearly wasting time under circumstances where such wasting was meaningful (i.e., your team is 1 goal up with just 45 seconds remaining in the half and the stoppage involves a restart under the control of the opposing team where, with luck, the opposing team might score).  A caution is hardly mandatory and would not be given ordinarily merely because a departing player was moving off the field toward the usual, traditional, though never actually mandated location of the midfield line on the team side of the field just because that was farther away than some other exit point.

Frankly, we don’t understand the basis for the red card you mentioned receiving … unless you had already received a caution earlier in the game.  In any event, we don’t have a clear mental picture regarding what path you took in leaving the field.  You say that you momentarily began leaving by moving to the “far side” but it is not clear whether you were referring to a path that would take you off the field by the longest distance or you were using the term “far side” as a traditional reference to the side of the field opposite to the team side.  In any event, we also don’t know what you meant by changing direction to the “center of the field where the oncoming player is.”  The latter makes no sense unless you were meaning to say that you began moving to the side of the field from which the incoming player entered (which, for entering players, is still mandated in most cases).

The first point, however, is that, just as with the other player in this scenario, you were required to leave the field at the nearest point of the touch or goal line, regardless of which direction this took you.  Further, unless you WERE already sitting on a caution from some earlier incident, the prior caution for your teammate is not included in YOUR card count.  The card is given to a PERSON, not a TEAM.  Finally, we have as little support for the caution to you for “time wasting” as was already expressed for the earlier caution for the same reason – if either of you were in fact wasting time (a decision which must be based on actual wasting of meaningful time and not merely predicated on merely leaving the field on a longer path than the Law allows), then the caution is justified but only under the circumstances just outlined and only if the time being wasted was meaningful and not technical.

Referees should be conservative as regards unnecessary cards – a simple reminder to a departing player that he/she is now required to leave at the closest point (which, remember, was the reason given by the International Board for the change!) should be adequate.  Keep in mind that there is, after all, a maximum of 1,200 feet of touch+goal lines encompassing an international match field (1,380 feet if not international) and, technically, there is exactly only one precise point in all that distance that is “nearest” which any player must use in exiting in order to meet the “closest point” requirement.  Like so much in the Law, some measure of common sense must be applied and that common sense is based on actual, meaningful time-wasting which a player stubbornly, deliberately engages in despite being warned by the referee.

As for arguing, the answer is no, don’t bother.  If you are really bothered, file a complaint.…

Another Pass at “Pass-Back”

Mike, a U13-U19 referee, asks:

GK receives passback from teammate. GK receives ball with his feet outside the penalty area. Can he dribble into the  penalty area and then pickup the ball?


There is debate on this issue.  The International Board has not definitively dealt with the question, much less offered an answer.

Personally, we would count it as a pass-back offense since it meets the two basic requirements – (1) deliberately played by the foot of a teammate and (2) handled directly thereafter by the goalkeeper.  Note, in this respect, that “directly” in soccer has always (regardless of the specific scenario) been defined as “no intervening touch/play of the ball by anyone other than the originator of the play and the recipient.”   Obviously, in your scenario, there is no involvement by any other player between the teammate’s kick and the goalkeeper’s handling.

The Board modified this section of the Law this year, however, and has said that, following a deliberate kick from a teammate, if the goalkeeper tries to kick the ball but is not satisfied with the result and then handles the ball, the goalkeeper should not be charged with a pass-back offense because “the goalkeeper has clearly kicked or attempted to kick the ball to release it into play.”  This quote is from Law 12 and we have emphasized the part of the quote that, to us at least, significantly limits what the goalkeeper can do to avoid a pass-back violation.  The best way, of course, is not to handle the ball in the first place!

Later in the section of the IFAB Lawbook that explains the Board’s new language regarding this situation, the Board says “When the GK clearly kicks or tries to kick the ball into play, this shows no intention to handle the ball so, if the clearance attempt is unsuccessful, then goalkeeper can then handle the ball without committing an offense.”  Again, to us, this explanation does not allow the goalkeeper to avoid committing an offense if he/she takes control of the ball outside the penalty area, dribbles it back into the penalty area, and then picks it up (which is exactly your scenario).  This not only doesn’t show an intention not to handle the ball, it actually shows an intention to get the ball into the penalty area precisely to handle the ball.

The goalkeeper has committed an offense.…

Encroachment and Restarts

Zain, a U13 – U19 player asks:

If a free kick taker doesn’t ask for 10 yards, is a player from the opposition allowed to stand as close as they want to the ball?


Yes and no (don’t you just love those kinds of answers?).  The Law clearly states that every opponent on a free kick, goal kick, corner kick, and throw-in (these are the five restarts by players that can be taken quickly) is expected as a matter of course to begin immediately to retreat the minimum distance for whatever is specified for the particular restart.  That’s their obligation under the Law.

On the other hand, the player doing the restart has the right to decide to take the restart even if there are opponents closer than the minimum distance or to request that the referee hold the restart to enforce the minimum distance requirement before signaling for the restart to occur.  Either decision has its positive and negative implications.  A quick restart against closer-than-allowed opponents may be a positive if the quickness of the restart takes advantage of an exploitable “hole” in the defending team’s formation whereas asking for the minimum distance gives the opponents more time to take up stronger defensive positions.  On the other hand, a quick restart with a closer-than-allowed opponent carries the negative potential that, if the restart is not taken the way intended and the ball erroneously goes straight to that closer opponent who can control the ball (this is not illegal under the Law), control of the ball has been unexpectedly lost.  It’s a risk, but it’s a risk that only the team in possession of the restart is allowed to take or not take.

Of course, with younger players who are still learning the game, most referees would, in effect, “take over” and make the decision on behalf and to the advantage of the attacking team because they are too young to understand as yet the options.  For older, skilled, and experienced players, referees are expected to stand back, let things develop, and step in only when either asked by the team with the restart or if the encroachment is so egregious that the misconduct is not only obvious but serious – particularly if it delays the restart of play by, in effect, preventing the restart from even occurring (e.g. kicking the ball away).  And the referee steps in after the restart if an opponent affirmatively violates the minimum distance requirement for the restart (e.g., by rushing in closer than the minimum distance and interfering with play).  And then there is the need to manage the “ploys” attempted by opponents to behave just barely enough in an illegal way to delay the restart to their advantage but not enough to catch the attention or the ire of the referee.

So, the Law answer to your question is no, absolutely not.  No opponent is “allowed” to be closer than the restart’s minimum distance whether the attacking team asks for it or not.  The real world soccer game answer is that, while illegal, it can be ignored by the attacking team – with risks and consequences.

You should note that, as of the 2019-2020 Law changes (see this site’s tab on the subject), there are now several new and unusual “minimum distance” requirements that coaches and players need to be aware of.…