Goalkeepers and “Challenging for the Ball”

Steve, a U13 – U19 coach, asks:

In open play, goalkeeper saves the ball in his area. To restart play does the ball have to go outside the area or can the keeper roll it to one of his defenders who is inside the area so he can dribble up field taking the ball out of the area?

Answer

Let’s clear out some underbrush in this scenario before getting to the central issue of your question.  There is an important distinction in the Laws of the Game between taking a ball out of play and taking a ball out of challenge.  The simplest way to take a ball out of play is to kick the ball off the field — the ball is automatically out of play the moment it entirely crosses the field’s outer perimeter lines (touch line or goal line, including the part of the latter which is between the goal posts).  Players can also take the ball out of play by becoming injured or committing an offense, for either of which the referee stops play.  Finally, the referee can take the ball out of play simply by whistling for a stoppage for any reason (weather, outside interference, or any other reason).  Obviously, if a ball goes out of play, it means that no one can play it until there is a formal restart (unless the stoppage is when the final period runs out of time).

This is completely (and importantly) different from taking the ball out of challenge.  This is the chief difference between a goalkeeper and any other player on the team because only the goalkeeper can do this but they can only do it within their own penalty area (anywhere in that area) and only by taking hand possession of the ball.  “Out of challenge” means that, from the moment the goalkeeper takes hand control of the ball until the ball is fully released from hand control, no opponent can challenge the goalkeeper for the ball!  The ball is still “in play” during this whole time, but an opponent cannot attempt to tackle, charge, or otherwise challenge for the ball.

Having “hand control of the ball” is operationally defined as the goalkeeper holding the ball with a hand (including having the ball resting on the hand, usually but not necessarily on the palm) or between both hands or between one or both hands against a surface (the ground, the body, a goal post, etc.).  Once hand control is achieved (in the opinion of the referee), all challenges must cease.  Period.  Any attempt to challenge could result in the referee stopping play, issuing a caution, and restarting with an indirect free kick for the goalkeeper’s team.  Referees understand that, in general, goalkeepers prefer for this not to happen,  They are, at heart, egotists who firmly believe they are far more capable of getting rid of the ball their own way and for their own purposes than via an indirect free kick and so referees understand that (a) they should try to prevent interference from occurring in the first place and (b), if it is so blatant as to be unavoidable, the added punishment of a caution should be given.

The interesting part of all this groundwork is determining what constitutes releasing the ball back into challenge.  Basically, it means getting rid of it — throwing it, kicking it (punt, dropkick, etc.), or setting it on the ground and kicking it.  The Law allows the ball to be tossed up in the air and then to catch it or to bounce it on the ground and catch it, all without losing hand control (tossing it up, allowing it to hit the ground, and then catching it on the rebound, however, is a second possession offense — don’t do this, goalkeepers, just kick the ball on the rebound).  All of these actions are considered part of “releasing the ball into play” and are as protected from challenge or interference as is simply holding the ball.

OK.  That’s the groundwork.  Now to your scenario, which basically has nothing to do with everything we just talked about.  You asked about “restart play” and now we know that play never stopped in the first place!  What stopped was the ability of an opponent to do what he or she would normally do while the ball was in play — challenge for it.   Accordingly, there is no restart issue here.  There are special things to remember about restarts from within a team’s own penalty area and the issues you raised involve that, none of which are relevant to how a goalkeeper puts a ball back into challenge.  Most players, coaches, and spectators (plus many well-paid commentators) commonly call this “putting the ball back into play” but this is incorrect.  Referees know that this is “putting the ball back into challenge” because the difference is crucial.  Except for leaving the field or the referee stopping play or time ending, the ball is always in play.

Interfering with the Goalkeeper

Michael, an adult amateur player, asks:

When a goalkeeper has the ball in his hands and goes to kick it down field, can an opposing striker block the ball? Especially if they are outside the box?

Answer

Your scenario is a bit unclear.  If by “they” you mean both the goalkeeper and the striker and if by “outside the box” you mean outside the penalty area(as opposed to the goal area), then the solution is easy — the goalkeeper is committing a handling offense and this takes priority.  We suspect, however,  you meant that only the striker was “out of the box,” in which case it doesn’t matter which “box” you meant.

As long as the goalkeeper has hand control of the ball, including when he is in the process of releasing it (i.e., throwing or kicking the ball), no opponent can interfere with the release or challenge for the ball.  Sometimes, opponents make it easy for you by looking at the goalkeeper and obviously moving closer or moving around to block the direction that the goalkeeper apparently is considering in which to release the ball.  Once the ball is released, however, the ability to challenge for control of the ball returns.

This is very clear and easy to enforce in the static situation where the goalkeeper is clearly holding the ball but becomes murkier during the actual release of the ball.  The general principle is that an opponent cannot be allowed to be close enough to the goalkeeper to interfere with the release.  How far back is that?  It’s in your opinion.  That opinion should take into account whether the opponent has merely established a location which does not block the direction of the release … and stays there.  Sometimes, an opponent makes it easy for you by actually moving around to interfere while the goalkeeper is attempting to move in response to find a clear release direction.  And it becomes ridiculously easy if the opponent runs into an area which is the direction of release while the release is taking place.  The referee should handle these situations proactively (before any interference could occur) by warning an opponent to back away and to stay out of the way.  If you have done so and the opponent ignores your warning or if events happened so quickly that there was no time to give the warning in the first place and the interference occurs, this is a cautionable offense – whistle, show a yellow card to the opponent, and order an indirect free kick restart from where the interference occurred.

Keep in mind that experienced goalkeepers generally prefer to perform their own release rather than to have that changed to an indirect free kick so choose your options carefully and step in only when the potential interference is blatant and/or when the players are inexperienced and/or when you have warned the opponent but the opponent interferes anyway (the caution is for unsporting behavior but ignoring an actual warning from you adds an icing of dissent).

Remember that the issue is not limited to “how far back.”  Where the opponent is in relation to the direction of the release is just as important.  There is no specific distance offered in the Laws of the Game as is the case for example with retreating at least ten yards for a free kick.   Here, the decision is solely “in the opinion of the referee.”  As the International Board (IFAB) put it in this year’s edition of the Laws of the Game:

The Laws cannot deal with every possible situation, so where there is no direct provision in the Laws, The IFAB expects the referee to make a decision within the ‘spirit’ of the game – this often involves asking the question, “what would football want/expect?”

Goalkeepers — Ready or Not

Marc H, a U13 – U19 coach, asks:

When a free kick is given and the kicker asks for the Referee to give him the required distance for defenders (10 yards in a regulation match), does the Referee take into consideration the goalkeeper setting up the wall and being ready before the Referee blows the whistle to put the ball in play? I’ve seen circumstances where the Referee blows the whistle and the keeper Is still setting up his wall. Is there any consideration to the keeper in this case?

Answer:

Short answer – none whatsoever.

Goalkeepers think they are special – and in some respects they are (it is a dangerous job after all) – but in this case the goalkeeper is taking a risk by his involvement.  Here’s the main point.  Asking that the minimum distance be enforced converts the restart from a quick to a ceremonial event.  By definition, the referee is the only person who must be involved and her only function here is to signal the restart when she is satisfied the minimum distance enforcement task is finished – i.e., the 10 yards is achieved.

The referee is not and cannot be concerned about any opponent not being where some other opponent thinks is not optimum.  In other words, it is the Referee who sets the wall, not any defender (much less the goalkeeper).  It is a simple matter of applying the Law and the Law is only concerned about a minimum of ten yards in every direction.  If there is any opinion by a defender that a teammate, while not closer than ten yards, isn’t in the “right place,” the problem is not the referee’s.  If a goalkeeper is sufficiently concerned that teammates are not where he wants them that he is prepared to be out of position to defend against a free kick, that’s his problem.

We feel safe in observing that the first time such a goalkeeper is scored against because he wasn’t where he was supposed to be, his coach will make the lesson clear.

Goalkeeper Tactics

Jeff, a U13 – U19 referee, asks:

When the goalkeeper is challenging for possession of the ball, are there restrictions on bringing his/her knee up when they are jumping to grab the ball?

Answer

No … and yes.  Perhaps not a very helpful response so let’s explore below the surface.

Can goalkeepers raise their knee during the process of gaining possession of the ball?  We know, that’s not exactly how the question was posed … stay tuned.  Of course, why not?  Add in the phrase “while challenging for the ball” and there is now a significant dimension that has been added; namely, the presence of someone else (an opponent, presumably) who is also attempting to gain possession of the ball.  The big difference, of course, between these two — the goalkeeper and the opponent — is that one can legally handle the ball inside his/her own penalty area but the other one cannot.  Put them both outside the penalty area and they are on exactly the same level, at least legally.

So, let’s assume we are talking about all this happening inside the goalkeeper’s penalty area.  We can tell you that virtually all goalkeeper camps and trainers include the “raising the knee tactic” in their programs.  These camp trainers also provide (by example and implication — wink, wink) two standard explanations that they encourage goalkeepers to use if asked : to protect themselves or to gain height while reaching upwards for a ball.  Actually, the reason is very simple.  It is to help create a space around the goalkeeper into which it is dangerous for the opponent to enter, thus encouraging opponents to stay back to avoid being contacted by the raised knee.    By the way,  we encourage doubters to simply visualize approximately where that knee winds up when raised.  In short, it is done to intimidate.

Would we as referees look askance at field players raising knees to intimidate opponents who might wish to challenge for possession of the ball?  Would we perhaps be inclined to punish a player at midfield trying for a descending high ball who raised a knee to back an opponent off?  If “I’m just protecting myself” is good enough for the goalkeeper, why not for any other player elsewhere on the field?  The answer, unfortunately, is that this has become one of those “urban legend” things that got started long ago and has become ordinary in the minds of many officials who haven’t thought more deeply about why this behavior occurs.  Further, it involves goalkeepers who continue to benefit from their favored status as “special.”  We like goalkeepers — they are brave, interesting, funny, and as egotistical as anyone with a whistle, but sometimes this can be carried to extremes.

Accordingly, what this issue boils down to is not the fact of a knee being raised but why it is being raised.  Seriously, think back over the many games you have officiated and ask yourself how often you have seen a goalkeeper raise his/her knee when there is no opponent around.   Actually, if you do see this, more often than not the goalkeeper is trying to establish it as a routine action so you will be less likely to question it when they do it for the real reason.

So, keep a close eye on such encounters.  Obviously, if the knee is raised to intimidate and contact is made, don’t be so ready to give the goalkeeper a free pass.

The Plight of Goalkeepers

(Originally published on 10/17/17, “Operation Restore”)

Kaleb, a U13 – U19 player, asks:

Yesterday during my soccer game I was playing goalie.  I stopped the ball and started to get up so I could kick the ball up the field.  A person from the other team started running full force at me (note, I still had the ball in my hands) so I snapped one arm out in front of my body and the person from the other team hit my arm. The Referee immediately called a penalty on me for using my arm as a weapon.  I didn’t swing my arm at him I just put my arm up to protect myself and he hit my arm.  I would like to know if putting your arm up to defend yourself is a penalty.

Answer

Could be.  This is one of those judgment calls for which “you had to be there” in order to get some sense of what the Referee saw — the decision depends on so many variables.  We will say that, in general, the picture we get when you said that you “snapped one arm out in front of my body” is the classic football (American football) photo of a pigskin carrier running down field with an arm held out to fend off opponents trying to stop him.

Let’s just admit up front that the job of a goalkeeper is, as one observer noted, marked by “80 minutes of boredom and 10 minutes of terror.”  In other words, it’s not easy and every goalkeeper walks a thin line in situations like this between trying to stay uninjured and doing their job, a job which often requires the goalkeeper to get into positions on the ground or in the air which are inherently risky.  Having had some experience with serving in this position, we also understand that some goalkeepers take advantage of the quick, brief dust-ups that are a normal part of the goalkeeper’s life to respond in ways that are, shall we say, unforgiving of opponents.  Opponents, on the other hand, generally are not very forgiving of goalkeepers (except their own, of course) when it comes to a willingness to take their efforts to continue attacking the goal right to, and sometimes beyond, the edge of the goalkeeper’s safety.

All that said, it is the job of the Referee in situations involving challenges to or in the vicinity of the opposing goalkeeper to remember that the Laws of the Gamer require such challenges to cease immediately once the goalkeeper has control of the ball. “Control of the ball” is marked generally by having both hands on the ball or one hand on the ball against any kind of surface (ground, body, goalpost, etc.).  Keeping in mind the need to factor in the age, skill, and experience of the players, Referees should be proactive in safeguarding the goalkeeper where the flow of play appears to include one or more opponents acting recklessly despite the goalkeeper arguably having control of the ball.  In your scenario, the Referee should have begun closely monitoring the actions of the opponent who had “started running full force” at you, repositioning to warn the opponent that his behavior was being observed, and even providing a strong verbal caution against violating the Law, all in an attempt to forestall the impending offense.  At some point, the apparent intent to interfere by the opponent would warrant a preemptive whistle.

On the other hand, you are not warranted in taking actions which go beyond mere “self protection” — after all, a more effective way to protect yourself in a case like this would be to simply sidestep the onrushing opponent.  This often does not appeal to more macho goalkeepers whose mindset is, “it’s his job to avoid me so I will simply stand my ground and maybe get in a bit of mayhem on my own which will probably be ignored or justified by the Referee.”

In short, while we would have preferred to see the Referee in this case act in advance to prevent or stop a rapidly building momentum which, if left unchecked, is only likely to end badly for everyone involved in the likely collision, you had other opportunities besides snapping your arm outward in what could only be termed an aggressive manner.  Hence our answer at the beginning of all this — yes, it could be a penalty (i.e., determined to be “striking” and, since it was by a defender within his own penalty area, leading to a penalty kick restart).

Better for all concerned, however, would have been a whistle by the Referee to stop play as the opponent’s run brought him close enough to justify a decision that there was an intent to interfere with the release of the ball into play, resulting in a caution for the opponent for unsporting behavior and an IFK restart for the defending team.  Better yet would have been proactive officiating aimed at getting it through the opponent’s head that he needed to stop running at the goalkeeper once control of the ball was established.