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?”

A DOGSO Scenario Question (REVISED Again)

Robert, an adult amateur player, asks:

A striker positions himself to make a shot on goal, one-on-one with the goalkeeper, in an obvious scoring opportunity. The goalkeeper shouts to startle him and causes the striker to fluff his kick.

Is the correct approach: 1) yellow card for keeper and indirect free kick, 2) red card and penalty, or 3) no action?

Answer

A reader has brought to our attention that the International Board has resolved the above question in its new FAQs (found only at the end of each Law separately listed on the IFAB website — these FAQs are not to be found in the downloadable document itself and appeared only at the end of May 2018).  What follows is our revised reply to the above question.  Our apologies for any confusion the original answer might have caused.  And then … another reader brought our inattention to our attention, hence the second update.  We hope this is the last. Only the final sentence needed correcting.

A very interesting question, Robert, one which has been affected by recent Law changes.  The relevant Law elements are as follows.  First, the goalkeeper’s action of shouting to distract is and always has been included in the general category of “unsporting misconduct.”  Second, though a misconduct, the goalkeeper’s action is still termed “an offense.”  Third, no direct free kick offense was committed.  Fourth, both the description of the scenario and the scenario itself declare that this was an “obvious goal-scoring opportunity” — also commonly referred to as a “DOGSO.”  It is the fourth fact that is the key to the problem here.

Prior to 2016-2017, Law 12 only required that the restart be a free kick or penalty kick, which would clearly have included an offense resulting in either a direct or an indirect free kick.  The International Board’s modifications to Law 12  over the last several years were mainly intended to lighten what was called the “triple penalty” stemming from the commission of a DOGSO offense (i.e., the penalty kick itself plus the send-off plus the attendant minimum one-game suspension that followed). To do so, it created a distinction between cautionable DOGSOs and send-off DOGSOs.

As Law 12 now stands, there are still two basic DOGSO scenarios, one of which involves illegal handling and the other involves any offense other than handling.  An illegal handling that prevents a goal will always result in a direct free kick (or a penalty kick) and a red card no matter where in the field the handling occurs (a caution is appropriate if the illegal handling does not prevent the goal). However, in the process of outlining when a caution is a correct response, Law 12 specifies that the caution is applicable where (among other things) the offense results in a penalty kick and this, in turn, is possible only when the offense is a direct free kick foul occurring inside the defending team’s penalty area.

However, in the Board’s Law 12 FAQ 12, the point is made that, since an indirect free kick restart does not, in effect, restore the goal-scoring opportunity that was denied by the OGSO, the defender must still be given a red card even though the restart would be an indirect free kick.  In FAQ 11, the Board resolved another issue in stating that a DOGSO offense must result in a red card even if the offense occurred outside the penalty area and would not otherwise have been cautionable but for the DOGSO.

Accordingly, the answer to your question is that none of the options is correct.  Add “4) red card and indirect free kick” to the options list in order to get one that is required by Law 12 and Law 12’s FAQ 12.

Goalkeeper Handling (or Not)

Christopher, an adult amateur player, asks:

The goalkeeper received the ball at his feet outside of the penalty box from an opposing player. Goalkeeper dribbles into penalty box, then dribbles outside penalty box, dribbles back inside penalty box and handles the ball. Referee awarded indirect free kick for handling. Correct?

Answer

We love these easy ones.  No.

OK, you would probably like an explanation.  As described, the goalkeeper’s running around into, out of, and then back into the penalty area is irrelevant.  We are mystified as to the indirect free kick restart because (a) it was not handling and, (b) if it had been, the restart would have been a direct free kick, not an indirect free kick.  The only time the goalkeeper could have committed a handling offense is if he picked up the ball when he was outside his penalty area.

On the other hand (but the answer is still No), perhaps the indirect free kick was not for handling but for a so-called “pass-back” violation.  Unfortunately, this also fails the “look to the Law” test because the goalkeeper’s handling was not directly from a deliberate kick from a teammate — it was from an opponent.  Note that it would have been an indirect free kick for a pass-back violation even though the goalkeeper played around dribbling the ball back and forth inside and outside the penalty area if it had come from a teammate because “directly” in soccer terminology means no one else touched/played the ball prior to the goalkeeper and so the goalkeeper would in fact have handled a ball, despite all that dribbling around, directly from the teammate.

So, we have an error in applying the Laws of the Game no matter how the scenario is interpreted.  If the ball had come from an opponent, it would have been an indirect free kick, but it didn’t come from  a teammate.  If the goalkeeper had handled the ball while he was dribbling about outside the penalty area, it would have been a handling offense but not an indirect free kick restart … and his handling of the ball occurred inside the penalty area so it can’t have been a handling offense.

Slide Tackles

Mike, a U-12 and under parent, asks:

Can a keeper slide tackle an attacking player? More specifically can the keeper execute a slide tackle that is directly at the attacking player which causes a head-on collision? We play in two upper midwestern states primarily and just lost one of our best players to a knee injury because the keeper from another team performed a slide tackle in the box as she was coming straight at the keeper. I believe the keeper did get the ball first, but to me this comes in the area of dangerous play and should have had a PK awarded with a possible card given to the keeper.

Answer

This is a tough one to answer so please keep this in mind as we try to clarify certain things of which parents and other spectators are often unaware.  Apart from what follows, we’re sorry to hear of your player’s injury.

First, there is nothing in the Laws of the Game which makes a “sliding tackle” illegal.  Some leagues within some state organizations have made the sliding tackle maneuver illegal on general principles, usually forbidding its use by players under the age of (take your pick, usually 12, sometimes 14) but you need to understand that even this is itself illegal.  Technically, no soccer organization affiliated with USSF can have a playing rule that is not allowed by the Laws of the Game.

Second (ignoring the above paragraph), we train referees to understand that, although slide tackling is not illegal, it can quickly become illegal if not done correctly.  In short, there is nothing wrong with a slide tackle if it is executed perfectly.  The problem is that it is all too easy to make a mistake while performing a sliding tackle  and, as a result, the tackle not only becomes illegal but almost always seriously illegal (meaning it would also draw a red card).

Third, there is nothing about slide tackling that involves one player being allowed to do it but not another.  In short, goalkeepers can perform slide tackles just as other players can – provided it is done perfectly.

Fourth, there is no way an imperfectly performed slide tackle could be considered a “dangerous play” not only because dangerous play offenses are indirect free kick fouls but because any error in performance that would make a slide tackle illegal would involve a direct free kick/PK restart plus at least a caution if not a red card.  There is no way a “dangerous play” offense can result in a direct free kick or penalty kick.

Fifth, we are having trouble envisioning a slide tackle event, done well or done badly, which could “cause a head-on collision.”  Slide tackles, by their nature and definition are performed by using the foot (or feet) while sliding on the ground against an opponent’s foot (or feet). Unless the goalkeeper was sliding in toward the ball or an opponent head first (which is not a sliding tackle by definition), collisions can occur but not above waist level.

Sixth, it is a common misunderstanding that “getting the ball first” has something to do with a slide tackle being legal or illegal.  It doesn’t.  Not at all.  NOT getting the ball at all does and, in this case, it makes the tackle illegal.  But getting the ball first, second, third, etc. doesn’t make it legal.  In addition to there being no contact with the ball at all, other elements making the slide tackle illegal include the direction from which it is made, the speed at which the player is sliding, the height of either or both feet above ball level, and exposure of the studs.  The ultimate dangerous slide tackle is the two-footed, high speed tackle where contact is made above the ball with studs exposed!

Seventh and finally. we also train referees to understand that the probability of a slide tackle being performed legally is highly dependent on the age and experience level of the players … for a very simple reason.  Performing a legal slide tackle takes experience, training, physical coordination, good judgment, and the ability to weigh consequences.  Very few human beings below the age of 14 possess any, much less all, of these characteristics. They can be rarely found in persons below the age of 18 (one of the major reasons why auto insurance is sky-high for young drivers!).  Every slide tackle performed in a match involving players under the age of 14 should be  presumed illegal by chance alone and that presumption should be switched to “legal” only after the most careful review by the referee.

On the Ground

Jonathan, a HS and College coach, asks:

A defending player and an attacking player are challenging for the ball. Defending player is fairly tackled and falls on the ball. Defending player remains on top of the ball, intentionally shielding the ball. Attacking player kicks at ball, hitting defending player in the midsection and ribs repeatedly (three or four forceful kicks) until the referee blows the whistle to stop play. What foul(s) have been committed? What is the appropriate restart?

Answer

This is a grayish area.

In a dangerous play situation (which has always included scenarios in which a player is laying on the ball, or has the ball tangled on, under, or between his/her legs while on the ground),  the application of the Law depends significantly on (a) the age/experience of the players and (b) the specific sequence of events.

The simplest one is when a player covers the ball, thus preventing a safe attack by an opponent to gain possession of the ball by an opponent, but the player quickly gets up and resumes playing the ball and is thus open to being challenged legally.  No offense has occurred.

A slightly more complex situation is when the player lays on the ball and makes little or no attempt to get up but there is an opponent close enough to gain possession but deigns not to do so in the interests of the player’s safety.  If this continues for more than several seconds without any apparent good cause (e.g., the player is entirely unmoving and possibly injured, in which case play should be stopped immediately to deal with the injury), the player who is unfairly withholding the ball from challenge is called for dangerous play and play resumes with an IFK.

At the next level, a player is on the ground and is given no reasonable time to recover or to otherwise permit safe play but an opponent begins challenging dangerously — which would certainly be the case in your scenario (“hitting the defending player in the midsection and ribs repeatedly”).  The referee’s action should be swift and firm.  It should be taken upon the very first attempt to kick.  If this were done, the dangerous play offense would simply be called against the upright (but not upstanding!) opponent and an IFK for the downed player’s team would be the restart.

By not moving quickly to defuse the situation, the opponent has in fact not been discouraged from committing a direct free kick offense (kicking) which would, additionally, be deemed at least reckless (yellow) and more likely involving excessive force (red).

The younger the players, the more the application of “dangerous play” favors dealing quickly and aggressively with either the player on the ground deemed not injured to discourage any attempt by an opponent to launch an attack or the opponent who does not allow a reasonable amount of time for the player on the ground to recover before engaging in an unsafe attempt to challenge for the ball.

In your specific scenario, the player on the ground was intentionally (and therefore illegally) withholding the ball from a safe challenge.  However, the opponent also took the situation out of the Referee’s hands by not allowing sufficient time for the Referee to decide if (a) the player was injured or (b) was in fact intentionally withholding the ball from play.  The result was a series of reckless or, more likely, excessively forceful attacks on the player on the ground (which would have been just as illegal if the player hadn’t been on the ground!).  The Referee must consider the possibility that he or she had not been sufficiently “on top” of the situation to prevent either the initial dangerous play offense or the subsequent direct free kick foul and likely send-off.  The restart, of course, is the direct free kick because, when fouls are committed simultaneously, the restart is determined by the more serious offense (see Law 5.3, Disciplinary Action, 1st bullet point).

Excessive Delays

Jose, an adult amateur fan, asks:

We were playing a game, winning 1-0.  Of course, every time the ball went out, we took our time getting it.  The Referee kept stopping his watch.  We argued that he shouldn’t stop it every single time but he said we were walking too slow on purpose to get the ball.  So, as soon as I did the next throw-in, one of players in my team just kicked it as far as he could.  The Referee gave him a yellow card.  We argued that the ball was in play and he could kick it anywhere he wanted.  Was he right?

Answer

Yes … and no.  Where and how a ball is played is generally solely a matter of team tactics and usually does not constitute an offense.  Having said that, however, a team in possession of the ball for a restart (other than kick-off, penalty kick, or drop ball – all of which are controlled entirely by the referee), a team is not allowed to delay the restart of play (which is why we are amused by your statement that “Of course … we took our time.”).  That’s why there is a specific caution for “delaying the restart of play” but “delay” is an imprecise word that depends on (you guessed it) the opinion of the referee.  On a free kick, for example, a team generally has the right to perform the restart as quickly as it wants – even with opponents closer than the minimum 10 yards required by Law 13 – but it could also request the referee to take some extra time to enforce the minimum distance.  That would be a delay but one that is acceptable under the Law.

In the same situation, however, an opponent could run right up to the ball and stand a foot or so away from it, thus preventing the free kick.  This is a clear example of delaying the restart of play and should result in an immediate caution.  In the case of a throw-in restart, the ball has obviously left the field and needs to be retrieved (since most recreational youth and adult amateur games do not use “ball-boys” who simply feed a new ball to the throwing team).  If an opponent started to retrieve the ball and wasted time doing so, that would be a clear violation and would earn a caution, but what if the throwing team “took its time” going to get the ball by walking slowly, picking daisies on the way, wiping the ball to clean it, stopping for conversations, etc.?  Now it is up to the referee to decide if the ball retrieval is “normal” (meaning enough, but no more than enough, time to perform the task) or whether it was being done to waste time, particularly if doing so was clearly for the purpose of gaining an unfair advantage.  If so, then that becomes cautionable as “delaying the restart of play” – though USSF referee training stresses the wisdom of informing the delaying player/team when it starts to happen that the delay is unacceptable with the threat of a card implicit if it continues and/or is repeated.  Subsequent additional warnings are not required.

There are two problems with this.  First is the simple fact that punishing for delaying the restart of play doesn’t change the fact that the delay occurred and, worse, that the imposition of the punishment itself eats up some more time.  Second is whether the local rules/customs of competition allow for the addition of time to offset unacceptable delays (both those caused by external events such as weather or injuries as well as by a team wishing to chew up time for its own unsporting purposes).  In tournaments, particularly, it is not uncommon to advise participating Referees that “adding time” is seriously discouraged except in such extreme cases as serious injuries even though the Laws of the Game allow it.  Referees  have to accept the rules in place if they accept the assignment – if something is sufficiently unacceptable, they should refuse to accept the game.

The point here, though, is that the referee can only punish unfair and excessive delay but he or she cannot prevent it, at least not without cautioning his or her way through every player on the offending team and then by starting over giving second cautions (resulting in a red card) for those who continue to commit the offense.  To the extent possible in accordance with the Laws of the Game, the referee can also thwart the purpose of time wasting restarts by adding compensatory time to the end of the half in which this is occurring (which, not surprisingly is also when most of the time wasting itself occurs).

By the way, most experienced referees have learned that it is not a good idea to stop their watch for such delays – it is far too easy to forget that you have done so until the next time you look at your watch and discover that it was never restarted!  So, the lesson here is to focus on excessive delays, on delays which appear to have a tactical and unfair purpose, warn first that you understand what is going on and that it is not acceptable, use your authority to add time for the period of excessive delay (if the local rules allow), and then prepare to follow through with the appropriate punishment.  Remember, however, that the target is excessive delays.  Soccer, despite its emphasis on constant, continuous action, has lots of “down time” – actual match data has determined that a 90 minute game may often have no more than roughly 60-65 minutes of real playing time (i.e., the ball is in motion on the field).  And kicking the ball hard off the field to lengthen the amount of time it might take to retrieve it is not by itself an offense – if the other team is concerned about it, it can post supporters around the field to retrieve balls or have a supply of extra balls (all inspected and pre-approved by the referee) at their team bench or just off the field behind their net which they can immediately offer to the referee to assist in getting play restarted.

Player Shenanigans

Abdikidar, an adult amateur Referee, asks 2 questions:

1. A GK passes a goalkick to his teammate within the penalty area more than 3 times so what would be the punishment and a referee call?
2. A player went to the fan area for his opponents and, while inside the field after the halftime break, removed his shorts exposing his underwear while jeering them.  What should the referee do to that player?

Answer

Question 1: I assume that the “3 times” is because each time the referee understood that the goal kick must be retaken because the ball was not properly put into play.  If this unsuccessful restart occurs 3 times, the referee should caution whoever did the third kick (regardless of whoever did it either of the first two times) for “delaying the restart of play.”  The intelligent referee, after the 2nd unsuccessful goal kick, would have warned the third kicker that the 2nd attempt was an unfair delay of the restart and, if it happened again, he “would deal with it” (don’t get any more specific than that).  The really intelligent referee would also evaluate the circumstances of the first unsuccessful attempt and, if the delay under those circumstances appeared to favor the kicking team (e.g., a favorable score for them with little time remaining), give this warning after the 1st unsuccessful kick and caution if it happened again.  Finally, this approach should be used even in situations where the second or third unsuccessful kick wasn’t on the same restart (i.e., this happened on a goal kick at the 88th minute and then happened again less than a minute later).

Question 2 : Caution immediately for unsporting behavior (showing a lack of respect for the game).

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.

Shielding the Ball

Erich, an adult amateur player, asks:

Throughout the game I am writing about, the other team would “shield” us off the ball (which as an experienced player I am fine with and do myself): however, rather than attempt to maintain control of the ball within a playable distance they were initiating contact with our players, often by backing up away from the ball or to their sides specifically to initiate the contact. This was often accomplished with substantial physicality, to the point that several of our players were repeatedly knocked down throughout the game while attempting to go around opposing players or to defend them. It was never called because the referee judged the ball to be within a playable distance (which he arbitrarily defined as 3 feet, which I know is not the rule and is not part of my question).

The question is essentially this: at what point does “shielding” with the ball near enough to be controlled become a foul? Does it matter that the player be actually trying to control the ball? If you are at least nominally controlling the ball, can you just back over a defender rather than trying to go around him/her?

Answer

We know you said this is not part of your question but we feel compelled to point out that, currently, there is an official, lawful, and therefore controlling definition of “playing distance” … and it is not 3 feet.  For the first time ever, the International Board has provided a clear statement on this subject which applies, actually, to a several different scenarios in soccer, of which “shielding” is only one of them: it is the “Distance to the ball which allows a player to touch the ball by extending the foot/leg or jumping or, for goalkeepers, jumping with arms extended. Distance depends on the physical size of the player”.  There you have it.

Now, as for “shielding,” let’s return to the Law (as we always should when starting on the path to enlightenment), and we find the following in Law 12: “A player may shield the ball by taking a position between an opponent and the ball if the ball is within playing distance and the opponent is not held off with the arms or body. If the ball is within playing distance, the player may be fairly charged by an opponent.”  While we might wish that this would answer everything, it doesn’t.

Your scenario is a dynamic situation that often occurs a yard or so inside the field and is performed usually for the purpose of allowing or preventing the ball from leaving the field depending on which team would gain the restart.  Shielding can be either a defensive or attacking team tactic.  The dynamic can become particularly intense the smaller the field space is available for ball movement and the greater the number of players being shielded.  These factors are important to keep in mind because they help us understand why players do what they do.

Two critical issues are raised by the Law’s language.  First, while a shielding tactic may start with the ball within playing distance, it must continue to be in playing distance for the shielding action to continue to be legal.  If the ball is allowed to move beyond the defined distance or if the shielding action moves sufficiently away from the defined distance, the shielding itself becomes impeding an opponent (assuming no physical contact).  Second, even while still within playing distance, the otherwise legal shielding action can become converted to a foul by either the shielder or the opponent being shielded.  The shielding player could extend an arm to prevent an opponent from getting around the shielder’s body and thus commit the foul of holding if contact is made (the same would be true of extending a leg sideways to achieve the same result).  An opponent, who remains allowed to perform a legal challenge against the shielder, must not allow the challenge to become illegal in any way — for example by using excessive force or by using any force to make contact with the shielder’s back.

Most of this is generally clear, understood, and accepted.  Where we find the greatest debate is when the shielder, instead of standing solidly, attempts to push backward with the shielder’s back against the opponent, thus making contact.  While the intent is clear (to gain more distance to maneuver), the end result is usually an offense.

Simple contact is often made between opposing players due solely to inertia, and the innocence of the contact is shared by both players.  When such contact proceeds to include pushing (forcefully using the body to displace another player), we are into foul territory and guilt falls on the player who initiates, not the contact, but the forceful displacement.  If the shielder moves back to displace the opponent, the shielder must be called for pushing.  Likewise, if the opponent moves forward to displace the shielder, the opponent must be called for pushing.  And if the shielder moves far enough backward in an attempt to make contact (forceful or not) but the opponent evades and this results in the shielder moving beyond “playing distance,” the shielder must be called for impeding.  Pushing, of course, is a direct free kick foul whereas impeding is an indirect free kick foul (in the given scenario involving no contact). And if there is force which is deemed reckless or excessive, there must be a card.

It need hardly be added that deciding what happening in a shielding situation calls for close observation by the Referee and/or the closest AR.

Playing Distance (and Happy Holidays to Our Readers)

Scott, an adult amateur Referee, asks:

Is there a distance from the ball when a referee should call an impeding foul instead of allowing the defender to “shield” the ball from the attacker. For instance, the ball is rolling quickly and is on a path to go out of bounds if no one touches it and there is an attacker running full speed towards the ball from a distance and the defender steps in 5 yards from where the ball is and shields the attacker so the ball will go out.

Answer

Good question and, as with many similar good questions, there isn’t a simple answer.  Fortunately, the answer became less complex in 2017 when the International Board published the 2017-2018 Laws of the Game.

At the core of your query is the concept of “playing distance” which arises in several different scenarios in soccer generally as well as in the Laws.  For example, it arises in Law 12 when the offense of “impeding the progress of an opponent” is discussed:

Impeding the progress of an opponent means moving into the opponent’s path to obstruct, block, slow down or force a change of direction when the ball is not within playing distance of either player. [emphasis added]

A bit later on in the same section of Law 12, your scenario is targeted:

A player may shield the ball by taking a position between an opponent and the ball if the ball is within playing distance and the opponent is not held off with the arms or body. If the ball is within playing distance, the player may be fairly charged by an opponent. [emphasis added]

Other places where the concept of “playing distance” arises include “interfering with an opponent” as one way of committing an offside violation, as one of the criteria for DOGSO (denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity), and as one of the ways that a legal charge can become illegal.  Clearly, knowing what “playing distance” is and is not is an important element of refereeing.

Years ago, it was common for referees to treat “playing distance” as some absolute value – e.g. one or two yards or several steps – in all cases and circumstances.  More recently, the 2014 version of Advice to Referees on the Laws of the Game made the following observation:

The referee’s judgment of playing distance should be based on the player’s ability to play the ball, not upon any arbitrary standard such as a specific number of feet or steps a player is away from the ball. The decision as to whether a player is or is not within playing distance of the ball belongs solely to the referee.

In 2017, the International Board for the very first time provided an operational definition of the concept as follows:

Playing distance.  Distance to the ball which allows a player to touch the ball by extending the foot/leg or jumping or, for goalkeepers, jumping with arms extended. Distance depends on the physical size of the player

In essence, the now-official definition is completely consistent with USSF’s 2014 Advice to Referees that the concept has to be defined by the “player’s ability to play the ball” and adds the critical reminder that, even so, it has to depend on “the physical size of the player.”  Obviously, for most referees, this means that an average-sized U14 player will have a shorter playing distance than would an average-sized adult amateur player – all of which takes us back to what we said at the start of this answer and what Advice to Referees said in 2014, that decisions about playing distance belong solely to the Referee. What has changed (and improved) is that the International Board has now given us a “yardstick” for exercising this judgment – the distance between the ball and how far a player can stick his or her own, individually-sized leg out (or a goalkeeper can jump up or out while reaching for a ball in the air).