Interfering with the Goalkeeper’s Release of the Ball

Shawn, a High School and College referee, asks:

When the keeper makes a save and has secured the ball, either with both hands, against his body, or against the ground, and an attacker dislodges the ball without a “normal” foul, the most common restart is a “manufactured” drop ball, allowing the keeper to play as if it never happened. However, I can’t find the rationale for this. Several experienced referees tell me it’s a foul, and the restart is a direct free kick. Other experienced referees tell me it’s playing the ball while it’s not in challenge, and the restart is an indirect free kick. What’s the restart?

Answer

You can’t find the rationale for it?  That’s because there is none.  Opinion is split as to whether the correct restart is an IFK or a DFK but there is no one anywhere in the world of any stature or experience who would say it is a dropped ball (“manufactured” or otherwise).

Here’s the story.  Years ago, around the time the world was formed (the soccer world anyway), it was OK to try to knock the ball out of the goalkeeper’s (GK’s) control.  Indeed, it was expected.  Over the intervening years, particularly as soccer split into two divergent paths as soccer in contrast with rugby, such rock-em, sock-em techniques were softened and civilized (you might infer our prejudices from this language).  The 1984 Lawbook, for example, Law 12 declared that it was an indirect free kick (IFK) offense to charge the GK … except when he was holding the ball!  In fact, it was an IFK offense if, in the opinion of the referee, any attacker intentionally made body contact with the GK.  Similarly, it was also an IFK restart if an opponent interfered with the GK’s release of the ball into play.

This is a great oversimplification but nonetheless is particularly pertinent when it comes to protecting the only person who is legally permitted to hold the ball, thus making him a prime target.  In partial payment for having this protected possession of the ball, Law 12 laid several major restrictions: the ball must be released within four steps (now six seconds), no GK handling from a throw-in or a deliberate play of the ball by a teammate’s foot, and no repossession of the ball without an intervening touch/play by someone else.

We come now, admittedly through incremental steps, to today’s flat out statement that “A goalkeeper cannot be challenged by an opponent when in control of the ball.” (Law 12.2)  But the penalty for this technically remains an IFK.  Of course, that changes if the challenge, in and of itself, clearly comes under the heading of a DFK foul as described in the first part of Law 12 (e.g., opponent comes rushing into the GK and knocks him down – a challenge, yes, but also an illegal charge, resulting in a DFK restart, plus potentially a card of some color).  Then we have the grey area where the GK clearly has hand control of the ball and an opponent heads, kicks, or otherwise dislodges the ball from the GK’s control without making any direct contact with the GK.  The debate raged after after a couple of famous disputes involving opponents coming unexpectedly from behind a GK and neatly, nonviolently dislodging the ball from the GK’s grasp.  Was this even a foul?  Eventually  the Law was updated  making that a foul by providing that the GK had control of the ball even if the ball was being held openly and loosely in the upraised palm of just one hand (or even upside down if the GK’s grasp were particularly large).  In many parts of the world, however, this remained merely an IFK offense.  Clearly, it interfered with the GK’s release of the ball into play.

The US, however, took a different tack.  USSF’s interpretation of your scenario is that it was more than a mere challenge for the ball – the ball was simply an indirect way of actually making contact with the GK.  After all, a GK would be charged with pushing – a DFK foul – if the GK used “only” the ball to physically make contact with and push an opponent.  If an opponent, no matter how neatly, kicked the ball out of the GK’s hand or hands, this was the functional equivalent of kicking the goalkeeper.  As a consequence, the following language has appeared in each of the last four editions of Advice to Referees starting back in 2008:

When a goalkeeper has possession of the ball, any attempt by any opponent to charge, tackle, or otherwise challenge for the ball is prohibited. Such a challenge is considered to be a direct free kick foul because it is directed at the person of the goalkeeper and not as a legal attempt to gain the ball. A ball controlled by the goalkeeper using means other than his or her hands is open to legal challenge by an opponent. The referee must consider the age and skill level of the players in evaluating goalkeeper possession and err on the side of safety. [emphasis added]

A long wind-up but we think it answers your question.

Trickery?

Joe, a U13 – U19 player, asks:

I was coaching a game this week and the following occurred: center back receives a pass with his foot, flicks the ball into the air and heads it back to his goalkeeper. The goalkeeper picks up the ball and punts it. Was that a legal back pass? I was under the impression that this constituted some sort of illegal trickery, but I don’t see this in the Laws of the Game.

Answer

It’s there, you just have to know where to look.  In the current edition of the Laws of the Game (2018/2019), the following bullet point is included in the list of specific offenses which are considered misconduct (not a foul) as “unsporting behavior” (Law 12):

uses a deliberate trick to pass the ball (including from a free kick) to the goalkeeper with the head, chest, knee etc. to circumvent the Law, whether or not the goalkeeper touches the ball with the hands

In this case, the cautionable offense is committed by the (in your scenario) center back, not by the goalkeeper and, if whistled, would not be a “passback” violation.  A straight “backpass” violation (first appearing in the Law in 1992) is an IFK offense by the goalkeeper and only if he directly handles a ball deliberately kicked by a teammate.  This misconduct (labeled as “trickery” when it was added to Law 12 in 1993) is an offense which is attributed to the teammate who last made contact with the ball in a certain way regardless of whether or not the goalkeeper actually handles the ball.

First of all, many referees will miss either scenario (backpass or trickery) entirely because neither of them is a common event — the latter even more rare than the former.

Second, because trickery is misconduct, it falls squarely into the grey area of “in the opinion of the referee” and that, in turn, means referees can differ in their judgment on the core issue of whether the center back  played this specific way to “circumvent the Law” (which means guessing why the center back did what he did).  He could have simply passed the ball back to his goalkeeper (not illegal) who could then have played the ball with his foot, head, chest, or knee  (also not illegal).  If the judgment is that this action (popped up with the foot and headed back) was done deliberately to evade the restriction on the goalkeeper’s ability to handle the ball, then it is a caution for the center back and an IFK for the opposing team where the center back performed his pop/head maneuver.

Third (and here is where it gets into an even greyer area), the judgment should be based principally on asking the more critical question of whether there was an opponent in the area of the play who might successfully challenge a goalkeeper who came into possession of the ball if the goalkeeper were limited in his control options (no hands).  In short, looking at the issue this way, the misconduct offense should be ignored as trifling (not worth calling because it made no difference) if the goalkeeper was under no pressure, i.e., there was no threat of being dispossessed of the ball, because there were no opponents even close to this play, much less close enough to actively interfere in it.

Remember, a trifling offense is still an offense, just not one worth stopping the play.  A simple warning to the center back and the goalkeeper that the offense was seen but was being ignored.  If it had made a difference (an opponent would/could have actively competed for the ball as it came to a goalkeeper who wouldn’t have been able to handle the ball if the ball had come from a teammate’s deliberate kick), then the offense can’t be ignored.  And if the ball had come to the goalkeeper only from off the head of the center back, there would have been neither a backpass nor a trickery offense.

Interesting DOGSO Complexities

Anthony, a High School and College referee, asks:

I have a scenario and am interested in the correct interpretation:
A6 is in Team B’s penalty area in an offside position.  A Team A teammate passes her the ball. The defending  goalie fouls A6 in a reckless manner in pursuit of the ball.  Wondering if the offside takes precedence or if the foul takes precedence? Does the interpretation change if the ref blows the whistle for offside before the goalie fouls the attacker in the box because now it is a dead-ball foul?

Answer

You’ve already recognized the core issue in the scenario but didn’t explore it.  Let’s clear away some underbrush first.  There is no “precedence” here.  It’s not a matter of hierarchy but timing.   What happened first?  That is what determines precedence here.  It also doesn’t matter when the referee whistles — play is considered to have stopped when the referee makes a decision and the only question that matters is what was it that caused the referee to stop play.  The reason for the stoppage occurred during play … anything after that happened when play was stopped.

Now we can get to unraveling the core issues (yes, issues because there are several of them).

Remember, an offside position is not an offside offense by itself so the referee needs to sort out whether there was an actual offside offense before the goalie’s action or whether, in fact, the goalie’s action actually prevented an offside offense from occurring.  Also, your scenario doesn’t identify the specific foul the goalie committed recklessly — e.g., tackle, charge, kick, push, trip, etc.  This is will be important later on.

As we said, the initial decision as to which came first is critical because it directly impacts the restart.  If an offside offense (e.g., the attacker in an offside position interfered with play by making contact with the ball, or interfered with an opponent) occurred first, then the Law provides for an IFK restart at the offense location for the goalie’s team (prior to which the goalie is cautioned for USB for what he/she did to the attacker).

If there was no offside offense or if the referee determines that the goalie’s reckless DFK foul occurred first, then the restart would be a PK for the attacking team because the first decision automatically stopped play at that moment , determined the restart, and negated any apparent offside offense that might have occurred afterward.  In this case, there is a second decision to be faced.

The second decision is whether, given all the facts and circumstances, the goalie’s foul denied an OGSO.  If all the OGSO requirements were not present, then that’s the end of the story.  PK, and the GK still gets cautioned for the reckless action.

If all the OGSO requirements are met, then there is a third decision that has to be faced and that is whether the GK’s action, recklessness aside, constituted a valid attempt to play the ball (your phrasing “in pursuit of the ball” is not specific enough and could include either a realistic play of the ball or the goalie was merely in pursuit of a ball which, at the moment of the reckless foul, was too far away to be realistically playable by the goalie).  If the goalie’s action was a realistic play of the ball (performed without violence), then the PK stands but, despite the OGSO, the goalie is only cautioned.

However, if there was not a realistic attempt to play the ball (and here the earlier question about what the foul was becomes important because the Law considers such fouls as holding, pulling, pushing, or tripping from behind with the ball on the other side of the player being tripped as not attempts to play the ball), then there is the PK but the goalie is sent off and his/her team plays down.

Touching versus Pushing

Henrik, a U13 – U19 referee, asks:

I have often experienced in my games that players say “Hey, referee! He touched me with both his hands in my back!”  But is it really true that a referee should always punish this?  I don’t think that two hands TOUCHING the back of an opponent is careless. If he pushed him, then yes of course it could be a foul, but if he just touches the opponent, then why should I always punish it, if it’s harmless?

Answer

First of all, never say “never” (or “always”) when it comes to refereeing.

Second, in the large majority of cases, merely putting a hand (or even both hands) on the back of an opponent would not constitute a foul.  After all, as you implicitly note, the foul is called “pushing” for a reason – if there is no push, there is no foul … usually.

Third, even the gentle breeze on the back of a player could, under some circumstances, be considered a foul if done by an opponent rather than weather conditions.  The critical question is, why did the opponent put a hand (or hands) on the player’s back?  What was the player doing at the time?

Consider the following scenario.  A15 is at a location where she judges a ball struck high in the air is likely to descend and believes she is in a good position to gain control of that ball.  Unexpectedly, she feels a hand (or hands) on her back with just the smallest amount of pressure.  She was not aware of anyone there, much less close enough to have touched her, and, so far throughout the game, no opponent had touched her on the back in the normal course of play.  She briefly turned her head to see who it was and, as a result, was distracted enough that, in fact, an opponent coming in from the side was able to get a foot on the ball before she could.

Now, was the touch on the back innocent … or was it deliberate?  While not exactly a usual pushing foul, was it done for an unfair and otherwise unsporting purpose?  Did all this occur under circumstances in which it would be an entirely normal, though unwelcome, response to be distracted … and particularly at a critical moment?  What was her reaction to the event and to its consequences?

The older and more experienced the players, the less likely it is that events occur by accident.  If you judge the contact was innocent, ordinary, and performed with no unfair intent (and particularly if it did not have the result of distracting the “touchee”), a simple comment in passing to the toucher to keep her hands off opponents would be sufficient.  If you judge otherwise, and particularly if it had what you believe was the intended result (and advantage would not apply), call a pushing foul — it wasn’t strictly “careless”  but it was certainly intentional and unfair.

As you move up the competitive ladder, your sense of what is a foul (and even whether it should be whistled or not) has to become more complex.  It will need to take into account a number of questions that may not have occurred to you earlier in your officiating career.  Mastering this change will get you recognized as capable of moving into more challenging games.  It also means that you will need to recognize when there is a potential for the sort of game situation we just described above and will have moved into a position to see what most needs to be seen at that moment.

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.