In the Opinion of the Referee

Graham, an adult amateur fan, asks:

The Laws of the Game state that an indirect free kick shall be awarded if the goalkeeper controls the ball for more than six seconds.  This law seems to be universally ignored.  This must be one of the more easily spotted offences – after all, nothing else is happening during this time.  There must, therefore, be universal agreement throughout the game, right to the very top, that this Law should be ignored.  But how does this come about while the Law remains?


Easy, you just do it.

We don’t mean to be flippant (well, actually, we do, sorta) but about 6-7 years ago the International Board began incorporating into the Law the concept of “what does soccer want?”  The purpose of this, if we dare to speak on behalf of the International Board, is to emphasize several ideas which have been a part of soccer for more than a hundred years but we Americans tended to ignore them.  Why?  Because they weren’t “written down” and everyone knows that if it isn’t written down, it doesn’t apply to you!  Perhaps you are aware that soccer has the shortest set of Laws of any major sport – particularly comparing the British-based game versus the far more numerous major sports that grew up in America.  You wouldn’t believe how detailed, complex, and picky (not to mention how downright boring) are the rules governing American football: baseball and basketball rules are only slightly less boring.  This is because that, with only a set of laws that was barely several thousand words long, the folks who created soccer were prepared to rely more on themselves and, eventually, a couple of “referees” rather than trying to write down everything that they instinctively knew already.

It is amazing when you finally come to understand how much of soccer is governed by “in the opinion of the referee”!  So, to get to the heart of your question, those who made the Laws of the Game decided to limit the length of time a goalkeeper would be allowed to maintain control of the ball by keeping it in the hand(s) of the goalkeeper, a state of being which prohibited any opponents from legally challenging the goalkeeper for the ball.  Where did the notion of “six seconds” come from?  We frankly don’t know, much less care about, how that number was selected (possible research item?).  Before the “six seconds” limit, there was the “four steps” limit on the goalkeeper’s possession.  Interestingly, the Law back then provided for an alternative restriction on the goalkeeper’s right to withhold the ball from any play by an opponent: “indulges in tactics which, in the opinion of the Referee, are designed merely to hold up the game and thus waste time and so to give an unfair advantage of his own team.”  This idea is at the heart of soccer.

Think about that!  This was, and remains, the true reason for either the 4 steps or the 6 seconds limitation – holding onto the ball by ignoring the number of steps or seconds holds up the game, wastes time, and is unfair.  And all this is based on “the opinion of the Referee”!  Americans have always had a “thing” for rules – the more complicated, wordy, wide-ranging, and sometimes totally unreadable, the better – and they have carried this into their rules for the sports that they created.  Soccer (a.k.a. “football”), created across the Atlantic, took a different approach.  Keep “rules” to a minimum, expect players to obey them, and where necessary rely on a Referee to use good judgment in applying them when all else fails.

As a referee for more than thirty years, we can tell you exactly how we looked at this (and had some really good teachers pointing the way!).  Yes, the gold standard is 6 seconds.  Add a couple more seconds because of arguments debating what is the exact point at which the 6 seconds begins and when it ends.  And then keep in mind that the purpose of the Law generally (and this particular Law) is to allow some amount of unhindered time to release the ball back into play (which means that we increase the 6 seconds if and when one or more opponents are crowding near the goalkeeper and thus not allowing the free release of the ball).  Then we decide if and when a goalkeeper is using an unnecessary amount of time to put the ball back into play – and we warn the goalkeeper before we whistle for an offense (because we think we should be fair in first warning if a goalkeeper is unnecessarily taking more than the allotted time).

Look at all this as a close cousin to the giving of a card for delaying the restart of play (how long is a “delay” before a card is given?) or for committing “persistent” infringement (how many infringements does it take to be “persistent”?).  Soccer is full of this.…

Trying to Slow Down a Restart

Gary, an adult amateur player, asks:

On a free kick can a defender stand in front of the ball till the offense player asks for 10 like a yard or two? Trying to see how to freeze the kick to set up a wall?


An apparently nice, simple question but one which touches the heart of the game.

Briefly, no.   A bit less brief,  the Laws of the Game state explicitly that opponents must retreat to a minimum of 10 yards … and they say it as though these opponents know that this is the requirement and that they are expected to perform this duty without needing to be reminded of it.  Of course, we all know better.  Unless the players are young (say, roughly, below the age of 14) and have had little training or experience, referees do not step in to enforce the 10 yard requirement because the attacking team may well prefer to take a quick kick even with one or more opponents closer than the minimum distance.  In general, the only time we step in to enforce the distance is if (a) there is an opponent obnoxiously close to the restart point and is aching to receive a caution, (b) we are expressly asked to enforce the distance, or (c) it is apparent that neither team is aware of  its responsibility to retreat.

When the referee has to step in, of course, things become a bit more complex and, though this appears to be an opportunity for the defenders to set up “the wall,” it can come with a price and that is what situation (a) is all about.  Except for ignorance (or lack of experience), the mere need to stop the taking of the kick could be the basis for a card.

By the way, there is a difference between a card for delaying the restart of play and a card for failing to respect the required distance – it’s not a huge difference (they are both yellow cards) and delaying the restart of play can be used for other purposes.  An opponent who is delaying the restart of play is usually either standing right next to the ball to actually block the restart or in the way for the attacker who is going to take the kick.  It’s a fine distinction.  Noting your own terminology, however, any “trying to see how to freeze the kick to set up a wall” can be cautioned – defenders on a free kick have no authority under the Law to try to interfere with or delay the restart for any purpose.  Only the referee can hold up a restart and, even then, only for such reasons as a player being injured or giving a card for an act of misconduct whether associated with the stoppage of play or not.

We should add that our approach to the attackers is rather similar regarding the placement of the ball for the restart.  The farther the restart point is from the goal being attacked, the less we care about being specific about where the restart should occur.…

The Calling of Dangerous Plays

B A, an adult amateur player, asks:

We were playing a pickup game tonight. Let’s say I was the keeper. Ball is misplayed (high) into the penalty area. The young lady playing as one of my defenders is facing me from about 10 feet away while I am on the line protecting the goal. I am the closest person to and facing her. She sets up to make a high kick clearance and an opposing player comes running up behind her and jams his head in a downward motion while she is already in the process of kicking the ball and the opponent nearly gets kicked in the head. Some people were chattering about it being a dangerous play on her. From my perspective, it was a dangerous play on him. Playing in a dangerous manner is, to me, any action that, while trying to play the ball, threatens injury to someone. Despite the level of his head only being ducked to a shorter player’s chest height, I believe he endangered himself.


Close, but not entirely correct.  Historically, the rule of thumb for questions of safe play between two opponents requires balancing several criteria.  First, with what body part is each player (we’re simplifying all this into two players, each from a different team, and each of approximately equal size – height, girth, and strength – note the absence of gender as a criterion) using to challenge the opponent?  Second, where in the body area is the challenge occurring?  And third, what is the relative degree of competence and experience held by the opponents (again, we’re simplifying this in terms of the overall experience and degree of capability of the two teams collectively).  In other words, one of the two players engaged in the challenge may be clearly different as regards his or her opponent and/or the competence level of the players across the two teams, but how would the referee rate both teams as part of the larger competition, age, division level, etc.?

Now comes the “rule of thumb” applied to two teams or any two opposing players.  The traditional practical line is the middle of the body versus the location of the ball.  Assuming the opposing players are roughly comparable in overall competence, the game assumes that a ball higher than waist level is played with the head or upper body core (i.e., chest or shoulder or, as of 2020-2021, the upper arm above the bottom of the arm pit).  A ball below the waist level is played with the foot/feet, knee, and leg portions above or below the knee.  In such cases, and excluding clearly disparate levels in the use of strength, the challenge can be vigorous without being considered dangerous.

Change any element of what we described and play begins edging into being dangerous by this fact alone.  The obvious pictures should immediately come to mind – head-to head (not inherently dangerous), head to foot (inherently dangerous), foot to foot (not inherently dangerous), foot to head (inherently dangerous).  Now, there are various obvious holes here – even foot to foot can be dangerous (strength aside) if one player is kicking the ball and the other player is kicking the shin!  At the same time, the point is “inherent danger” and a player who tries to match his head against the opponent’s foot – whether this is above the waist or not, depending on the location of the ball – is committing an inherently dangerous act.  And here is where the third rule of thumb comes in (see the end of the first paragraph).  Let’s take age as a simple (perhaps even simplistic) stand-in for degree of experience.  The same combinations we described above, if undertaken by a pair of experienced players (e.g., say, u14 – u15 years and above) are inherently less dangerous than if the players were u10-u13s).  Similarly two teams of u16s, one at division 1 and the other at division 4, have clearly disparate experience levels and, in fact probably shouldn’t even be playing one another!   And while a team of U18 players opposed by a senior amateur team might be thought inherently disadvantaged, that might not be the case if the former was at the D-1 level and the senior amateur team, though older, may be considered disadvantaged if they were a recreational team.

So, a useful generalization (with all kinds of ifs, ands, and buts) is that attempting to play a ball below waist level is creating a dangerous play if the opponent is using his foot.  And so on.  Do you call it? Well, you should be prepared to call it while watching the whole thing closely and to make your decision based on such inherently dangerous elements as degree of distance above or below the waist, degree to which both players are actively attempting (or not attempting) to play the ball, etc.  You understand, of course, that the “waistline” is not a real line (think generally of “midsection” instead of “line”).  And you take into account the age/experience of the players.  We can confidently suggest the exact same “high kick” at a ball above an opponent’s shoulders that would likely be whistled immediately and vigorously (and likely with a card of some color) at a U14 game might be totally ignored (not even worthy of a finger-shaking in a World Cup game.

By the way, none of what is offered above is part of the Laws of the Game.  The Law simply refers to “dangerous play” in connection with play that could “threaten injury” to someone or “preventing a nearby opponent from playing the ball for fear of injury.“  The above discussion, however, is a core concept in training referees and has been around literally for many decades.

We have spent 4 lengthy paragraphs (and a short one) trying to lay out what an experienced referee would have running through his or her mind upon seeing an apparently potentially dangerous play, but it boils down to this – what do those players in this game at this moment of play need to have called in order for the game to remain safe, fair, and enjoyable?…

2019-2020 and the Pass-Back Violation

Ref, an adult pro referee, asks:

What is the new rule regarding goal keeper handling the ball from a deliberate passback or releasing the ball rolls toward and picking it up? Is it now DOGSO?


The only thing that changed (and this occurred in 2019-2020, so it is not a “new rule”) regarding this particular offense is that the Law does not consider a “pass-back” or “throw-back” punishable if the hand contact with the ball by the goalkeeper was preceded by the goalkeeper having “clearly kicked or attempted to kick the ball to release it into play.”

Here is a scenario which would exemplify this exception. Red #7, a fullback, receives the ball, turns around toward his own goalkeeper in front of the goal, and kicks the ball in the direction of the goalkeeper.  The goalkeeper, intending not to violate the pass-back rule, clearly makes an initial attempt to kick the ball back upfield.  However, the goalkeeper either misses the ball entirely or only clips it slightly and follows this by scrambling to pick the ball up and either dropkicking or throwing the ball upfield.

Prior to the 2019-2020 edition of the Laws, this would have been considered a violation punishable by an IFK.  Now, it is not.  The core change was explained by the International Board thusly: “When the GK clearly kicks or tries to kick the ball into play [following a teammate’s play on the ball by foot], this shows no intention to handle the ball so, if the ‘clearance’ attempt is unsuccessful, the goalkeeper can then handle the ball without committing an offense.”

There is no “DOGSO” involved under any circumstances.  In other words, if there is a “pass-back” offense, DOGSO is not an additional issue.  If the goalkeeper’s actions come under the 2019-2020 change in the pass-back rule, there is no offense at all, much less a DOGSO issue.…

Restarts and Minimum Distances

Mark, a senior amateur player, asks:

When defending, can a referee ask me to move away from the ball during a free kick, only to have the attacking player perform a quick free kick? What if the referee moves me too far back? I was always under the impression that the attacking player needed to ask for 10 yards in order to have me physically moved but the referee instructed me otherwise.


CAN a referee do this?  Yes.  SHOULD a referee do this?  No.  It is contrary to standard management techniques for a quick restart.  It gets a little complicated but here is the short version.

Scenario 1: When there is a quick free kick pending, the referee should intervene only if an opponent is so close to the restart location that is it obvious the kick cannot be taken without hindrance.  In this case, the referee steps in and immediately states that the free kick is now a ceremonial free kick which cannot be taken until the referee specifically signals that it can be taken … and then the referee cautions the opponent for “delaying the restart of play” (in this case, the caution is not “fails to respect the required distance” but any caution given as part of Scenarios 2-4 would be given for this reason).

Scenario 2: When there is a free kick pending and one or more opponents are retreating the required distance but are not yet at the required distance when the attacking team takes the kick and one of those retreating opponents moves to and does in fact make contact with the ball, the referee halts play, cautions the opponent, and gives the attacking team a retake of the original free kick restart at the original location.  Note: the referee can decide not to stop play if the opponent’s contact with the ball results nevertheless in the ball returning to the attacking team’s possession and in an advantageous position for the attackers.

Scenario 3: When there is a free kick pending and one or more opponent are retreating the required distance but are not yet at the required distance when the attacking team takes the kick and the ball makes contact with one of those retreating opponents without that opponent making any move to the ball, the referee allows the contact (i.e., doesn’t punish it) and play proceeds without any stoppage.  The contact with the ball by the opponent who is closer than he/she should be was not the result of any effort by that opponent and is due solely to the attacking team’s wish to kick the ball despite the closenesss (except for Scenario 1) of the opponent.  In other words, the contact was not made as a result of any movement other than continuing to retreat by the opponent.

Scenario 4: When there is a free kick pending and an attacker requests that the referee enforce the minimum distance, this immediately leads the referee to convert the quick free kick to a ceremonial free kick which cannot be taken except upon a signal by the referee which is not given until all opponents are at/beyond the minimum distance.   The restart now can only occur by a signal from the referee.  If,  following this signal but before the kick is taken, an opponent moves inside the minimum distance and makes contact with the ball, the referee stops play, cautions that opponent who moved inside the minimum distance before the kick is actually taken, and then orders the kick to be retaken (ceremonially) once all opponents are at/beyond the minimum distance.  Repeat as and if needed.

Two notes about Scenario 4.  First, the referee can decide to deny the request if, in the referee’s opinion, all opponents are already at or beyond the minimum distance and the attacking team’s request is a delaying tactic.  Second, an attacking team’s request for a ceremonial restart is not the only reason for doing so.  For example, the referee can declare a ceremonial restart on his/her own initiative if, for example, there has been an injury, a card needs to be given related to the reason for the stoppage in the first place (e.g., a foul), or a substitution is being requested by the attacking team.

By the way, your “always under the impression” is incorrect.  In the absence of a specific request by the attacking team (other than in Scenario 1 conditions) to enforce the minimum distance, the Law assumes and expects that all opponents are retreating or already have retreated to the required minimum distance.  Each opponent is expected to retreat without any request by the attackers or the referee: their failure to do so could lead to a caution.

Referees step into this on their own initiative only in the case of a Scenario 1 – and this is true the older and/or more experienced are the players involved.  The only time we have ever stepped in on our own initiative (i.e., without a request by the attacking team) is if the players are young and/or inexperienced and clearly do not know what to do (and/or the attackers are equally young/inexperienced and do not know of their essential right to take the kick without any signal by the referee if that is what they choose to do).…

Where Does the Fault Fall?

Max, a U13 – U19 player, asks:

If someone has tripped on the field, is it legal to jump over them in order to get the ball on the other side?


A qualified yes.  “Qualified” because the actual, on the field, answer depends on several specific measurements that have to be made in a fraction of a second (and the assumption that the jumper and the faller are opponents).

First, how “down on the ground” is the player who tripped?  Is he flat on the ground or just down on the elbows and knees, or higher.  Second, at the moment of deciding to jump over the downed player, does it look like it just happened or it was a hard fall such that the player is “down for the count” (i.e., not likely to get up until after the leap over him)?  Obviously the more “down on the ground” the player is AND the less likely it is that the downed player is likely to start getting up, the more reasonable it is for the player going for the ball to try a jump over.

However, jumping over a player on the ground (unless the fall to the ground happened immediately right in front of the not-down player), is a risky decision and the burden of proof is on the jumper, not the faller.  In other words, if the jumper either takes no heed of the player on or going to the ground or even if the jumper makes an erroneously-decided jump, causing contact with the player on the ground, particularly if it results in an injury, it must be judged as the jumper’s fault.  Depending on the circumstances, contact with the downed player would probably result in a decision that the action was a careless (no card) or reckless (caution) foul.

Of course, probably on the rare side, the foul could be charged against the player who fell IF the referee, given all the facts and circumstances, decided that the leap over was reasonable but the downed player “retaliated” against the leaper by deliberately and knowingly attempting to get up for the sole purpose of bringing the leaper down (and preventing him from getting to the ball).  Given the assumption that such a decision by the fallen player was deliberate, the foul (tripping or attempting to kick) would be charged against the faller with a potential caution (recklessness).

An event like this could be evaluated in several different ways depending on how the referee assesses  the actions of the two players involved.…

Handling versus Spectator Interference

Kannan, an adult pro referee, asks:

A player handles the throw-in from his teammate and at the same time a spectator also blows the whistle from the stadium. How will play be restarted?


It really depends on your judgment and the critical question is whether the spectator whistled measurably prior to or after the ball handling.  By the way, we should add that, under the Laws of the Game,  you should always “know” which event happened first – “simultaneous”  is not in your vocabulary when it comes to such matters.

If the whistle occurred clearly prior to the handling, then the restart is a dropped ball (outside agent interference) where the ball was when the interference occurred (i.e., the whistle) and the handling is ignored.  If that location is in either penalty area, the drop is defended by the goalkeeper in that penalty area.  If not in either penalty area, the drop is for a player of whichever team last touched the ball prior to the interference.

If the handling occurred clearly prior to the spectator whistle, then the handling is an offense resulting in a direct free kick where the handling occurred.

If it is not immediately clear which event occurred first, then you must make a quick judgment as to which event caused or played a part in the other (e.g., did the spectator whistle to call attention to the foul on the field or was the handling a player misjudgment that the whistle came from the referee and the player was simply getting the ball?).  All data, no matter how secondary to the event itself, must be considered.  For example, what was the player’s demeanor immediately afterward?  How did the player act? If the sequence of events is still not clear, then you must nevertheless make some judgment, announce it clearly, and manage the correct restart accordingly.

All other things equal, it seems to us that a player catching and holding the ball directly from a teammate’s throw-in would not make much sense unless the player was convinced that the whistle was a spectator interference because, if not, what benefit is achieved for the player’s team?  None, and indeed the team will be punished for it.  Further, the overwhelming number of players who would seek to handle the ball during play (goalkeeper excepted, of course) are more likely to attempt to hide the action rather than display it publicly.

Nevertheless, based on the events in the game so far, which of the above decisions best supports the game?  The one thing you absolutely cannot do is order the players to just keep playing!  And you should have a quiet word with the player during the stoppage to make the point that, while you understand the player grabbed the ball for apparently good reasons, try not to do it ever again – the next referee might not understand.

Regardless of the above issues, you should advise both coaches that the offending spectator be removed from the field by whichever coach has responsibility for the spectator (or by both of them if the spectator is not apparently associated with either team) and that the game is suspended until this is done to the referee’s satisfaction.…

Handball Following a Restart

Daniel, an adult amateur referee, asks:

Direct free kick for the attackers 18 meters in front of the goal. After the ball has been released by the referee, an attacker shoots the ball towards the goal. A defender runs 3 meters ahead of the wall forward and fends off the shot with a deliberate handball. Referee’s decision? Please motivate the disciplinary sanction.


Your description of the scenario is incomplete in several potentially important areas.

First, what do you mean by “after the ball has been released by the referee”?  Referees don’t “release balls” on any kind of free kick.  Indeed, there is only one restart that involves the referee releasing the ball and that is the dropped ball.

Second, if it is a direct free kick (DFK) restart (and thus there is no “referee releases the ball” component), there nevertheless is the major issue of whether this DFK restart is ceremonial or not.  If it is ceremonial, then the DFK cannot occur unless and until the referee signals with the whistle that the kick can be taken.  If the DFK is not ceremonial, then it means that the kick can be taken immediately by the attacker.

The third incomplete information issue is when did the defender run “3 meters ahead of the wall”?  If the defender was in the wall at the time of the kick and then ran forward before the attacker kicked the ball, that is an offense by the defender – carries a caution and a retake of the DFK.  If the defender began to move closer than the wall after the ball was kicked (assuming it was no closer to the DFK location than the minimum required distance), then no encroachment offense was committed even if that defender made contact with the ball well within the minimum distance requirement.  What is interesting about this scenario element is that, ultimately, it doesn’t matter because, if the defender actually ran forward before the ball was kicked, this retake is overtaken by what is discussed below under the fourth element and the misconduct is overtaken by what is discussed below in the fifth element.

Fourth, several different issues arise when you state that the defender then handled the ball.  Based on your scenario, the DFK restart was 18 meters from the goal which puts the restart just 1.5 meters from the top of penalty area.  The minimum distance for the defenders was 9.15 meters from the ball.  Assuming all lines are straight, 90 degrees from the goal line, and not beyond the sidelines of the penalty area (if any of these three requirements is not met, the issue of where the defender made contact with the ball is impossible to determine in relation to the penalty area.  All that can be said unequivocally is that, if all three are true, then the defender handled the ball inside the penalty area.  Accordingly, if that is the case, the restart becomes a penalty kick.  To understand this element, you will probably need to draw a field diagram and mark up the pertinent distances (that’s what we did to make sure we understood the scenario!).

The fifth and last incomplete information issue relates to whether any misconduct occurred and, if so, what color card.  If, in the opinion of the referee, the ball was going into or it was an obvious goal-scoring opportunity (high likelihood inside the penalty area), then the card color is red (denied goal by handling).  If, in the opinion of the referee, the defender handled to ball merely to interfere with or stop a promising attack (a less likely possibility inside the penalty area), the card color is yellow.

As far as motivating the disciplinary sanction, that’s easy.  It’s what the Law calls for.  The really critical motivator is that, based on your stated distances and making a necessary assumption about lines being straight and perpendicular to the goal line, the offense was committed in the penalty area.…

Who Owns the Ball?

Shawn, a U13 – U19 coach, asks:

After a goal is scored, may the scorer or a teammate of the scorer’s team retrieve the ball from the goal?  It is my understanding that the scored ball belongs to the conceding team. If the scorer retrieves the call and carries it to midfield, it shall be a caution for that player.  Please reference the law regarding this judgment.


Only at their peril ….

Under the Law, after a goal is scored against Team A, the ball “belongs” to Team A (because that is the team which has the restart) and any action by Team B seen by Team A (and concurred in by the referee) as an attempt to “take charge” of the ball can result in a yellow card to any Team B player who, regardless of a claimed motive, makes such an attempt.

Among the elements that the referee would consider in deciding if a caution is needed would be a “tug of war” between a Team B player (often the goal scorer) and a Team A player (often the defending goalkeeper or a fullback) or whether there was any proximate effort by a defender to prevent a Team B player from getting the ball.  The Team B player may claim that all he is doing is “helping” (particularly if it would be in Team A’s advantage to delay or slow down the kick-off restart).

The referee must read the game at that moment and decide if Team B’s action is an unsporting attempt to interfere with Team A’s ball possession.  Often, this sort of scenario quickly but obviously builds and can reach a flash point within seconds – the referee can loudly (with or without a hard-blown whistle) order the Team B player to leave the ball alone or it may be necessary to jump immediately to a caution if Team B’s action is sparking possible retaliation from Team A (as would be the case if there were an actual physical struggle for the ball).

The bottom line for this is to prevent the scoring team from taking an unfair advantage, either in fact or in the minds of the opposing team’s players, by wresting possession of the ball from the team that owns it.  If Team B unduly delays the restart, that is a separate problem but the scoring team has no right to step in to “help” in ways that will result in bad feelings.  If Team B has no problem with Team A (as evidenced by complaining to the referee or attempting to take matters into their own hands), then the referee should stay out of things.

By the way, this scenario is not limited to player behavior after a goal has been scored.  Indeed, you asked for a Law citation (see below) and that citation is not limited to the scenario we have been discussing.  In fact, the principle applies to any restart performed by a player (thus excluding a dropped ball).  We suspect that it happens more often on free kick restarts, followed by throw-ins, and then by goals — it’s rare on goal kicks and completely impossible on kick-offs and penalty kicks.  The citation is in Law 12 (page 110 in the 2019-2020 edition of the Laws of the Game): “Referees must caution players who delay the restart of play by … kicking or carrying the ball away, or by provoking a confrontation by deliberately touching the ball after the referee has stopped play“.…

Goalkeeper Possession and Other Issues

Thomas, an adult amateur player, asks:

With regard to Goalkeeping:

Q1. How long does a Goalkeeper have to retain possession of the ball in their hands before they are required to put the ball “back into play” either by throwing, punting or kicking the ball? I believe it is officially 6 seconds, but I don’t believe this time element is seldom actually called by referees.

Q2. If a Goalkeeper takes legitimate control of the ball with their hands inside the penalty area, then runs to within say 4 yards of the forward edge of the box, stops, and absent any opposing player within a 5 yard radius, is it legal for a goalkeeper to then toss the ball in front of them with a backspin on the ball such that the ball bounces back into their hands, then REGAINS possession of the ball with their HANDS, REPEATS THIS PROCESS 1 or 2 more times, and then eventually returns the ball “back into play” either by throwing, punting or kicking the ball?

Some have said this activity by the goalkeeper is similar to when a basketball player standing at the free-throw line is passed the ball by an official and before the player takes their actual shot, they dribble the ball multiple times off the floor, and then they take their free-throw. Basketball players have a set time to take their free-throw starting when they take hand possession of the ball from the official and ending when they release the ball in the motion of shooting the free-throw. Some soccer coaches/players say that this similar “dribbling” by a goalkeeper prior to putting the ball “back into play” is allowed. I believe it is a violation of the possession rules for goalkeepers and once they intentionally forfeit their hand possession of the ball they are not permitted to REGAIN HAND Possession of the ball and if they do it is an illegal use of their hands and the opposing team should be awarded a penalty kick.


It doesn’t make any difference whether something occurring in a soccer match is “like” something occurring in some other sport.  Soccer has its own rules.

Now, having said this, you are raising two complex issues as a matter of the Laws of the Game are concerned.

Q1:  Law 12 is very clear. The goalkeeper has six seconds, not 7 or 8 or whatever, to release the ball from the goalkeeper’s control.  By the way, just to keep the record straight, this is often stated – incorrectly – as releasing the ball into play.  The issue is that the ball IS in play during the entire time it is in the hand possession of the goalkeeper BUT what is different is that, during this time the goalkeeper cannot be challenged for the ball by an opponent.  This is the correct terminology – the ball is being withheld from challenge, not withheld from play.

Back to the point.  It has long been the standard interpretation of this requirement that the goalkeeper HAS gained hand control whenever the goalkeeper has the ball in one or both hands, including when the ball is being stabilized against any hard surface – e.g., the body of the goalkeeper, the ground, any part of the goal frame, etc.  The goalkeeper has not yet released the ball from his control if he is bouncing the ball or tossing the ball up into the air but loses control if the toss into the air is followed immediately by the ball hitting the ground and then taken back into the goalkeeper’s hand.  Although not often seen, it can happen easily enough if the goalkeeper tosses the ball up into the air but misses the catch, followed by the goalkeeper scrambling to regain the ball from the ground.   This is considered a second touch violation by the goalkeeper and results in an indirect free kick for the opposing team from where the second touch occurred.

If in all this the 6 seconds are exceeded (but see below regarding referee discretion), the referee can signal for a stoppage and turn control of the ball to the opposing team where the violation occurred, followed by an indirect free kick restart.

All this is fairly cut and dried.  What is NOT cut and dried is when the referee becomes aware that the goalkeeper is exceeding, or has exceeded, or is about to exceed the six second limit.  Sometimes observers think that the time has been exceeded because they have not paid attention to the starting point of the six second limit.  Sometimes, the referee may warn a goalkeeper that the time limit has been or shortly will be exceeded.  And sometimes, the six second limit is indeed exceeded with no whistle by the referee.  But “it’s the Law” you might say and the answer is, yes, it is the Law but it is also “lawful” not to whistle at 6+ seconds because the violation is doubtful or trifling.  Referees have the authority to handle this matter in any of these ways depending on the circumstances.  Remember, constantly whistling for something that might not have been an offense in the first place (doubtful) or didn’t really matter (trifling), is not soccer, it’s some other sport.  Soccer lives on the judgments of referees and the Law explicitly supports this … thank goodness.

Q2:  Here is where things get a bit hairy.  Certain facts can be clear.  For example, it doesn’t matter how much backspin a goalkeeper gives the ball when bouncing it on the ground so that it comes back to his/her hands, if the whole of the ball completely leaves the penalty area, the referee can conclude that the ball is out of the goalkeeper’s control because it would be illegal for the goalkeeper to handle the ball outside the penalty area.  Were we a goalkeeper who allowed the ball, even temporarily, to be outside our penalty area, we better be following it and be prepared to kick that ball somewhere rather than try to regain hand control.  But, if in the process of bouncing the ball, it does not leave the penalty area, the goalkeeper has the right to regain contact with the ball and to NOT be considered to having actually released the ball from “control” as long as the total time this is taking does not exceed six seconds.  Remember, as noted above, the Law does not consider bouncing the ball on the ground as having lost control of the ball so, for that reason, having the bounce come back to the hands of the goalkeeper does not constitute regaining control.

In general, what the Law is aimed at is not taking allegedly “extra” time to get the ball back into challenge when it is clear that this is what the goalkeeper is doing.  Punishment is reserved for those goalkeepers who exceed the time limit because they are deliberately wasting time to achieve an unsporting benefit.…