“Pass-Back” Offense

Trevor, a U-12 and under coach, asks:

I know the pass-back rule prohibits the goalie from handling the ball if the ball is passed to him by a teammate. But I thought I saw an instance last week during a match where the ball was passed back to the goalie by one of his teammates but, as the ball was nearing the goalie, there was also an attacker going for the ball. The attacker was very close to winning the ball before the goalie had a chance to get it but the goalie ran to the ball and grabbed it up before the attacker won it.

Is that a legal move? Can the goalie pick up the ball if it was passed back to him by a teammate but an attacker is about to win the ball?


We are so glad you asked this specific question, not so much for the first paragraph but for the second paragraph because this offense is not only not well understood but the lack of understanding also tends to interfere with how it is called.

Not only was the GK’s action a violation of the law but the circumstances made it a violation that cannot be ignored.  Some “pass back” violations, even obvious ones, can be ignored if, in the opinion of the referee, the offense was trifling (just as with any other offense).  Now the root question becomes … why is this violation there?  Knowing the answer to this question enables the intelligent referee to determine whether it was trifling or not.

In point of fact, all four of the IFK offenses which only a goalkeeper can commit are in the Law for one primary purpose – to limit the amount of time during which the goalkeeper can legally withhold the ball from active challenge by taking hand possession of it.  Remember, the goalkeeper’s ability to do this is the single most important “right” the goalkeeper, and only the goalkeeper, has.  It is such a significant advantage the the Laws of the Game made it clear that the right has limits — no longer than 6 seconds (or thereabouts), no direct second possession, no pass back, and no throw back.

Accordingly, one of the prime criteria a referee needs to use in evaluating whether to whistle for a pass back violation is whether the goalkeeper is being challenged before taking hand possession of the ball.  If he is, and he actually takes hand possession under pass back circumstances, then the offense must be whistled.  If not, the offense could be (not must be) ignored (with perhaps a verbal warning) based on a host of other factors (e.g., the temperature of the game, the propensity for a team to commit offenses so far, the general level of friendliness, whether a prior warning had already needed to be given, etc.).

The scenario you offered has got to be one of clearest examples not only of the offense itself but also of one that has to be called.  The goalkeeper under potential or active challenge could always decide to play the ball in some way other than by taking hand possession and thus avoid the punishment but at a very high risk of not succeeding.  This keeper didn’t.

Pass Back to the Goalkeeper

Frank, an adult amateur fan, asks:

A deliberate back pass from far out does not reach the penalty area. The goalkeeper runs out of the area and dribbles the ball back into the area. If he then picks the ball up.  Is he guilty of an infringement?

Answer (see also “Apology” posted on July 5)

We can’t tell you how much fun we have talking about the so-called “pass back to the goalkeeper” violation and disabusing notions right and left about this commonly-misunderstood offense.  But not in this case.  This is an easy one.


All the technical requirements for this indirect free kick foul are indisputably present.  The only thing that we might quibble about is that the scenario does not expressly state that the pass was performed with the foot, i.e., kicked — hey, it could have been a header for example that launched the ball to the goalkeeper (which, if that’s what happened, means that it wasn’t an infringement).

Timewasting and Goalkeepers

Andrea, a parent of HS/College age players, asks:

Can a keeper waste time by falling on a pass back every time?


Yes … and no.  First of all, we are assuming that, when you use the term “pass back,” you are referring to a situation in which a teammate kicks the ball to her goalkeeper such that, if the goalkeeper were to pick up the ball, she would be guilty of an indirect free kick offense.  We are also assuming you know that the goalkeeper is allowed to play the ball in any otherwise legal way (i.e., with feet, head, torso, knees, etc., just not with the hands).

So, yes, it is entirely legal for the goalkeeper to “fall on the ball” as a means of taking possession.  It is not “wasting time” any more than would catching the ball in the absence of the “pass back” problem.  Unless you are a goalkeeper and have tried to do this, however, you may not appreciate how difficult it would be for her to recover from this “falling on the ball” without at least accidentally, if not instinctively, touching the ball with one or both of her hands.

On the other hand, the goalkeeper is subject to the same constraints that any other player would encounter should she “fall on the ball” during play.  In “Refereeing 101,” soon-to-be new officials are taught that a player on the ground covering the ball or with the ball trapped between the legs is a flashpoint problem because the first instinct of opponents is to attempt to play the ball and do not always recognize that there is likely no safe way to do this.  Goalkeepers may think they can rely on the protection normally provided by the Law’s requirement that no opponent can legally attempt to challenge for the ball in the goalkeeper’s possession, forgetting that this applies only to having hand possession, which in this case the goalkeeper cannot legally have.

This particular flashpoint problem is normally resolved by allowing a reasonable amount of time for the goalkeeper (or any other player similarly situated) to safely extricate herself from the situation and thus free up the ball to be safely competed for (it is not illegal for the goalkeeper, or any other player who is in this difficult situation, to attempt to get out of this problem by playing the ball safely while on the ground).  Any opponent who, ignoring this, attempts immediately to tackle or kick the ball is committing a dangerous play offense and, if there is actual contact by the opponent’s foot with the downed goalkeeper, the opponent would be guilty of a direct free kick foul (kicking) with the added possibility of the Referee deciding that the opponent was being reckless and thus earning a caution.  On the other hand, if the goalkeeper does not make a reasonable attempt to get up and thus extends unfairly the inability of any opponent to safely challenge for the ball (which may have been the intention of the goalkeeper all along), then it is the goalkeeper who could be charged with a dangerous play offense.  All of this is affected significantly by the age and experience of the players — meaning that the younger the players the quicker the referee must make the decision as to who is creating the danger.

“Pass Back” to Keeper and OGSO

David Najarian, a parent, asks:

Defender plays the ball back to his keeper with his feet. Keeper stumbles and it appears the ball will head into net. So, keeper grabs it with his hands. Is it an IFK for keeper illegally handling the ball, or a PK and red card for keeper for preventing a goal with a deliberate handling? My initial reaction is IFK since a keeper can never be called for deliberate handling within the penalty area. But I think I could also argue it the other way.


Trust your instincts.  Your “initial reaction” is correct — IFK, no red card.

We clearly have what is commonly (though incorrectly) called a “passback violation” — a defender plays the ball deliberately with the foot, followed directly by the goalkeeper handling the ball.  And, yes, the Law specifies an indirect free kick (IFK) for this offense, taken from where the goalkeeper illegally handled the ball.  As you describe the scenario, because the ball apparently was headed for the goal, if the goalkeeper had handled the ball outside the penalty area, this would have been a DFK (for the handling offense) and a red card (for the OGSO-by-handling misconduct).  But this goalkeeper was inside his penalty area and Law 12 says that the OGSO-by-handling offense does not apply  under these circumstances.

Frankly, we don’t think there is anything here that would support an argument going “the other way”!  Note that we said the offense is “commonly (though incorrectly)” called a passback violation.  This foul has been the subject of (now) 20 questions and answers and most of them have turned on a basic misunderstanding of the offense.  An answer back in 2011 stated the issue succinctly:

The offense rests on three events occurring in the following sequence:
– The ball is kicked (played with the foot, not the knee, thigh, or shin) by a teammate of the goalkeeper,
– This action is deemed to be deliberate, rather than a deflection or miskick, and
– The goalkeeper handles the ball directly (no intervening touch of play of the ball by anyone else)

When, in the opinion of the referee, these three conditions are met, the violation has occurred. It is not necessary for the ball to be “passed,” it is not necessary for the ball to go “back,” and it is not necessary for the deliberate play by the teammate to be “to” the goalkeeper.


1) The ball is played back deliberately by a teammate to the keeper in the PA, must (as the law states) the keeper touch the ball with the HANDS or would a touch with the wrist, arm or outside shoulder similarly qualify as an infraction?

(2) In playing the ball back deliberately to the keeper, a teammate plays with ball with the shin (leg below the knee and above the foot). Should this lead to an infraction if the keeper touches the ball with the hands in the PA?

(3) A defender grabs the shirt of an attacker 10 yards outside the PA and continues the hold until the attacker and defender enter the PA. At this point the hold is released. The referee uses advantage, but stops play for the foul when the attacker staggers and falls. What is the proper restart?

Answer (March 18, 2014):
(1) The referee must first judge the position of the hand/arm. The hand is defined as extending from the tip of the finger to the outside of the shoulder. If the position is abnormal, then the foul must be punished; however, if the ball has taken a truly bad bounce, the referee will certainly exercise common sense and could let it go.

(2) No, this is not an infraction. The ‘keeper is not allowed to use his or her hands to play the ball deliberately kicked to him or her. A kicked ball may be in contact with the shin, but that contact MUST also include the foot to be truly a kick. Kicking does not include balls played solely (no pun intended) with the shin unless part of the foot itself is also involved..

(3) Under Law 12, as stated in the Interpretation of the Laws of the Game and Guidelines for Referees in the back of the Laws, we find:
Holding an opponent
If a defender starts holding an attacker outside the penalty area and continues holding him inside the penalty area, the referee must award a penalty kick.

NOTE: This continuation is an established principle of the Law and applies only to holding, not to any other foul.


This question opened an intense debate on a referee discussion forum (http://www.bigsoccer.com/community/threads/where-did-this-cool-site-come-from-and-why-did-noone-tell-me.1981356/):

“A shot taken on goal is blocked by a defending player inside his own team’s penalty area. The defending player then starts to dribble the ball while having full control of it. Before the defender dribbled the ball out of the penalty area, the goalkeeper picked up the ball dribbled by the defender (his teammate). The Referee should stop the play and award an Indirect Free Kick to the opposing team.”

Some (including with reference to contact with high level referees) have argued that a dribbling player has not deliberately kicked the ball to the keeper within the meaning of ATR 12.20 (sepcifically Note (a)). Others have argued that Note (a) does not define deliberately kicked to the keeper, and that by the ATR definitions a dribbling player has kicked the ball (because the player has used the foot) and the kick is deliberate (because the player has control of the ball), such that the triangle and the violation are complete (though there could be possibility that the offense was trifling depending on other surrounding facts).

Would you care to share your interpretation?

Answer (January 22, 2013):
And the referees who cited info from the high-level referees are correct: there is no infringement of the Laws here.

Those who argue for saying the ball deliberately kicked is “not defined” are sophists (those who use a specious argument to deceive someone, in this case, themselves) and are full of hokum (a polite word for something apparently impressive or legitimate but actually nonsense). Pay no attention to those people behind the screen.


In a game i played in today the referee sent off the opposition goalkeeper for picking up a back pass and i was just wondering if there are any examples of this happening before and if the referee was right to do so? The situation the ball was kicked long the defender misread the ball and turned at full stretch he tackled the striker the ball rolled to the keeper who under pressure from another striker shutting him down picked up the ball. The referee then decided to send the goalkeeper off for denying a goal scoring opportunity and gave a indirect free kick was he right to do so? thanks harry.

USSF answer (November 28, 2011):
The referee was wrong to send off the goalkeeper in at least two ways: (1) by kicking the ball away from the opposing player, the defender was not kicking the ball to the goalkeeper, he was simply clearing it and it happened to go to the goalkeeper; (2) the goalkeeper may not and cannot be sent off for denying a goal or a goalscoring opportunity by handling the ball in his penalty; that is stated specifically in Law 12.


The first I cannot figure out after reviewing the LOTG etc. and asking fellow referees their opinions. It has to do with equipment. Team A was at the 18 yrd line with the ball. Defender from team B won the ball and passed it 10 yrds forward to another teammate. A player from team A ran toward him and in the process his boot came off. The team A player caught the team B player gaining control of the ball. I whistled for a foul and awarded the B team an indirect kick as Player A was not in uniform. I read something about a dropped ball being called but I would guess that would be rewarding the A team. Anyway, I am not sure what to do and seek your guidance.

The second has to do with kicking the ball back to the GK. I was told by one of our senior referees that we cannot read the field players mind when the ball is kicked to the GK, intentional or not and should award an IFK when if occurs unless it is so obvious that there was no intent. For example, the player kicks the ball into the wind and it blows back to the GK who grabs it. I was the center at a u14 game.

The ball was in the middle of the penalty area.

the defender ran and took a mighty kick at the ball which glanced off the foot and rolled towad the GK who picked it up. I did not award an IFK causing dismay in one of the opposing players who questioned me about it. What is the proper interpretation of the pass back rule regarding intent?

USSF answer (November 24, 2011):
1. A player is expected to replace his footwear as quickly as possible if it comes off during play, but that does not mean that he has to do it immediately. You would have been wrong to caution this player for misconduct; there was no foul committed in the scenario you present, so no kick was necessary. You should have started with a dropped ball (for stopping play incorrectly) and apologized to all concerned

2. The referee should not be looking for fouls to call when none occurs. You would have been mistaken in punishing the goalkeeper for his teammate’s misplayed ball. The ball was truly deliberately kicked, part of the foul, but it was not sent to any place where the goalkeeper could play it; that was pure happenstance, not a foul. Furthermore, the teammate kicking the ball in this sort of scenario is NEVER the one who commits the foul. The foul — if it exists at all — is committed by the goalkeeper if he chooses to use his hands instead of some other part of his body.


Please explain the goalkeeper back pass rule which says the goalkeeper can’t handle the ball when it is passed directly to him. I ask because I thought this rule was clear but I see professionals often doing what appears to be a clear violation or rules.

USSF answer (June 20, 2011):
The Law is clear: “An indirect free kick is awarded to the opposing team if a goalkeeper, inside his own penalty area, . . . touches the ball with his hands after it has been deliberately kicked to him by a teammate.”

This rarely seen infringement came into the Laws of the Game in 1992 as part of the general effort to restrict opportunities for goalkeepers to waste time by unfairly withholding the ball from active challenge by taking possession of the ball with the hands. Other measures along the same lines include the 6-second limit on goalkeeper possession, the second possession restriction, and the throw-in to the goalkeeper by a teammate.

The offense rests on three events occurring in the following sequence:
– The ball is kicked (played with the foot, not the knee, thigh, or shin) by a teammate of the goalkeeper,
– This action is deemed to be deliberate, rather than a deflection or miskick, and
– The goalkeeper handles the ball directly (no intervening touch of play of the ball by anyone else)

When, in the opinion of the referee, these three conditions are met, the violation has occurred. It is not necessary for the ball to be “passed,” it is not necessary for the ball to go “back,” and it is not necessary for the deliberate play by the teammate to be “to” the goalkeeper.

When the teammate deliberately kicks the ball and it then goes to the goalkeeper or to a place where the goalkeeper can play it, then there is an infringement of the Law if the goalkeeper picks it up. It either happened or it did not. No intent necessary. Plain and simple.

In addition, the goalkeeper may leave the penalty area (which includes the goal area) and retrieve the ball and dribble it back into the penalty area and play it with his/her hands only if the ball was played (a) in any manner by an opponent or (b) by a teammate in a legal manner, i.e., not deliberately kicked to the goalkeeper or to a place where he or she could play it.

Referees, players, and spectators (which includes coaches) need to remember that there is no “intent” to be found in the ball deliberately kicked (and that means that the ball was kicked deliberately, not deflected or miskicked) that happens to go to the goalkeeper.

To answer the second part of your question, the referee is permitted to make a judgment (“if, in the opinion of the referee, . . .”) as to whether or not the player “intended” that the ball go wherever it went, but that judgment or opinion must be based on what the player actually did. In other words, we are not mind readers — in most cases — and must make our judgment based on clear and visible evidence. All of that is expressed in a position paper of May 21, 2008, as well as in the Advice to Referees.


In a soccer game a player deliberately used his knee to pass the ball to the goalkeeper. The goalkeeper then picked the ball up with his hands. Does this count as a pass-back to the keeper?

What part of the body can a player use to send the ball to his/her goalkeeper and have the keeper pick it up with his/her hands? Or maybe I should ask what part of the body can’t a player use to pass the ball to the keeper if the keeper intends to pick it up?

USSF answer (November 12, 2010):
The Law is pretty clear. See the back of the Law book 2010/2011, Interpretations, Cautions for unsporting behavior:

• uses a deliberate trick while the ball is in play to pass the ball to his own goalkeeper with his head, chest, knee, etc. in order to circumvent the Law, irrespective of whether the goalkeeper touches the ball with his hands or not. The offense is committed by the player in attempting to circumvent both the letter and the spirit of law 12 and play is restarted with an indirect free kick

Even with that information, we would be remiss if we did not point out that, subject to the terms of Law 12, a player MAY pass the ball to his (or her) own goalkeeper using his head or chest or knee, etc., if he does NOT use trickery. Furthermore, just to lock it down tightly, for the misconduct offense to be called the referee must decide that the action was done to circumvent the Law.  Merely observing that the ball was played from foot to head is not enough, even if the ball subsequently goes to or toward the GK.  Because we are dealing with misconduct here (the “trickery”) and not the foul commonly referred to as “pass back to the ‘keeper,” we are required to evaluate the intentions of the defender.

In such circumstances, it is irrelevant whether the goalkeeper subsequently touches the ball with his hands or not. The offense is committed by the player in attempting to circumvent both the letter and the spirit of Law 12.