As sports organizations are preparing to evaluate the issues and options of re-opening their sport to public display, the question has arisen regarding the wearing of facemasks by soccer players. We understand that the International Football Association Board (IFAB, the Board) is currently evaluating certain specific issues that might come under their purview as they are the organization responsible for creating, maintaining, and interpreting The Laws of the Game at all levels. No publication date for this has yet been announced.
A specific question has been directed to this website regarding soccer players wearing during a match the sort of facemasks which are currently recommended for the general population when international, national, regional, or local competitions are resumed. After careful consideration and consultation with persons directly responsible for determining what requirements may be imposed under the Laws of the Game, we are prepared to offer the following advice on this matter.
Law 4.4 in the 2019-2020 edition of the Laws of the Game (and expected to remain unchanged in the as yet pending 2020-2021 edition) states that “Non-dangerous protective equipment, for example headgear, facemasks and knee and arm protectors made of soft, lightweight padded material is permitted … .” (Emphasis added) This language has been in the Laws of the Game since 2016-2017. Although it is almost certain that “COVID-19 facemasks” would not likely have been in the minds of the members of the International Board when this section of Law 4 was crafted, it is also likely that the sorts of facemasks they did have in mind were more solid, complex, and aimed at protecting the wearer for dangers which did not include viruses.
As with any other “protective equipment” encountered on the field, facemasks need to be inspected by the officiating team before the wearer engages with other players in active play. The only aspects of a facemask relevant to such an inspection are (a) whether it is protective as opposed to decorative and (b) whether it is dangerous. There is no reason to believe that the wearing of otherwise non-dangerous protective facemasks would not extend equally to substitutes, substituted players, or any other person normally allowed to be in the team area.
In short, the Laws of the Game already allow but do not mandate the wearing of protective, non-dangerous facemasks by individual players as well as by the entire team. Of course, if a local rule of competition requires the wearing of a facemask, this must be recognized and enforced by the referee as a condition of accepting the assignment to officiate a game in that competition.
Note that nothing offered here on this subject is necessarily also applicable to members of the officiating team – this issue will likely be addressed by the International Board or, if not, left to affiliated national organizations for resolution. The advice is intended only to assist referees in handling the wearing of COVID-19 protective facemasks by players engaged in active play. Note finally that nothing offered here allows the referee to order or require any player to wear a facemask unless such a requirement is directly imposed by the rules of competition. It is up to individual officials decide if they wish to accept any assignment where the wearing or not wearing of COVID-19 protective masks is inconsistent with that referee’s preference.
Readers who are involved in soccer matches governed by NFHS or NCAA rules will need to research any comparable mask guidelines issued by these organizations.