Deflections, etc.

JM, a High School and College referee, asks:

What is a misplay?
What is the difference between deliberate play and deflection?


This is one of those apparently short and straightforward inquiries that turn out to be more complicated than expected, hence this answer which is many times longer and more detailed than the question.  Here goes.

We don’t understand your reference to “misplay” – the term doesn’t exist in the Laws of the Game (or any NFHS/NCAA Rules).  In general conversation, it could be used for what might be called an “oopsie.” (Sorry for this technical term.)  A player swung the leg to kick the ball and missed entirely.  A player was defending the net and attempting to head away a shot on goal  but slipped on wet grass or artificial turf and fell down. You were intending to challenge an opponent by a charge on his right shoulder because you guessed he would zig right but the opponent zagged left instead and you missed contact entirely.  Etc.

As for deliberate play versus deflection, it depends on the opinion of the referee.  A deliberate play is intentional (although that is little help because it simply replaces “deliberate” with “intentional”) because the player consciously intended/chose to do something.  It is applicable across all actions on the field – play of the ball, play of an opponent, direction of movement, etc.  Some things happen on the field on purpose and sometimes what happens is due solely to chance.  It is a broad concept relevant to lots of actions.  If a player runs down the field because she doesn’t want to be “here” but, instead, wants to be “there,” then that action by itself is a deliberate play.  From that simple, basic event, deliberate play becomes increasingly complex where the “play” includes a teammate, an opponent, the ball, or any combination thereof.

In soccer, however, “deflection” has a rather more limited meaning and context which almost always focuses on the ball.  A deflection can occur when the ball strikes any part of the goal frame – we call it a deflection because the resulting movement of the ball is from an inanimate object which causes the path of the ball to change resulting solely from the purely physical contact between two inanimate objects (e.g., the ball and, say, a goalpost), i.e., the subsequent path of the ball is determined solely by physics.  “Deflection” is therefore a value-based word – it is, in effect, a conclusion about a set of circumstances.  We all understand the kind of deflection associated with the ball bouncing off the crossbar.  The point, though, is that “deflection” can also apply meaningfully to the ball making contact with a person – attacker, defender, or even the referee.  The referee element is easy – long history basically defines any referee contact with the ball as a deflection … even if, in response to contact, the referee knocks the ball away as a conscious though unplanned action.  In effect, we count the referee as an equivalent of the goalpost when it comes to ball contact.

On the other hand, if a player makes hand contact with the ball entirely accidentally (i.e., not deliberately), the player may well be judged not to have committed an accidental handling offense depending on the specific behavior of the player but it is not ever considered a deflection if the hand/arm is above the head even if the player clearly made no deliberate, conscious move.  In short, in such an instance, holding a hand/arm above the body is taking a risk because any ball contact in such a scenario, accidental or not, is treated as though it was deliberate.

In between these polar opposite scenarios stands the referee who has to judge the context of any contact between the ball and the body of a player.  More often than not, it doesn’t make any difference to the game because, with the exception of hands/arms, any such contact presents no issues of Law.  There are exceptions, however.  One such exception is body contact with the ball by a defender who is between an opponent who last played the ball and a teammate of that opponent who is in an offside position.  If the ball contact with the defender is judged to be a deflection and the ball’s rebound takes it to the attacker who was in an offside position, then the Law says that the offside-position attacker is still in an offside position (with all that this entails).  If the ball contact with the defender is followed by what the referee judges to be a deliberate play rather than a deflection, then the offside-position attacker is (with some exceptions) deemed to no longer be in an offside position.

Also somewhat ironically is the fact that an attacker can play the ball intentionally (and legally) to strike the opponent in such a way that the ball is deflected off the field of play, thus resulting in the attacker’s team regaining possession of the ball.  For example, an attacker dribbling the ball down along the touchline who is faced by one or more opponents who appear likely to be capable of blocking the attacker’s path could deliberately kick the ball directly at the legs of one of those opponents such that the ball would be deflected off the field (the same ploy could be attempted to gain a corner kick).  Risky but effective.