have [an] interesting question for you, one that had senior instructors in animated disagreement. We know that:

(a) A team has 11 players, one of whom must be the goalkeeper.

(b) With permission of the referee, a player may leave the field temporarily for treatment of an injury and not be replaced. Play continues.

(c) In the case of (b) above, with the referee’s permission the player may return to the field during play over any touch line, or if play is stopped, over any boundary line.

The question is, if the injured player is the goalkeeper and that team wishes to continue play while the GK is being treated, if this allowed or must one of the other players (or a sub) be designated as GK?

This situation could conceivably arise, for example, in the last few minutes of a 2-1 game when Red is down but has been pounding away at Blue’s goal trying to tie it up. The Red GK gets injured and must be assessed for a possible concussion, the team has no more subs and is reasonably sure the GK can return, so they want to continue playing while momentum is on their side (perhaps also due to concern about game time remaining).

We recognize that in normal circumstances the right thing to do is to wait for the GK to return and add the time lost. But the question is: If the team wants to continue, must we force them to wait?

The referees on one side of this argument point out that no Law is being violated just because the GK happens to be off the field. The referees on the other side think the spirit of the Law (and maybe somewhere, the letter) requires that the GK be on the field. It’s been an interesting discussion.

Would you like to weigh in with your thoughts and/or an official answer?

USSF answer (February 13, 2009):
There is no written requirement that the goalkeeper MUST remain on the field of play. However, The goalkeeper cannot leave the field with the referee’s permission specifically for treatment unless he or she is either substituted or exchanges places temporarily with a field player (following the guidance in Law 3). The clear intent of the Laws is that the goalkeeper remain on the field of play. That is demonstrated through the provisions in the Law that the goalkeeper may be treated on the field, even though (with some specific exceptions) others must leave. (For the exceptions, see Interpretations of the Laws of the Game and Guidelines for Referees, Injured Players.)

However, the goalkeeper is permitted to leave the field during the course of play, just as are all players. A statement in the 2008-2009 Laws of the Game (Interpretations of the Laws of the Game and Guidelines for Referees) demonstrates that: “If a player accidentally crosses one of the boundary lines of the field of play, he is not deemed to have committed an infringement. Going off the field of play may be considered to be part of playing movement.”
An earlier question and answer (2006 IFAB Q&A, Law 3) also illustrates the point:

20. During a match, the goalkeeper sprints from the goal to stop an opponent. He kicks the ball out of the field of play and a throw-in is awarded to the opposing team. The momentum of the goalkeeper takes him off the field of play and before he can return, the throw-in is taken and a goal is scored. What action, if any, should the referee take?
A goal is awarded since no offence has been committed.

A goalkeeper may be treated just off the field while play continues — we often see this in higher-level games — but must return as quickly as possible.

When the ball is out of play, the goalkeeper may gain the permission of the referee to leave the field specifically for treatment, but play cannot be restarted until that goalkeeper has returned to the field, been substituted, or exchanged positions with one of the field players.

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