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.