Goalkeepers and “Challenging for the Ball”

Steve, a U13 – U19 coach, asks:

In open play, goalkeeper saves the ball in his area. To restart play does the ball have to go outside the area or can the keeper roll it to one of his defenders who is inside the area so he can dribble up field taking the ball out of the area?


Let’s clear out some underbrush in this scenario before getting to the central issue of your question.  There is an important distinction in the Laws of the Game between taking a ball out of play and taking a ball out of challenge.  The simplest way to take a ball out of play is to kick the ball off the field — the ball is automatically out of play the moment it entirely crosses the field’s outer perimeter lines (touch line or goal line, including the part of the latter which is between the goal posts).  Players can also take the ball out of play by becoming injured or committing an offense, for either of which the referee stops play.  Finally, the referee can take the ball out of play simply by whistling for a stoppage for any reason (weather, outside interference, or any other reason).  Obviously, if a ball goes out of play, it means that no one can play it until there is a formal restart (unless the stoppage is when the final period runs out of time).

This is completely (and importantly) different from taking the ball out of challenge.  This is the chief difference between a goalkeeper and any other player on the team because only the goalkeeper can do this but they can only do it within their own penalty area (anywhere in that area) and only by taking hand possession of the ball.  “Out of challenge” means that, from the moment the goalkeeper takes hand control of the ball until the ball is fully released from hand control, no opponent can challenge the goalkeeper for the ball!  The ball is still “in play” during this whole time, but an opponent cannot attempt to tackle, charge, or otherwise challenge for the ball.

Having “hand control of the ball” is operationally defined as the goalkeeper holding the ball with a hand (including having the ball resting on the hand, usually but not necessarily on the palm) or between both hands or between one or both hands against a surface (the ground, the body, a goal post, etc.).  Once hand control is achieved (in the opinion of the referee), all challenges must cease.  Period.  Any attempt to challenge could result in the referee stopping play, issuing a caution, and restarting with an indirect free kick for the goalkeeper’s team.  Referees understand that, in general, goalkeepers prefer for this not to happen,  They are, at heart, egotists who firmly believe they are far more capable of getting rid of the ball their own way and for their own purposes than via an indirect free kick and so referees understand that (a) they should try to prevent interference from occurring in the first place and (b), if it is so blatant as to be unavoidable, the added punishment of a caution should be given.

The interesting part of all this groundwork is determining what constitutes releasing the ball back into challenge.  Basically, it means getting rid of it — throwing it, kicking it (punt, dropkick, etc.), or setting it on the ground and kicking it.  The Law allows the ball to be tossed up in the air and then to catch it or to bounce it on the ground and catch it, all without losing hand control (tossing it up, allowing it to hit the ground, and then catching it on the rebound, however, is a second possession offense — don’t do this, goalkeepers, just kick the ball on the rebound).  All of these actions are considered part of “releasing the ball into play” and are as protected from challenge or interference as is simply holding the ball.

OK.  That’s the groundwork.  Now to your scenario, which basically has nothing to do with everything we just talked about.  You asked about “restart play” and now we know that play never stopped in the first place!  What stopped was the ability of an opponent to do what he or she would normally do while the ball was in play — challenge for it.   Accordingly, there is no restart issue here.  There are special things to remember about restarts from within a team’s own penalty area and the issues you raised involve that, none of which are relevant to how a goalkeeper puts a ball back into challenge.  Most players, coaches, and spectators (plus many well-paid commentators) commonly call this “putting the ball back into play” but this is incorrect.  Referees know that this is “putting the ball back into challenge” because the difference is crucial.  Except for leaving the field or the referee stopping play or time ending, the ball is always in play.