Goalkeepers and Their Lapses

Jeff, an adult/pro referee, asks:

Blue is attacking on goal. The Red keeper makes a save. The Blue attacker is on the bye line [goal line]. The Red keeper releases the ball to ground and prepares to pass the ball out to a teammate. The Blue attacker comes off the bye line and runs in front of the keeper, steals the ball and strikes the ball into the goal. Goal or no goal?



We are uncomfortable stopping with one-word answers so here follows an explanation.  Answering this question is dependent on the issue of when the goalkeeper released the ball into play (i.e., gave up possession) because we know from Law 12 (p. 83 in the 2016/2017 version of the Laws of the Game) that “a goalkeeper cannot be challenged by an opponent when in control of the ball with the hands.”  Just above this summary statement is a list of factors to take into account in deciding when or if a goalkeeper is in possession of the ball.  By tradition and general consensus, a goalkeeper cannot be challenged not only while in possession but also while in the process of giving up possession.  The first is easily observed and accounted for but the issue of “process of giving up possession” is  usually defined as including the act of releasing the ball from the hands while preparing to kick it.  Placing the ball on the ground is giving up possession the moment the ball makes contact with the ground.  Tossing the ball forward in the air and kicking it is not giving up possession until the actual kick occurs (or the ball makes contact with the ground).

Does this mean an opponent can fine tune when to launch a challenge so that it occurs at the very moment the ball touches the ground or is kicked?  No, because there is a further provision in Law 12 that it is an indirect free kick offense if an opponent “prevents the goalkeeper from releasing the ball … or kicks or attempts to kick the ball when the goalkeeper is in the process of releasing it” (p. 82).   In practice, therefore, an opponent close enough to attempt contact with the ball at the moment a goalkeeper sets it on the ground or the moment the tossed ball is kicked while still in the air is also close enough to be considered as interfering with the goalkeeper’s release of the ball into play.  How close is too close?  This is in the opinion of the referee and must take into account, among other things, the age and experience level of the players.

From the scenario, it would appear that the opponent got behind the keeper in the normal course of play, the goalkeeper gained and then released the ball into play by placing it on the ground in preparation for a pass, and the goalkeeper was surely surprised when the hidden opponent legally challenged for and won the ball.  The subsequent goal must have been particularly galling.