Goalkeepers and Time

Richard, an adult pro referee, asks

Have they done away with the six second rule for the goalkeeper before he releases the ball?  If not, why don’t they enforce it?


First, “they” haven’t done away with it.  Indeed, it remains the standard requirement in the US for US Soccer (IFAB), high school soccer (NFHS), and collegiate games (NCAA) — as well as the rest of the world.

Second, asking “why don’t they enforce it” takes us into a whole different issue.  For referees, the first hurdle in their learning curve is to recognize that an action is an offense.  For inexperienced referees (say, up through their first couple of years), this is one of the most important achievements and, in general, that recognition, plus stopping play and getting the restart right (both for offenses and for any other stoppage reason), are an acceptable measure by which to evaluate a new referee’s performance.  Around years 2-4, the focus should begin to change.  Offense recognition (if married with correct restarts) has largely been achieved and now the critical question becomes “what should I do about it?”  You might ask, well, why is this a question because we’ve already said that stopping play and getting the restart right are what you are supposed to do”?

The answer is that there is “correct” and there is “right” – they are not necessarily the same.  “Correct” means “in accordance with the Laws of the Game” whereas “right” means “what do I want to achieve in this game … at this moment … with this player … under these specific circumstances?” Limiting the goalkeeper to 6 seconds from the moment control of the ball is achieved to the goalkeeper’s release of the ball is a very concrete statement.  Sounds unbendingly specific and easy to enforce – just use your watch to measure the time between these two points and, if it exceeds 6 seconds, whistle for an indirect free kick offense in favor of the opposing team from the point where the goalkeeper exceeded the 6 second limit.  This is possibly what a new referee took away from the entry level course about how to enforce this rule.

Why do you see it “not enforced”?  Well, perhaps it is because the referee forgot this rule.  Or perhaps the referee forgot to start checking his watch and thus has no idea how long the goalkeeper held onto the ball.  Perhaps the referee was estimating time and, just as he was about to whistle, the goalkeeper released the ball and the referee thought, what the heck, that’s close enough.

Or perhaps the referee gained enough experience or was mentored properly or received in-service training that went beyond the simple statement in the Law about 6-seconds-and-not-a-second-longer to understand why this rule is in the Law in the first place and then use that knowledge to evaluate the scenario and recognize that, yes, 7 (or 8 or 9) seconds was an offense but perhaps it was trifling – in other words, the offense didn’t matter because it did no harm to the opposing team and did not benefit the goalkeeper’s team – or perhaps the estimate was not precise enough and the expiration of 6 seconds was doubtful.  Now marry this with the established norm that soccer is an active sport involving constant motion which should not be interrupted with stoppages without good reason (and neither doubtful nor trifling is a good enough reason).  The result is a picture of a referee who has allowed the goalkeeper to exceed the 6-second limit on possession of the ball and who is in fact following the intent of Laws of the Game

Of course, there are limits but, based on the above, it should be clear where those limits start clicking in.  Around 8-10 seconds (time it so you have a feel for what that is) it probably becomes more difficult to say the offense is doubtful.  It’s also roughly the point at which a referee who is in fact aware of the passage of time from experience might clearly inform the goalkeeper that he or she needs to get rid of the ball, followed by no more than a second or two with “NOW!”  12-15 seconds is nearing the point at which continued possession of the ball by the goalkeeper becomes difficult to describe as trifling – a time period which actually narrows if, during the same time, it is clear that the opposing team is becoming rightfully disturbed by the lack of a reasonably quick return of the ball back into active play.

Notice that the dynamics are totally different if, instead of picking up a ball played to him (other than from a teammate’s play of the ball with his foot), the goalkeeper simply stops the ball with his foot and remains standing with the ball on the ground.  The clock doesn’t even start ticking here and the only restraint on the goalkeeper is if opponents begin moving to challenge (remember, the 6-second limit doesn’t even begin until the goalkeeper takes clear possession of the ball with his hand). Notice also that most referees start using tighter constraints if the goalkeeper has been warned already but takes unfair advantage of the indulgence.

So, you have the answer.  You may not like it (though, as a referee, you should be following it if you are past your first several years of officiating) but that is why they are paying you the big bucks.  They are assuming you will understand the difference between correct and right.

Blowing the whistle at the 6.1th second is correct, but it is seldom right.