NOTE: This is a two-part query, with the original response to the first question prompting the second question. Both are relevant to the question of 1 March 2013 on Impeding an Opponent.

Original Question:
On January 19th, 2013 you stated that under Law 12, “Holding an opponent includes the act of preventing him from moving past or around using the hands, the arms or the body,” and that referees should intervene in this early.

However, often when the ball is rolling out of play (particularly for a goal kick), a defending player will “shield” the ball out of play, not allowing the attacker to reach the ball, even though the defender has no intention of playing the ball. This sort of blocking off would normally considered a foul in general open play or on free kicks.

Why has this action become standard in this one situation? A referee cannot even call this a hold now because no else does and it shows a lack of consistency.

Answer (March 2, 2013):
You seem to be confusing “holding,” a foul which requires contact, with “impeding the progress of an opponent,” which involves ZERO contact initiated by the person doing the shielding. And impeding the progress of an opponent also requires not being with playing distance of the ball, which does not figure in holding.

Does that answer your question? If not, let me know and I will try to do better.

Follow-on Question:
First of all, thank you so much for taking the time to respond and so quickly. I understand the difference between the two fouls now that you have explained it. However I do require a bit more clarification:
Often there is significant contact when the attacker is trying to get to the ball. Sometimes a “fight” for the ball commences. Again, the defender has no intention to play the ball (even though it is within a yard or two of them) and the ball is taking several seconds to roll out of play. Often defenders will not just shield the ball normally, but will make a sudden, aggressive lunge to step in front of the other player, with arms out wide, which initiates the contact.

At the pro level (or at the amateur level, when playing indoor for side kick-in’s) it happens every game, but at times it seems so aggressive that it could be a foul. When would it cross the line into being an “impeding progress” foul and why is it never called? Does being within “playing distance” of the ball entitle a player to these types of actions, even if they have no intention to ever play the ball? What is to prevent several players from surrounding a ball (all within playing distance) and not allowing the other team to get to it in order to run out the clock?

I have heard occasionally commentators talk about the need to crack down on it because the referee would not allow it elsewhere on the field. Is it a matter of culture influencing referees interpretation or is this action (however aggressive and no matter the place on the field) always allowed according to the Laws of the Game?

Follow-on Answer (March 2, 2013):
Do you really mean a “fight,” or simply two players (legally or illegally) using their bodies, including shoulders, to gain (or retain) possession of the ball? That is certainly legal, as long as there is no holding (using any body parts to restrict the movement of the opponent) or pushing (with hands or other body parts to move the opponent).

Here are some definitions that may be helpful to you:

It is legal to “charge” an opponent fairly: The act of charging an opponent can be performed without it being called as a foul. Although the fair charge is commonly defined as “shoulder to shoulder” and without the use of arms or elbows, this is not a requirement and, at certain age levels where heights may vary greatly, may not even be possible. Furthermore, under many circumstances, a charge may often result in the player against whom it is placed falling to the ground (a consequence, as before, of players differing in weight or strength). The Law does require that the charge be directed toward the area of the shoulder and not toward the center of the opponent’s back (the spinal area): in such a case, the referee should recognize that such a charge is at minimum reckless and potentially even violent.

Holding an opponent includes the act of stretching the arms out to prevent an opponent from moving past or around. A player who blatantly holds onto or pulls an opponent or an opponent’s clothing to play the ball, to gain possession of the ball, or to prevent an opponent from playing the ball could be cautioned and shown the yellow card for unsporting behavior. (Up until last year it was required for blatant acts of holding, but that changed in 2012.)

“Impeding the progress of an opponent” means moving on the field so as to obstruct, interfere with, or block the path of an opponent. Impeding can include crossing directly in front of the opponent or running between the opponent and the ball so as to form an obstacle with the aim of delaying progress. There will be many occasions during a game when a player will come between an opponent and the ball, but in the majority of such instances, this is quite natural and fair. It is often possible for a player not playing the ball to be in the path of an opponent and still not be guilty of impeding.

The offense of impeding an opponent requires that the ball not be within playing distance and that physical contact between the player and the opponent is normally absent. If physical contact occurs, the referee should, depending on the circumstances, consider instead the possibility that a charging infringement has been committed (direct free kick) or that the opponent has been fairly charged off the ball (indirect free kick). However, nonviolent physical contact may occur while impeding the progress of an opponent if, in the opinion of the referee, this contact was an unavoidable consequence of the impeding (due, for example, to momentum).

I have little time for indoor soccer and do not keep up with the rules, which vary from arena to arena (except in professional leagues). In the case of the “circle of friends,” the referee can always add time–at least in the outdoor game of soccer–or possibly consider the act to be one of time wasting, for which the players could be cautioned for unsporting behavior and shown the yellow card. (That would be a bit extreme, but certainly useful in cases where the amount of time in a period of play in a tournament game is limited by the rules of the competition.) In all events, if this is done anywhere on the boundary lines of the field, the player who is contesting for the ball ia permited by the Law to pass over the touch line or the goal line to beat an opponent or a “ring of friends.”

Playing distance has nothing to do with playing the ball in any particular manner; it means simply that the player could play the ball immediately if he wished to do so.

In my opinion—and others are welcome to their own—most commentators, at least those on television and radio, have absolutely no clue of how the game should be called, even those former players who didn’t know the rules when they played and know even less now.