Impeding Issues

Mario, a U-12 and under referee, asks:

This question is about the interpretation of impeding the progress of an opponent.  Let’s say player D (Defender) is shielding the ball legally, within playing distance away from player A (Attacker) inside the penalty area, parallel to the goal line but not within the goal. Before the ball is out of play, player D starts to back into player A.  At first they don’t make contact but then they do start making contact. Penalty or Indirect free kick for player A’s team?  My reaction would be to call an indirect free kick because the impeding is happening first?

Answer (see also “Apology” posted on July 5)

Your assumption is incorrect as a matter of Law.  We quote from Law 12 (2016/2017 Laws of the Game): “A direct free kick is awarded if a player commits any of the following offences: … impedes an opponent with contact” followed by  the statement that an indirect free kick is awarded if a player “impedes the progress of an opponent without any contact being made.”  And then the 2016/2017 Laws included the following definition on page 83: “Impeding the progress of an opponent means moving into the opponent’s path to obstruct, block, slow down or force a change of direction when the ball is not within playing distance of either player.”  To top it all off, the Board continued with “A player may shield the ball by taking a position between an opponent and the ball if the ball is within playing distance and the opponent is not held off with the arms or body. If the ball is within playing distance, the player may be fairly charged by an opponent.”

In short, as USSF has long taught referees, impeding means no contact (other than purely accidental contact of contact as a result of simple inertia) and, if there is contact, the IFK offense is turned into a DFK offense equivalent to holding or an illegal charge.  The International Board simplified this history in 2016 when they clearly specified the distinction between impeding-without-contact and impeding-with-contact.

So, take another look at the scenario.  Was there any element of impeding here — with or without contact?  Did anyone move into an opponent’s path?  Were both “impeder” and “impedee” not within playing distance of the ball?  By the way, take a look at the International Board’s definition of “playing distance” (page 165).

What we have here is either ordinary contact between opposing players which does not rise to the level of a foul (or, arguably, is a foul but trifling) or, if it is a foul and neither doubtful or trifling, it is a DFK foul (converted by location into a PK).  The statement “the impeding came first” is not supported by the definitions noted above.  Before there was any contact, there was no impeding; after there was contact, it didn’t become “impeding-with-contact” but, rather simple holding (or nothing or doubtful or trifling).  A verbal warning about “backing into an opponent” might be warranted but, if there is anything more than this, the Referee has no choice but to signal for a PK — that is, of course, if it was the defender backing into the attacker rather than the attacker legally charging the defender.