In the Opinion of the Referee

Graham, an adult amateur fan, asks:

The Laws of the Game state that an indirect free kick shall be awarded if the goalkeeper controls the ball for more than six seconds.  This law seems to be universally ignored.  This must be one of the more easily spotted offences – after all, nothing else is happening during this time.  There must, therefore, be universal agreement throughout the game, right to the very top, that this Law should be ignored.  But how does this come about while the Law remains?


Easy, you just do it.

We don’t mean to be flippant (well, actually, we do, sorta) but about 6-7 years ago the International Board began incorporating into the Law the concept of “what does soccer want?”  The purpose of this, if we dare to speak on behalf of the International Board, is to emphasize several ideas which have been a part of soccer for more than a hundred years but we Americans tended to ignore them.  Why?  Because they weren’t “written down” and everyone knows that if it isn’t written down, it doesn’t apply to you!  Perhaps you are aware that soccer has the shortest set of Laws of any major sport – particularly comparing the British-based game versus the far more numerous major sports that grew up in America.  You wouldn’t believe how detailed, complex, and picky (not to mention how downright boring) are the rules governing American football: baseball and basketball rules are only slightly less boring.  This is because that, with only a set of laws that was barely several thousand words long, the folks who created soccer were prepared to rely more on themselves and, eventually, a couple of “referees” rather than trying to write down everything that they instinctively knew already.

It is amazing when you finally come to understand how much of soccer is governed by “in the opinion of the referee”!  So, to get to the heart of your question, those who made the Laws of the Game decided to limit the length of time a goalkeeper would be allowed to maintain control of the ball by keeping it in the hand(s) of the goalkeeper, a state of being which prohibited any opponents from legally challenging the goalkeeper for the ball.  Where did the notion of “six seconds” come from?  We frankly don’t know, much less care about, how that number was selected (possible research item?).  Before the “six seconds” limit, there was the “four steps” limit on the goalkeeper’s possession.  Interestingly, the Law back then provided for an alternative restriction on the goalkeeper’s right to withhold the ball from any play by an opponent: “indulges in tactics which, in the opinion of the Referee, are designed merely to hold up the game and thus waste time and so to give an unfair advantage of his own team.”  This idea is at the heart of soccer.

Think about that!  This was, and remains, the true reason for either the 4 steps or the 6 seconds limitation – holding onto the ball by ignoring the number of steps or seconds holds up the game, wastes time, and is unfair.  And all this is based on “the opinion of the Referee”!  Americans have always had a “thing” for rules – the more complicated, wordy, wide-ranging, and sometimes totally unreadable, the better – and they have carried this into their rules for the sports that they created.  Soccer (a.k.a. “football”), created across the Atlantic, took a different approach.  Keep “rules” to a minimum, expect players to obey them, and where necessary rely on a Referee to use good judgment in applying them when all else fails.

As a referee for more than thirty years, we can tell you exactly how we looked at this (and had some really good teachers pointing the way!).  Yes, the gold standard is 6 seconds.  Add a couple more seconds because of arguments debating what is the exact point at which the 6 seconds begins and when it ends.  And then keep in mind that the purpose of the Law generally (and this particular Law) is to allow some amount of unhindered time to release the ball back into play (which means that we increase the 6 seconds if and when one or more opponents are crowding near the goalkeeper and thus not allowing the free release of the ball).  Then we decide if and when a goalkeeper is using an unnecessary amount of time to put the ball back into play – and we warn the goalkeeper before we whistle for an offense (because we think we should be fair in first warning if a goalkeeper is unnecessarily taking more than the allotted time).

Look at all this as a close cousin to the giving of a card for delaying the restart of play (how long is a “delay” before a card is given?) or for committing “persistent” infringement (how many infringements does it take to be “persistent”?).  Soccer is full of this.