Stuart, a U13 – U19 referee, asks:
Can an opposing player stand in front of a goalie attempting to punt the ball?
No. It is a violation of the Law to interfere in any way with the goalkeeper’s release of the ball from his/her hands. This obviously doesn’t apply if the goalkeeper’s control is, say, only with the feet.
Note that we didn’t say “release the ball into play” because, technically, the ball is and remains “in play” even while in the hands of the goalkeeper — it’s just that both the ball and the goalkeeper holding it are protected from challenge by an opponent. This balances, in part, the four specific offenses that apply only to goalkeepers and are designed to limit the amount of time opponents cannot attempt to challenge for the ball while it is in the hands of the goalkeeper.
That said, we try to train referees to be proactive about this. It is always a good idea, for example, to keep an eye on such a situation as it develops and to step in before it runs it’s course into a scenario in which there is no option other than to stop play. This usually can be achieved by clearly giving a verbal warning to any opponent who is too close or not clearly backing away that they need to get out of there. Sometimes a baleful stare at the potential miscreant will be sufficient to do the job. If it becomes necessary for you to actually step in if actual interference occurs (e.g., a concrete attempt to challenge for a ball held by the goalkeeper or an attempt to challenge for the ball while the goalkeeper is in the physical process of releasing it, or bumping into the goalkeeper), then play must be stopped. If this occurs, it is recommended that the opponent also be cautioned (for unsporting conduct).
Why a caution? For game control and player management purposes. All players (particularly the goalkeeper), need to appreciate that the referee will not allow this sort of behavior. Goalkeepers are strange folks (we know based on personal experience) who feel that, once they have the ball in hand, it needs to be their choice as to how and when they release it because they are God’s gift to soccer. If the referee is forced into stopping play for interfering, we add a caution to sweeten the pot for the goalkeeper who now, instead of his/her brilliant release of the ball causing gasps of amazement from players, coaches, and spectators all, is forced to restart play with a plain, boring IFK.
It also has a deterrent effect and reduces the likelihood of seeing something like that develop again.