Michael, an adult amateur player, asks:
When a goalkeeper has the ball in his hands and goes to kick it down field, can an opposing striker block the ball? Especially if they are outside the box?
Your scenario is a bit unclear. If by “they” you mean both the goalkeeper and the striker and if by “outside the box” you mean outside the penalty area(as opposed to the goal area), then the solution is easy — the goalkeeper is committing a handling offense and this takes priority. We suspect, however, you meant that only the striker was “out of the box,” in which case it doesn’t matter which “box” you meant.
As long as the goalkeeper has hand control of the ball, including when he is in the process of releasing it (i.e., throwing or kicking the ball), no opponent can interfere with the release or challenge for the ball. Sometimes, opponents make it easy for you by looking at the goalkeeper and obviously moving closer or moving around to block the direction that the goalkeeper apparently is considering in which to release the ball. Once the ball is released, however, the ability to challenge for control of the ball returns.
This is very clear and easy to enforce in the static situation where the goalkeeper is clearly holding the ball but becomes murkier during the actual release of the ball. The general principle is that an opponent cannot be allowed to be close enough to the goalkeeper to interfere with the release. How far back is that? It’s in your opinion. That opinion should take into account whether the opponent has merely established a location which does not block the direction of the release … and stays there. Sometimes, an opponent makes it easy for you by actually moving around to interfere while the goalkeeper is attempting to move in response to find a clear release direction. And it becomes ridiculously easy if the opponent runs into an area which is the direction of release while the release is taking place. The referee should handle these situations proactively (before any interference could occur) by warning an opponent to back away and to stay out of the way. If you have done so and the opponent ignores your warning or if events happened so quickly that there was no time to give the warning in the first place and the interference occurs, this is a cautionable offense – whistle, show a yellow card to the opponent, and order an indirect free kick restart from where the interference occurred.
Keep in mind that experienced goalkeepers generally prefer to perform their own release rather than to have that changed to an indirect free kick so choose your options carefully and step in only when the potential interference is blatant and/or when the players are inexperienced and/or when you have warned the opponent but the opponent interferes anyway (the caution is for unsporting behavior but ignoring an actual warning from you adds an icing of dissent).
Remember that the issue is not limited to “how far back.” Where the opponent is in relation to the direction of the release is just as important. There is no specific distance offered in the Laws of the Game as is the case for example with retreating at least ten yards for a free kick. Here, the decision is solely “in the opinion of the referee.” As the International Board (IFAB) put it in this year’s edition of the Laws of the Game:
The Laws cannot deal with every possible situation, so where there is no direct provision in the Laws, The IFAB expects the referee to make a decision within the ‘spirit’ of the game – this often involves asking the question, “what would football want/expect?”