Interfering with the Goalkeeper’s Release of the Ball

Shawn, a High School and College referee, asks:

When the keeper makes a save and has secured the ball, either with both hands, against his body, or against the ground, and an attacker dislodges the ball without a “normal” foul, the most common restart is a “manufactured” drop ball, allowing the keeper to play as if it never happened. However, I can’t find the rationale for this. Several experienced referees tell me it’s a foul, and the restart is a direct free kick. Other experienced referees tell me it’s playing the ball while it’s not in challenge, and the restart is an indirect free kick. What’s the restart?


You can’t find the rationale for it?  That’s because there is none.  Opinion is split as to whether the correct restart is an IFK or a DFK but there is no one anywhere in the world of any stature or experience who would say it is a dropped ball (“manufactured” or otherwise).

Here’s the story.  Years ago, around the time the world was formed (the soccer world anyway), it was OK to try to knock the ball out of the goalkeeper’s (GK’s) control.  Indeed, it was expected.  Over the intervening years, particularly as soccer split into two divergent paths as soccer in contrast with rugby, such rock-em, sock-em techniques were softened and civilized (you might infer our prejudices from this language).  The 1984 Lawbook, for example, Law 12 declared that it was an indirect free kick (IFK) offense to charge the GK … except when he was holding the ball!  In fact, it was an IFK offense if, in the opinion of the referee, any attacker intentionally made body contact with the GK.  Similarly, it was also an IFK restart if an opponent interfered with the GK’s release of the ball into play.

This is a great oversimplification but nonetheless is particularly pertinent when it comes to protecting the only person who is legally permitted to hold the ball, thus making him a prime target.  In partial payment for having this protected possession of the ball, Law 12 laid several major restrictions: the ball must be released within four steps (now six seconds), no GK handling from a throw-in or a deliberate play of the ball by a teammate’s foot, and no repossession of the ball without an intervening touch/play by someone else.

We come now, admittedly through incremental steps, to today’s flat out statement that “A goalkeeper cannot be challenged by an opponent when in control of the ball.” (Law 12.2)  But the penalty for this technically remains an IFK.  Of course, that changes if the challenge, in and of itself, clearly comes under the heading of a DFK foul as described in the first part of Law 12 (e.g., opponent comes rushing into the GK and knocks him down – a challenge, yes, but also an illegal charge, resulting in a DFK restart, plus potentially a card of some color).  Then we have the grey area where the GK clearly has hand control of the ball and an opponent heads, kicks, or otherwise dislodges the ball from the GK’s control without making any direct contact with the GK.  The debate raged after after a couple of famous disputes involving opponents coming unexpectedly from behind a GK and neatly, nonviolently dislodging the ball from the GK’s grasp.  Was this even a foul?  Eventually  the Law was updated  making that a foul by providing that the GK had control of the ball even if the ball was being held openly and loosely in the upraised palm of just one hand (or even upside down if the GK’s grasp were particularly large).  In many parts of the world, however, this remained merely an IFK offense.  Clearly, it interfered with the GK’s release of the ball into play.

The US, however, took a different tack.  USSF’s interpretation of your scenario is that it was more than a mere challenge for the ball – the ball was simply an indirect way of actually making contact with the GK.  After all, a GK would be charged with pushing – a DFK foul – if the GK used “only” the ball to physically make contact with and push an opponent.  If an opponent, no matter how neatly, kicked the ball out of the GK’s hand or hands, this was the functional equivalent of kicking the goalkeeper.  As a consequence, the following language has appeared in each of the last four editions of Advice to Referees starting back in 2008:

When a goalkeeper has possession of the ball, any attempt by any opponent to charge, tackle, or otherwise challenge for the ball is prohibited. Such a challenge is considered to be a direct free kick foul because it is directed at the person of the goalkeeper and not as a legal attempt to gain the ball. A ball controlled by the goalkeeper using means other than his or her hands is open to legal challenge by an opponent. The referee must consider the age and skill level of the players in evaluating goalkeeper possession and err on the side of safety. [emphasis added]

A long wind-up but we think it answers your question.