If a goalie and an attacking opponent arrive to the ball at the same time with the opponent diving feet first without any kicking motion but merely poking the ball loose with their foot, is this allowable or does the opponent clearly have to touch it first?

Answer (October 29, 2007):
(With sincere apologies to the person who sent this; we lost the e-mail address. Darn!)
While the referee must always remember that the goalkeeper’s position is a particularly dangerous one, there are times when the onus for fair play falls squarely on the opponent. This is one of those times. If a player dives feet first at an opponent, that is usually considered a form of “jumping at” at opponent.

It is a general principle underlying the Law that players are not permitted to “play” the opponent rather than the ball. That is enshrined in the concept of “jumping at an opponent.” “Jumping at” means precisely that: launching one’s body toward the opponent. It can be from a standing or “flying” position. It can be done in two ways: (1) to intimidate or (2) in a feigned (really meant to distract or intimidate the opponent) or genuine but unsuccessful attempt to gain the ball. It is most often seen under the pretext of heading the ball, but may also be seen when a player launches himself through the air, feet first, to “tackle” away the ball.

Example: A8 is running upfield with the ball. Defender B3 jumps at A8 to startle him, causing A8 to flinch and lose possession.

What to do? B3 has committed the foul of jumping at an opponent if he does it in a manner considered by the referee to be careless, reckless or using excessive force. If the foul was careless, the result would be a direct free kick (or penalty kick if committed within B’s penalty area) for team A. If the foul was reckless, the result would be a caution/yellow card to B3 for unsporting behavior and a direct free kick (or penalty kick) for team A. If the foul involved excessive force, the result would be a send-off/red card for B3 and a direct free kick (or penalty kick) for team A.

Normally contact is not required, as specified by the word “at” in the name of the foul. However, another form of “jumping at” an opponent is the two-footed tackle, which by definition has to be a jump – launching one’s body toward that of the opponent. If that two-footed tackle is for the ball, it is likely fair, but if the jumping player lands on the ball just as the opponent’s foot is kicking it, the referee should consider the tackle dangerous and punish it with an indirect free kick. If contact is made with the opponent, give a direct free kick. If it is reckless, caution it. If it is done with excessive force, send the player off.

Faking: Another form of “jumping at” is to make the foul appear to have been committed by the opponent when the player with the ball has actually committed it. That sort of foul is common in youth soccer, where some players jump into an opponent and, while doing so, turn their back. Since that essentially makes them an unguided missile, it highlights the danger of jumping at an opponent with the back turned. Direct free kick for the opponent’s team.

Where to punish: At the spot where the opponent was affected by the jump. If a player starts his jump outside the penalty area but completes it inside, the referee must give the direct free kick (or penalty kick, if applicable) inside the penalty area.

There are two things to remember about “jumping at” an opponent. First, contact is not required for the foul. The foul is in the intimidation or distraction of the opponent by the jump. Second, this is one of those fouls where the “rule of thumb” about “playing the player rather than the ball” is particularly apt as a shorthand way of viewing the offense — the foul is almost certain when the offending player is looking at the opponent rather than the ball.

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