Goran, an adult amateur fan, asks:
Players frequently position themselves by the corner flag to make time pass if their team is ahead and there is little time left. Obviously this is allowed. What would happen if a whole team made a tight circle around one of their players ( or even around just the ball) to prevent the opposition to get hold of the ball while match time counted down?
Every once in a while, we have a “oh, what the heck” moment and let a question like this one slip through our tight quality control filters just for the brief thrill of offering an answer to an essentially unanswerable question. So, tighten your seatbelts because what follows will likely be a bumpy road.
The first step on our journey to enlightenment … “players frequently position themselves by the corner flag to make time pass ….” Really? Does someone serve snacks down there? Are there lounge chairs? The soccer games we tend to watch rarely have such extended periods of boredom. Can anyone join in? Would they move over to another corner if play started to approach them? Is this actually allowed? More pertinently, why would it not be? Our guess is that the International Board never thought the issue would arise because, well, this is soccer, not American football.
So, the short answer to the question of “what would happen if …” is rampant perplexity would ensue. More accurately, it would likely depend on whether everyone wanted to just chew up time or whether there was some reason why one team wouldn’t mind this but the other team might take exception to it.
Sidebar regression: We are reminded of a true news report a few years back in connection with a match played in Asia in which (for reasons which could be understood but not without a lot of time lost in the explanation) one of the teams, in reaction to events happening elsewhere while this game was going on, discovered that it didn’t want the other team to lose (!). Unfortunately, they were ahead at the time and so they did the only thing that occurred to them on such short notice — they deliberately scored against themselves. When the opposing team realized what impact this would have, they decided to restore “the balance” by doing likewise. Talk about “rampant perplexity”! Wanting to lose produces some interesting dynamics. OK, enough reminiscing. Back to the question.
Could a team withhold the ball from active challenge by building an impenetrable wall of bodies around it? Sure. It would be directly contrary to the very essence of sportsmanship which lies at the core of soccer. It seems to us that, assuming the opposing team had a problem with this, it would do something to indicate that they wanted the ball — things like pushing, shoving, climbing, and jumping being among the less aggressive actions they might take. At that point, obviously, someone would be doing something that would violate the Law. The problem with this is that the punishment would fall on the shoulders of those who, from a different perspective, might appear to be the aggrieved parties. Or … they might look at you (the Referee), point out how mean the opponents are being, and expect you to make it right.
Can you? Not without being inventive. You could just purely make something up, of course, on the theory that the opponents sure looked guilty as sin for something but you’re just not exactly sure of what. Just remember two things: (1) you can stop play for any reason you want at any time and (2) you never have to explain why. You do have to get the restart right. If you truly have nothing (your bag of tricks is totally empty), the restart would have to be a dropped ball. Ugh. A foul? That would be a real stretch (maybe, impeding the progress of an opponent but some essential characteristics of this offense are missing). Aha! A good argument exists for misconduct (Note To All Referees: “shows a lack of respect for the game” — p. 86, 2016/2017 Laws of the Game — covers a lot of territory) so an IFK for unsporting behavior for the opposing team.
The problem with misconduct, however, is that, by definition, you gotta give at least someone a card. So, who gets the caution? Anyone. Everyone. Those within two yards of you. Any player shorter than you are. Anyone smirking. Take your pick. Just do it, get it over with, restart play, and then clearly indicate that all that lost time is being added back to the clock.