Leif, a HS/College referee, asks:
At the MLS level and equivalent I often see what I consider a push/trip/charge violation ignored because the offending player touched the ball first. At the high school level I am starting to see more fellow referees follow this. I can find no law that states this is the correct procedure. Recently a long ball was played and the goalkeeper punched the ball but his foreword momentum had him hit the attacking players face with his fist shortly after. In my opinion as the AR I felt he had sufficient time after the punching of the ball to not contact the offensive player but the center claimed as long as he got the ball first there was no violation.
This is typical. First of all, it involves a misreading of how the Law was written 10-12 years ago (and quickly rewritten precisely because it had become so wrongly interpreted). Second, the warped interpretation became ingrained in player’s heads because they thought it gave them “cover” to commit a foul.
In the 2007-2008 Lawbook, the following language was in Law 12 under the general heading “Direct Free Kick”: “A direct free kick is awarded … if a player … tackles an opponent to gain possession of the ball, making contact with the opponent before touching the ball.” (We added the emphasis.) That language had been around for a while but 2007-2008 was the last year precisely because it was being interpreted to mean that, as long as the player made contact with the ball first, it was thus OK to do harm right after contacting the ball. Thus was, of course, not the intent of the language and, as a result, it was replaced in the 2008-2009 Lawbook by the simple statement “tackles an opponent” with the simple proviso that this action became a direct free kick foul only if it was performed carelessly, recklessly, or with excessive force. That should have done it. It didn’t.
The dangerous notion that contacting the ball first made anything that follows legal had become so widely misunderstood that, eventually, the International Board inserted into the 2016-2017 Lawbook the simple statement “If an offense involves contact, it is penalized by a direct free kick or penalty kick.” In other words, if an action comes under the “careless, reckless, or excessive force” heading, it must be considered a direct free kick (or PK) offense if the player involved contacts an opponent before, during, or after the offense. Briefly, then, if the tackling itself is illegal, it doesn’t matter if the opponent made contact with the ball before committing the offense.
Accordingly, for all practical purposes, the “contact with the ball first” defense was never actually legal but, so many had thought this was the case that this language was removed from the Law a decade ago and then, in case there was a player (or referee) who didn’t get the message, the International Board said in 2016 that, look, contact with the ball first excuses nothing — we took that language out of the Law for a reason so get with the program.