Mark, a coach of older youth players, asks:
I had a Referee tell me that standing in front of the ball to delay a team from taking a free kick is now a yellow card. I can’t find it in the Laws of the Game. What is the rule now?
There is no “now a yellow card” — it has always been a cardable offense. It is in the Laws of the Game — see Law 12 (p. 85) and Law 13 (p. 93) in the 2016/20917 edition — and it has been clearly interpreted in various USSF documents (Advice to Referees, for example). Moreover, it was the partial subject of a recent document issued by the International Board regarding the meaning of several Law changes that occurred in 2016 (“Revision of the Laws of the Game: Questions and Answers”.
Let’s unwrap this and see what is at issue here. For decades (literally), one of the cautionable offenses which a player could commit was to “fail to respect the required distance” on a free kick (many of us simplify this as the “10-yard rule”) which mandates that all opponents must be at least 10 yards away from the ball (in all directions) on a free kick until it is in play. Ignore for a moment some of the “ins and outs” of how this is enforced. The point is that opponents who fail to retire to a point which is at least 10 yards away can be cautioned. Let’s also agree that “standing in front of the ball” means that this player is closer than 10 yards and is thus committing a violation of the Law which the Law itself declares to be misconduct and worthy of a yellow card.
However, in more recent years, the approach to this issue has become more complex. While a yellow card for “failing to respect the distance” should not cause anyone any confusion, there has developed the notion that standing in front of the ball is a bit different. The 2013-2014 version of Advice to Referees put it this way (emphasis in bold added):
13.2 Opponent Attempting to Delay a Free Kick
Opponents engage in a different form of misconduct when they act to delay a free kick. While delay is a byproduct of interfering with the free kick by failing to respect the minimum distance, there is a difference between merely being within ten yards of the restart, which may or may not cause a delay, and using certain ploys which necessarily will result in a delay.
Typical examples of causing a delay in this way are kicking the ball away when a decision has gone against them, picking up the ball and not giving the ball to the attacking team or to the referee, moving to retrieve a ball some distance away and then walking slowly to bring the ball back, and standing so close by the ball as to effectively interfere with all reasonably likely directions for the restart. These ploys must be met with an immediate response because, as a result, a delay is no longer theoretical; it has been forced and the challenge to Law 13 must be dealt with swiftly.
So, the bottom line is this. It is a cautionable offense to interfere with the taking of a free kick or corner kick by failing to retreat to at least 10 yards away (a similar violation occurs respecting a throw-in but here the minimum distance is two yards). It is, however, a cautionable offense to delay the restart of play by standing so close to the ball that it blocks the team in possession from kicking the ball in a direction they would want. Ironically, the team in possession of the restart (which includes every restart except the dropped ball) is also subject to a caution for delaying the restart of play in various ways (e.g., unnecessarily switching the location of the ball on a goal kick or persisting in failing to throw the ball so that it enters the field).