“Pass-Back” Offense

Trevor, a U-12 and under coach, asks:

I know the pass-back rule prohibits the goalie from handling the ball if the ball is passed to him by a teammate. But I thought I saw an instance last week during a match where the ball was passed back to the goalie by one of his teammates but, as the ball was nearing the goalie, there was also an attacker going for the ball. The attacker was very close to winning the ball before the goalie had a chance to get it but the goalie ran to the ball and grabbed it up before the attacker won it.

Is that a legal move? Can the goalie pick up the ball if it was passed back to him by a teammate but an attacker is about to win the ball?

Answer

We are so glad you asked this specific question, not so much for the first paragraph but for the second paragraph because this offense is not only not well understood but the lack of understanding also tends to interfere with how it is called.

Not only was the GK’s action a violation of the law but the circumstances made it a violation that cannot be ignored.  Some “pass back” violations, even obvious ones, can be ignored if, in the opinion of the referee, the offense was trifling (just as with any other offense).  Now the root question becomes … why is this violation there?  Knowing the answer to this question enables the intelligent referee to determine whether it was trifling or not.

In point of fact, all four of the IFK offenses which only a goalkeeper can commit are in the Law for one primary purpose – to limit the amount of time during which the goalkeeper can legally withhold the ball from active challenge by taking hand possession of it.  Remember, the goalkeeper’s ability to do this is the single most important “right” the goalkeeper, and only the goalkeeper, has.  It is such a significant advantage the the Laws of the Game made it clear that the right has limits — no longer than 6 seconds (or thereabouts), no direct second possession, no pass back, and no throw back.

Accordingly, one of the prime criteria a referee needs to use in evaluating whether to whistle for a pass back violation is whether the goalkeeper is being challenged before taking hand possession of the ball.  If he is, and he actually takes hand possession under pass back circumstances, then the offense must be whistled.  If not, the offense could be (not must be) ignored (with perhaps a verbal warning) based on a host of other factors (e.g., the temperature of the game, the propensity for a team to commit offenses so far, the general level of friendliness, whether a prior warning had already needed to be given, etc.).

The scenario you offered has got to be one of clearest examples not only of the offense itself but also of one that has to be called.  The goalkeeper under potential or active challenge could always decide to play the ball in some way other than by taking hand possession and thus avoid the punishment but at a very high risk of not succeeding.  This keeper didn’t.