This came up the other day during play and I cannot get a straight answer except for “playing the ball on the ground is against the rules.” I did check the league rule book and surprisingly it does not specifically address this issue. I definitely understand it for U6, U8 and U10 games but this is U12 boys. Here it goes;

Offensive player (off) is dribbling the ball towards defensive player (def). Off and Def both attack for the ball. Because of size, the Off player being physically larger than the Def player, the Def falls to the ground. The Def is left lying on his right side facing the Off in front of the ball, not on top of it. The Def never tries to trap the ball with his legs. The Off in his haste to move past the Def kicks the ball multiple times into the Def legs who is trying to get up off the ground. The Off does not try and go around the Def or pull the ball back away from Def. Needless to say the Def was having a hard time getting up when the ball kept hitting his legs. The Def does try to clear the ball away unsuccessfully once or twice by kicking at it. At one point the Def kicked the ball about a foot away and stood up. The whistle was immediately blown and a indirect free kick was awarded to the Offensive player for the Def “playing the ball on the ground.” Needless to say this event lasted about 6 seconds start to finish.

My thought is the Def player has the right to protect themselves and fight to get to their feet. Neither player is required to retreat from the ball. I understand there is a lot of “you had to be there” with this question and there is going to be some judgement on the referee’s part as to each player’s actions. But am I missing something when it comes to playing the ball from the ground. If it does not endanger either player then by itself it does not get an indirect free kick?

I guess I was expecting play to be stopped, possibly one or both or none of the players verbally counselled and a drop ball taken. What’s the call?

USSF answer (October 12, 2010):
There is nothing illegal, by itself, about playing the ball while on the ground. Playing the ball while on the ground is NOT NECESSARILY considered to be playing dangerously. It all depends on what the player is actually doing. It becomes the indirect free kick foul known as playing dangerously (“dangerous play”) only if the action unfairly takes away an opponent’s otherwise legal play of the ball (for players at the youth level, this definition is simplified even more as “playing in a manner considered to be dangerous to an opponent”). At minimum, this means that an opponent must be within the area of danger which the player has created. These same acts can become the direct free kick fouls known as kicking or attempting to kick an opponent or tripping or attempting to trip or tackling an opponent to gain possession of the ball only if there was contact with the opponent or, in the opinion of the referee, the opponent was forced to react to avoid the kick or the trip.

If this is not the case (for example, the player had no opponent nearby), then there is no violation of the Law. If the referee decides that dangerous play has occurred, the restart must be an indirect free kick where the play occurred (see Law 13 – Position of free kick).
Note that even if a dangerous play infringement has been called, the referee should never verbalize it as “playing the ball on the ground,” as there is no such foul in the Laws of the Game.

In judging a dangerous play offense, the referee must take into account the experience and skill level of the players. Opponents who are experienced and skilled may be more likely to accept the danger and play through. Younger players have neither the experience nor skill to judge the danger adequately and, in such cases, the referee should intervene on behalf of their safety. For example, playing with cleats up in a threatening or intimidating manner is more likely to be judged a dangerous play offense in youth matches, without regard to the reaction of opponents.

In the situation you describe, with the player on the ground attempting to rise and get out of the way, the player to be called for playing dangerously would be the one who was kicking at the ball. Serious misjudgment by the referee.