Erich, an adult amateur player, asks:
Throughout the game I am writing about, the other team would “shield” us off the ball (which as an experienced player I am fine with and do myself): however, rather than attempt to maintain control of the ball within a playable distance they were initiating contact with our players, often by backing up away from the ball or to their sides specifically to initiate the contact. This was often accomplished with substantial physicality, to the point that several of our players were repeatedly knocked down throughout the game while attempting to go around opposing players or to defend them. It was never called because the referee judged the ball to be within a playable distance (which he arbitrarily defined as 3 feet, which I know is not the rule and is not part of my question).
The question is essentially this: at what point does “shielding” with the ball near enough to be controlled become a foul? Does it matter that the player be actually trying to control the ball? If you are at least nominally controlling the ball, can you just back over a defender rather than trying to go around him/her?
We know you said this is not part of your question but we feel compelled to point out that, currently, there is an official, lawful, and therefore controlling definition of “playing distance” … and it is not 3 feet. For the first time ever, the International Board has provided a clear statement on this subject which applies, actually, to a several different scenarios in soccer, of which “shielding” is only one of them: it is the “Distance to the ball which allows a player to touch the ball by extending the foot/leg or jumping or, for goalkeepers, jumping with arms extended. Distance depends on the physical size of the player”. There you have it.
Now, as for “shielding,” let’s return to the Law (as we always should when starting on the path to enlightenment), and we find the following in Law 12: “A player may shield the ball by taking a position between an opponent and the ball if the ball is within playing distance and the opponent is not held off with the arms or body. If the ball is within playing distance, the player may be fairly charged by an opponent.” While we might wish that this would answer everything, it doesn’t.
Your scenario is a dynamic situation that often occurs a yard or so inside the field and is performed usually for the purpose of allowing or preventing the ball from leaving the field depending on which team would gain the restart. Shielding can be either a defensive or attacking team tactic. The dynamic can become particularly intense the smaller the field space is available for ball movement and the greater the number of players being shielded. These factors are important to keep in mind because they help us understand why players do what they do.
Two critical issues are raised by the Law’s language. First, while a shielding tactic may start with the ball within playing distance, it must continue to be in playing distance for the shielding action to continue to be legal. If the ball is allowed to move beyond the defined distance or if the shielding action moves sufficiently away from the defined distance, the shielding itself becomes impeding an opponent (assuming no physical contact). Second, even while still within playing distance, the otherwise legal shielding action can become converted to a foul by either the shielder or the opponent being shielded. The shielding player could extend an arm to prevent an opponent from getting around the shielder’s body and thus commit the foul of holding if contact is made (the same would be true of extending a leg sideways to achieve the same result). An opponent, who remains allowed to perform a legal challenge against the shielder, must not allow the challenge to become illegal in any way — for example by using excessive force or by using any force to make contact with the shielder’s back.
Most of this is generally clear, understood, and accepted. Where we find the greatest debate is when the shielder, instead of standing solidly, attempts to push backward with the shielder’s back against the opponent, thus making contact. While the intent is clear (to gain more distance to maneuver), the end result is usually an offense.
Simple contact is often made between opposing players due solely to inertia, and the innocence of the contact is shared by both players. When such contact proceeds to include pushing (forcefully using the body to displace another player), we are into foul territory and guilt falls on the player who initiates, not the contact, but the forceful displacement. If the shielder moves back to displace the opponent, the shielder must be called for pushing. Likewise, if the opponent moves forward to displace the shielder, the opponent must be called for pushing. And if the shielder moves far enough backward in an attempt to make contact (forceful or not) but the opponent evades and this results in the shielder moving beyond “playing distance,” the shielder must be called for impeding. Pushing, of course, is a direct free kick foul whereas impeding is an indirect free kick foul (in the given scenario involving no contact). And if there is force which is deemed reckless or excessive, there must be a card.
It need hardly be added that deciding what happening in a shielding situation calls for close observation by the Referee and/or the closest AR.