Shielding vs Impeding vs Interference

SJ, a U13 – U19 coach, asks:

We played in a U15 match where one of the defensive backs shielded one of my forwards from going for the ball. When the defender has the ball I believe this is within the rules of the game. However, later in the match, a similar event happened only this time a 2nd defensive back screened the striker making no attempt to play the ball, in essence preventing the movement to the ball allowing the other DB to get there first. Isn’t this interference? I think the restart would be an Indirest free kick for the attacking team. Could you please let me know?


As with many things regarding the Laws of the Game, it is (a) more complicated than many think, (b) it depends on the context, and (c) the final decision belongs to the referee based on what SHE saw.

Let’s clear up the Law issues first because, surprisingly, they are the simplest.  Shielding and “impedes the progress of an opponent” are often used interchangeably – they should not be.  Only the latter (“impedes the progress”) is in the Law, “shielding” is not.  However, there are several forms of “impeding” – for example, with or without contact and impeding versus “blocking” (which can be found in Laws 11 and 15).  The Laws of the Game Glossary (its dictionary, in effect) provides a simple definition of impeding that covers all of these types – “To delay, block or prevent an opponent’s action or movement“ – and so we have to clarify all of them.   Impeding the progress of an opponent in Law 12 is an indirect free kick foul that applies when, without making contact, a player moves into the way of an opponent for the apparent purpose of stopping, slowing down, or forcing a change of direction of that opponent, with the ball not within playing distance of either player.

So, a player simply standing in one spot which happens to be a spot that an opponent wants to occupy, cannot be impeding that opponent because, having staked out her own location, she has a right to stay there and the opponent has to move around.  Crashing into the player (in an “you’re in my way” manner) becomes an offense (most likely illegal challenging) against the opponent.  If the ball is within playing distance or either or both players, then impeding is exactly what each is attempting to do in the process of gaining/keeping control of the ball – and it’s legal so long as neither one commits any Law 12 foul while doing so.  If there IS contact, it becomes a direct free kick foul.  Now we come to the issue of “context” and “the opinion of the referee” because that is where the “apparent purpose” comes in … and referees have all sorts of clues on this subject (for example, noting that the player running into or across the path of the opponent was focusing her attention on the opponent rather than on the direction in which she was moving).

The action commonly considered “shielding” is actually entirely legal and, while it may be impeding in a general sense (e.g. blocking) an opponent, it is not usually an offense.  An example of this is the situation in which defender A17 has played a ball in such a way that, if it crosses her own goal line, it would result in a corner kick for Team B so A17 tries to get to the ball to prevent it from leaving the field while B29 very much wants the ball to leave the field and attempts to “shield” A17 from getting the ball by interposing herself between A17 and the goal line.  B29’s challenge is to remain within playing distance of the ball as it moves toward the goal line and to not “hold” A17 within the meaning of Law 12.  A17’s challenge is to get around B29 without anything more than incidental contact with B29 and definitely not contact which would be considered “pushing/pulling” under Law 12.  Everyone gets frustrated and both the referee and the nearer AR are watching this play like hawks for any infractions of the Law.

“ Impeding” without movement is illegal only under two circumstances – offside offense and defending against a throw-in.  An attacker commits an offside offense merely by (with or without moving) being in the way of any opponent while that attacker is in an offside position – this is considered interfering with an opponent.  In the case of Law 15, a player who is closer than 2 yards to an opposing player’s throw-in or who, in the opinion of the referee, is acting in such a way as to distract or interfere with the thrower even if she is at or farther way than the minimum two yards away distance has also committed an offense but, although Law 15 uses the term “impeding,” it is not the same as a Law 12 impeding offense.

Back to your question (you thought we would never get there!).  Clearly, the situation you described first was not an impeding offense if and only if at least one of the two combatants was within playing distance of the ball.  Your second scenario, however, doesn’t include enough information (see above) to tell whether it was different from or essentially the same as the first scenario.  It all depends on (a)  whether the defensive back was within playing distance of the ball and (b) whether that defensive back had already established her position, thus forcing the striker to take extra time and distance to get around her or whether the defensive back moved into or with the striker as the striker attempted to move around the defensive back and (c) stayed with playing distance of the ball during the whole shielding time and (d) the referee saw all this (remember, what YOU saw doesn’t matter – don’t take it personally).  Remember also that actually attempting to play the ball is not the issue — the issue is “being within playing distance.”