Please explain the goalkeeper back pass rule which says the goalkeeper can’t handle the ball when it is passed directly to him. I ask because I thought this rule was clear but I see professionals often doing what appears to be a clear violation or rules.

USSF answer (June 20, 2011):
The Law is clear: “An indirect free kick is awarded to the opposing team if a goalkeeper, inside his own penalty area, . . . touches the ball with his hands after it has been deliberately kicked to him by a teammate.”

This rarely seen infringement came into the Laws of the Game in 1992 as part of the general effort to restrict opportunities for goalkeepers to waste time by unfairly withholding the ball from active challenge by taking possession of the ball with the hands. Other measures along the same lines include the 6-second limit on goalkeeper possession, the second possession restriction, and the throw-in to the goalkeeper by a teammate.

The offense rests on three events occurring in the following sequence:
– The ball is kicked (played with the foot, not the knee, thigh, or shin) by a teammate of the goalkeeper,
– This action is deemed to be deliberate, rather than a deflection or miskick, and
– The goalkeeper handles the ball directly (no intervening touch of play of the ball by anyone else)

When, in the opinion of the referee, these three conditions are met, the violation has occurred. It is not necessary for the ball to be “passed,” it is not necessary for the ball to go “back,” and it is not necessary for the deliberate play by the teammate to be “to” the goalkeeper.

When the teammate deliberately kicks the ball and it then goes to the goalkeeper or to a place where the goalkeeper can play it, then there is an infringement of the Law if the goalkeeper picks it up. It either happened or it did not. No intent necessary. Plain and simple.

In addition, the goalkeeper may leave the penalty area (which includes the goal area) and retrieve the ball and dribble it back into the penalty area and play it with his/her hands only if the ball was played (a) in any manner by an opponent or (b) by a teammate in a legal manner, i.e., not deliberately kicked to the goalkeeper or to a place where he or she could play it.

Referees, players, and spectators (which includes coaches) need to remember that there is no “intent” to be found in the ball deliberately kicked (and that means that the ball was kicked deliberately, not deflected or miskicked) that happens to go to the goalkeeper.

To answer the second part of your question, the referee is permitted to make a judgment (“if, in the opinion of the referee, . . .”) as to whether or not the player “intended” that the ball go wherever it went, but that judgment or opinion must be based on what the player actually did. In other words, we are not mind readers — in most cases — and must make our judgment based on clear and visible evidence. All of that is expressed in a position paper of May 21, 2008, as well as in the Advice to Referees.