B A, an adult amateur player, asks:
We were playing a pickup game tonight. Let’s say I was the keeper. Ball is misplayed (high) into the penalty area. The young lady playing as one of my defenders is facing me from about 10 feet away while I am on the line protecting the goal. I am the closest person to and facing her. She sets up to make a high kick clearance and an opposing player comes running up behind her and jams his head in a downward motion while she is already in the process of kicking the ball and the opponent nearly gets kicked in the head. Some people were chattering about it being a dangerous play on her. From my perspective, it was a dangerous play on him. Playing in a dangerous manner is, to me, any action that, while trying to play the ball, threatens injury to someone. Despite the level of his head only being ducked to a shorter player’s chest height, I believe he endangered himself.
Close, but not entirely correct. Historically, the rule of thumb for questions of safe play between two opponents requires balancing several criteria. First, with what body part is each player (we’re simplifying all this into two players, each from a different team, and each of approximately equal size – height, girth, and strength – note the absence of gender as a criterion) using to challenge the opponent? Second, where in the body area is the challenge occurring? And third, what is the relative degree of competence and experience held by the opponents (again, we’re simplifying this in terms of the overall experience and degree of capability of the two teams collectively). In other words, one of the two players engaged in the challenge may be clearly different as regards his or her opponent and/or the competence level of the players across the two teams, but how would the referee rate both teams as part of the larger competition, age, division level, etc.?
Now comes the “rule of thumb” applied to two teams or any two opposing players. The traditional practical line is the middle of the body versus the location of the ball. Assuming the opposing players are roughly comparable in overall competence, the game assumes that a ball higher than waist level is played with the head or upper body core (i.e., chest or shoulder or, as of 2020-2021, the upper arm above the bottom of the arm pit). A ball below the waist level is played with the foot/feet, knee, and leg portions above or below the knee. In such cases, and excluding clearly disparate levels in the use of strength, the challenge can be vigorous without being considered dangerous.
Change any element of what we described and play begins edging into being dangerous by this fact alone. The obvious pictures should immediately come to mind – head-to head (not inherently dangerous), head to foot (inherently dangerous), foot to foot (not inherently dangerous), foot to head (inherently dangerous). Now, there are various obvious holes here – even foot to foot can be dangerous (strength aside) if one player is kicking the ball and the other player is kicking the shin! At the same time, the point is “inherent danger” and a player who tries to match his head against the opponent’s foot – whether this is above the waist or not, depending on the location of the ball – is committing an inherently dangerous act. And here is where the third rule of thumb comes in (see the end of the first paragraph). Let’s take age as a simple (perhaps even simplistic) stand-in for degree of experience. The same combinations we described above, if undertaken by a pair of experienced players (e.g., say, u14 – u15 years and above) are inherently less dangerous than if the players were u10-u13s). Similarly two teams of u16s, one at division 1 and the other at division 4, have clearly disparate experience levels and, in fact probably shouldn’t even be playing one another! And while a team of U18 players opposed by a senior amateur team might be thought inherently disadvantaged, that might not be the case if the former was at the D-1 level and the senior amateur team, though older, may be considered disadvantaged if they were a recreational team.
So, a useful generalization (with all kinds of ifs, ands, and buts) is that attempting to play a ball below waist level is creating a dangerous play if the opponent is using his foot. And so on. Do you call it? Well, you should be prepared to call it while watching the whole thing closely and to make your decision based on such inherently dangerous elements as degree of distance above or below the waist, degree to which both players are actively attempting (or not attempting) to play the ball, etc. You understand, of course, that the “waistline” is not a real line (think generally of “midsection” instead of “line”). And you take into account the age/experience of the players. We can confidently suggest the exact same “high kick” at a ball above an opponent’s shoulders that would likely be whistled immediately and vigorously (and likely with a card of some color) at a U14 game might be totally ignored (not even worthy of a finger-shaking in a World Cup game.
By the way, none of what is offered above is part of the Laws of the Game. The Law simply refers to “dangerous play” in connection with play that could “threaten injury” to someone or “preventing a nearby opponent from playing the ball for fear of injury.“ The above discussion, however, is a core concept in training referees and has been around literally for many decades.
We have spent 4 lengthy paragraphs (and a short one) trying to lay out what an experienced referee would have running through his or her mind upon seeing an apparently potentially dangerous play, but it boils down to this – what do those players in this game at this moment of play need to have called in order for the game to remain safe, fair, and enjoyable?