Joe, a U13 – U19 player, asks:
I was coaching a game this week and the following occurred: center back receives a pass with his foot, flicks the ball into the air and heads it back to his goalkeeper. The goalkeeper picks up the ball and punts it. Was that a legal back pass? I was under the impression that this constituted some sort of illegal trickery, but I don’t see this in the Laws of the Game.
It’s there, you just have to know where to look. In the current edition of the Laws of the Game (2018/2019), the following bullet point is included in the list of specific offenses which are considered misconduct (not a foul) as “unsporting behavior” (Law 12):
uses a deliberate trick to pass the ball (including from a free kick) to the goalkeeper with the head, chest, knee etc. to circumvent the Law, whether or not the goalkeeper touches the ball with the hands
In this case, the cautionable offense is committed by the (in your scenario) center back, not by the goalkeeper and, if whistled, would not be a “passback” violation. A straight “backpass” violation (first appearing in the Law in 1992) is an IFK offense by the goalkeeper and only if he directly handles a ball deliberately kicked by a teammate. This misconduct (labeled as “trickery” when it was added to Law 12 in 1993) is an offense which is attributed to the teammate who last made contact with the ball in a certain way regardless of whether or not the goalkeeper actually handles the ball.
First of all, many referees will miss either scenario (backpass or trickery) entirely because neither of them is a common event — the latter even more rare than the former.
Second, because trickery is misconduct, it falls squarely into the grey area of “in the opinion of the referee” and that, in turn, means referees can differ in their judgment on the core issue of whether the center back played this specific way to “circumvent the Law” (which means guessing why the center back did what he did). He could have simply passed the ball back to his goalkeeper (not illegal) who could then have played the ball with his foot, head, chest, or knee (also not illegal). If the judgment is that this action (popped up with the foot and headed back) was done deliberately to evade the restriction on the goalkeeper’s ability to handle the ball, then it is a caution for the center back and an IFK for the opposing team where the center back performed his pop/head maneuver.
Third (and here is where it gets into an even greyer area), the judgment should be based principally on asking the more critical question of whether there was an opponent in the area of the play who might successfully challenge a goalkeeper who came into possession of the ball if the goalkeeper were limited in his control options (no hands). In short, looking at the issue this way, the misconduct offense should be ignored as trifling (not worth calling because it made no difference) if the goalkeeper was under no pressure, i.e., there was no threat of being dispossessed of the ball, because there were no opponents even close to this play, much less close enough to actively interfere in it.
Remember, a trifling offense is still an offense, just not one worth stopping the play. A simple warning to the center back and the goalkeeper that the offense was seen but was being ignored. If it had made a difference (an opponent would/could have actively competed for the ball as it came to a goalkeeper who wouldn’t have been able to handle the ball if the ball had come from a teammate’s deliberate kick), then the offense can’t be ignored. And if the ball had come to the goalkeeper only from off the head of the center back, there would have been neither a backpass nor a trickery offense.