We were playing a high school soccer match in Illinois and a player on my team flicked the ball up to his head and headed it back to the goalie so he could pick it up and would not be in violation of the pass back to the goalie rule. The ref did not know the rule but the linesman did and called it trickery and gave the player that passed the goalie the ball a yellow card.

I was wondering what the real rule would be.

USSF answer (October 15, 2010):
The assistant referee was correct; the practice of flicking the ball to one’s head and then heading the ball to the goalkeeper is trickery, punished with a caution of the heading player for unsporting behavior and an indirect free kick for the opposing team from the place where the misconduct occurred. Here is an article on the matter that appeared in the USSF referee magazine Fair Play five years ago. It should answer your question.

FIFA has demanded that referees deal quickly and firmly with timewasting tactics. One of the least understood forms of time wasting is trickery in passing the ball to the goalkeeper. This article describes trickery and how the referee can combat it.

Law 12 was rewritten in 1997 to reduce the number of options available to players for wasting time. Playing the ball to one’s goalkeeper was traditionally used as a way of “consuming” time. By the time the Law was rewritten, the practice had become synonymous with time wasting.

Normal interplay of the ball among teammates is not a matter of concern to any referee; however, the referee must be concerned with obvious deliberate attempts to circumvent the requirements of the Law. Players may pass the ball to their goalkeeper in any legal way and not infringe on the requirements of Law 12. It is when a player uses trickery that the referee must act. Trickery is any contrived scheme or unnatural way of playing the ball in an attempt to circumvent the requirements of Law 12 when passing the ball to the goalkeeper. Examples of trickery include a player who deliberately flicks the ball with the foot up to the head, so as to head the ball to the goalkeeper, or a player who kneels down and deliberately pushes the ball to the goalkeeper with the knee or head.

If the ball was already in play, an indirect free kick from the spot where the initiator touched—not merely “kicked”—the ball is appropriate. If the ball was out of play, the restart for a violation depends upon how the circumvention began. If the action began from a free kick or goal kick that was properly taken, the restart will again be an indirect free kick from the spot where the initiator of the trickery played it, no matter where the kick was taken or when it occurred in the sequence of play. If the goal kick or free kick was not properly taken, then the restart must be that goal kick or free kick. This could lead to a situation where the offending team has a player cautioned (or sent off for a second cautionable offense), but still retains the ball on the restart.

If more than one player was involved in the trickery, the question as to which defender to punish can be answered only by the referee. The referee must be sure that the sequence of play was meant to circumvent the Law and to prevent opponents from having a fair chance to compete for the ball rather than have it unfairly handled by the goalkeeper. If, in the referee’s opinion, there was trickery, then it is the teammate who played the ball immediately prior to it going to the goalkeeper who would be cautioned.

The punishment for trickery is a caution for unsporting behavior, with the restart to be taken at the place where the trickery was initiated, not where the goalkeeper handled the ball. The referee does not have to wait until the ‘keeper handles the ball to make the call. The referee must only be convinced that trickery was the player’s motive for the act.

However, this is a high school match and the action becomes cautionable to the defender playing the ball to his goalkeeper only if the goalkeeper actually handles the ball. Rule 12-7-4 (Note). The Laws of the Game do not care if the keeper handles the ball or not, it is misconduct by the defender either way.