With time running out at the end of a game the blue team scores to tie the game. A player from the blue team runs into the goal to retrieve the ball so that they can hurry up to try and get the ball back into play. While doing this, he gets into a tussle with the goalie from the red team who was also trying to get the ball. What should the call be? Should either player be cautioned for unsportsmanlike conduct? or for delay of the game?

USSF answer (January 23, 2010):
After the referee has stopped play for a goal, the ball, although “dead” until play is restarted with a kick-off, does belong to the team against which the goal was scored. Traditionally the ball is carried back to the center spot by the team against which the goal was scored (Red). A player who provokes confrontation by deliberately touching the ball after the referee has stopped play may be cautioned for delaying the restart of play. (See Law 12, “Delaying the restart of play,” in the Interpretations of the Laws of the Game and Guidelines for Referees in the back of the Laws of the Game 2009/2010.) This would be the case of the player from the scoring team (B) who was interfering with the Team A player carrying the ball to the center of the field.

The team which has possession (Red) may “allow” the opposing team to hold/transfer/carry/etc. the ball by acceding to the action (i. e., not disputing it). However, the opposing team does this at its peril. In your game, Blue, perhaps believing that Red was moving too slowly to carry the ball back to the center circle for the kick-off, tried to take the ball that “belonged” to Team Red. Blue has no right at any time to request that the ball be given over to it (including such childish behavior as attempting to grab the ball or punch the ball out of the Red player’s control.

Rather than immediately cautioning either player, the true owner (against whose team the goal was scored) and the “wannabe” owner (whose team will be defending at the kick-off), it would be better if you simply spoke quickly to both players, admonishing the wannabe owner to leave the ball alone. You could also tell the player that you will judge whether there is any “delay” in getting the ball back to the center spot and will, if necessary, add time to make up for any time lost.

There is little reason to immediately caution either player if you do what we suggest above. In any event, the possibility of a caution would depend on HOW the Blue player attempts to gain possession (i. e., how aggressively, how prolonged, etc.). We cannot see how the mere fact of attempting to gain possession is itself cautionable.

The critical fact that makes the player’s action cautionable is that his attempt to retrieve the ball caused a tussle with the true “owner” of the ball, the GK. If this hadn’t been inserted into the scenario, then the referee could well have ignored the whole thing . . . because there would in fact have been no delay.

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