Who Owns the Ball?

Shawn, a U13 – U19 coach, asks:

After a goal is scored, may the scorer or a teammate of the scorer’s team retrieve the ball from the goal?  It is my understanding that the scored ball belongs to the conceding team. If the scorer retrieves the call and carries it to midfield, it shall be a caution for that player.  Please reference the law regarding this judgment.


Only at their peril ….

Under the Law, after a goal is scored against Team A, the ball “belongs” to Team A (because that is the team which has the restart) and any action by Team B seen by Team A (and concurred in by the referee) as an attempt to “take charge” of the ball can result in a yellow card to any Team B player who, regardless of a claimed motive, makes such an attempt.

Among the elements that the referee would consider in deciding if a caution is needed would be a “tug of war” between a Team B player (often the goal scorer) and a Team A player (often the defending goalkeeper or a fullback) or whether there was any proximate effort by a defender to prevent a Team B player from getting the ball.  The Team B player may claim that all he is doing is “helping” (particularly if it would be in Team A’s advantage to delay or slow down the kick-off restart).

The referee must read the game at that moment and decide if Team B’s action is an unsporting attempt to interfere with Team A’s ball possession.  Often, this sort of scenario quickly but obviously builds and can reach a flash point within seconds – the referee can loudly (with or without a hard-blown whistle) order the Team B player to leave the ball alone or it may be necessary to jump immediately to a caution if Team B’s action is sparking possible retaliation from Team A (as would be the case if there were an actual physical struggle for the ball).

The bottom line for this is to prevent the scoring team from taking an unfair advantage, either in fact or in the minds of the opposing team’s players, by wresting possession of the ball from the team that owns it.  If Team B unduly delays the restart, that is a separate problem but the scoring team has no right to step in to “help” in ways that will result in bad feelings.  If Team B has no problem with Team A (as evidenced by complaining to the referee or attempting to take matters into their own hands), then the referee should stay out of things.

By the way, this scenario is not limited to player behavior after a goal has been scored.  Indeed, you asked for a Law citation (see below) and that citation is not limited to the scenario we have been discussing.  In fact, the principle applies to any restart performed by a player (thus excluding a dropped ball).  We suspect that it happens more often on free kick restarts, followed by throw-ins, and then by goals — it’s rare on goal kicks and completely impossible on kick-offs and penalty kicks.  The citation is in Law 12 (page 110 in the 2019-2020 edition of the Laws of the Game): “Referees must caution players who delay the restart of play by … kicking or carrying the ball away, or by provoking a confrontation by deliberately touching the ball after the referee has stopped play“.