Who “Owns” the Ball?

Tom, a U13 – U19 coach, asks:

In a recent game, after a goal was scored, the scoring player attempted to retrieve the ball to bring it to the center in order to get the game going. The keeper pushed him but the referee awarded the player who had picked up the wall a yellow for “invading the space” of the keeper. The player’s coach then protested there was no such call and the referee gave a yellow to the coach for dissent.
I checked with our referee assignor and he said he had not heard of that call and doubt he would have awarded the yellow. We’ve all seen players retrieve the ball and while the other team may occasionally try to inhibit it from happening, there is typically no cards given.
What’s your opinion?


Our “opinion” is not needed because the Law directly, clearly, and firmly confirms that the referee was entirely right.  Although his verbal description of the offense was not accurate, his actions were.  The complaining coach and, sadly, also your referee assignor are wrong.

The offense in question is actually the misconduct called “delaying the restart of play.”  It arises only at stoppages (hence the focus on “the restart of play”) and is based on an opponent taking control of a ball which “belongs” to the other team, thus withholding it from the team which “owns” the restart and thus delaying the proper restart.  An obvious example is when Team A has been awarded a free kick but a Team B player kicks the ball away.  The specific example which led to the caution you described appeared in the Laws of the Game almost a dozen years ago, not so much as a “new” offense but as a specific example of the existing misconduct of delaying the restart of play.  The current language states the offense as follows (emphasis added, Law 12.3 “Delaying the Restart of Play” at page 107):

Referees must caution players who delay the restart of play by:

  • appearing to take a throw-in but suddenly leaving it to a team-mate to take
  • delaying leaving the field of play when being substituted
  • excessively delaying a restart
  • kicking or carrying the ball away, or provoking a confrontation by deliberately touching the ball after the referee has stopped play
  • taking a free kick from the wrong position to force a retake

When this language first appeared, in fact, the scenario below was specifically cited as the reason for this new example.  The International Board described the situation after a goal was scored with a member of the team which scored the goal winding up trying to wrestle control of the ball away from the goalkeeper because the opponent wanted to get play restarted as quickly as possible and thought he could assist in this by grabbing the ball (which “belonged” to the team scored against).  Although his intentions were arguably benign, he had no right to the ball and the goalkeeper did, hence the tussle.  The action, however, clearly provoked a confrontation and, in doing so, actually delayed the restart.

The point at the bottom of this is that players on the team which does not “own” the restart must not touch the ball – however, it is not the mere touching of the ball that defines the misconduct, it is doing so with the consequence of provoking a confrontation.  More often than not no one on the field would care if an opponent (say) ran off the field to retrieve a ball for a throw-in by the opposing team in the spirit of good sportsmanship and doing so should not result in a referee decision that misconduct has occurred.  If doing so does, or looks like it will, provoke the confrontation, the referee needs to step in to prevent this and, if necessary, to caution for delaying the restart.