Needed: A Special Rule Book for Goalkeepers

By Paul Gardner

Not for the first time, Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger has been bitching about Sam Allardyce and the way that his Blackburn Rovers see fit to play soccer. Far too physical, in Wenger’s view.

Not at all, says Allardyce, everything we do is within the rules. Which leaves it up to the referee to decide. And different referees might have different ideas about where the dividing line runs. Not a satisfactory situation. The root of the problem lies, as so often, with the difficulty that the rule-makers have in defining, with any exactitude, the three categories: careless, reckless and excessive force.

The differences between the three are critical. They are supposed to represent a mounting scale of guilt -- a careless foul results only in a free kick against the offender; if the foul is reckless, out comes the yellow card; while using excessive force means a red-card expulsion.

There is no way that I can think of that would reliably distinguish those categories -- so the referee has to make the judgments, instantly. My opinion, expressed often enough in this column, is that English referees turn a much too lenient eye to all three categories, so that a team like Blackburn can play an overtly physical game while insisting, and believing, that they are doing nothing wrong, and while Wenger fumes that they are roughing his players up.

On that general point, my sympathies are entirely with Wenger. His latest bout of complaining brings the matter into sharp focus, because the rulebook does, in this case, have something specific to say. Wenger’s new anti-Allardyce rant accuses the Blackburn players of targeting Arsenal goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski on free kicks and corner kicks: “Their main purpose was to stop the goalkeeper getting to the ball, not playing the ball.” That tactic led to both Blackburn goals, enough to give it a 2-1 win.

Wenger blamed referee Martin Atkinson for not calling Blackburn fouls on Fabianski: “In soccer, when you don't go for the ball and you stop the keeper going for the ball, it is a foul. I think the referee cannot allow that. I am very disappointed the referee lets that happen ... it is unfair to a goalkeeper."

The television images do indeed show a crowd of Blackburn players around Fabianski on each corner kick. More than normal?  Who knows - what is normal, anyway? Was Fabianski pushed, as Wenger claims? Isn't everyone pushing and being pushed at corner kicks? The basic complaint here is that the Blackburn players were positioned to deliberately obstruct the goalkeeper. By rewording that only slightly, we arrive at a sentence that is included in the rulebook: “it is an offense to restrict the movement of the goalkeeper by unfairly impeding him, e.g. at the taking of a corner kick.”

That is very specific, and should settle the matter in Wenger’s favor. Except for one thing: the use of the word “unfairly.” Just why a body like the International Football Association Board, which so prides itself on the weightiness of its pronouncements that it calls them Laws, allows such a vague and totally undefinable word like “unfairly” to be there, I cannot imagine.

Wenger does not help matters when he states that the action of the Blackburn players is “unfair to a goalkeeper.” Let’s be clear: there’s no such offense as being unfair to a goalkeeper, or to any other player.

The offenses that are punishable by the referee are spelled out, in general terms, in the rules; only twice does the word “unfair” appear, not in the rules themselves, but in the “Interpretations” section. And both times it is shrouded in ambiguity. That is understandable. For fair play is usually seen as something out side of, maybe even above, the rules, more of an attitude of mind than a spelled-out commandment.

If the offense committed by the Blackburn players is seen as obstruction (or “impeding the progress of an opponent” as the rules have it) then, fine, but that applies to all players, not just goalkeepers. You wonder -- if this were happening to a field player, would anyone even notice?

What this strange use of the word “unfair,” both in the rulebook and by Wenger, reveals is the deeply ingrained feeling that goalkeepers need special rules of their own. And why not? They are, clearly not soccer players, so there is a logic to treating them differently -- starting with the fact that they’re allowed to do the one thing that is strictly forbidden to everyone else: they can use their hands.

From that a series of rules has arisen that basically protect goalkeepers far beyond what is granted to regular field players. In certain instances, this is fully justified, for the keeper, playing his non-soccer role, inevitably faces unique situations involving his hands or an unprotected body as he leaps to grab high balls. So, yes, this alien body on the soccer field does need some special rules.

Whether he needs a special “unfair-to-goalkeepers” rule to stop him being obstructed in his own goalmouth, I really don’t know. Why only him? Shouldn’t his own defenders be equally immune? “Impeding the progress of an opponent” is defined in the rule book, its basis being that it must include movement into the path of an opponent. Thus -- theoretically -- eight players (they could even be from Blackburn) could descend on the opposing penalty area at a corner kick and form a tight circle around the goalkeeper.

I cannot see that there is anything in the current rules to stop that. The rulebook says “All players have a right to their position on the field of play, being in the way of an opponent is not the same as moving into the way of an opponent.” Unless the referee can adjudge it “unsporting” -- which is really another way of saying unfair. But offenses dubbed as unsporting behavior are (unlike unfairness) included in the rulebook. One such is acting “in a manner which shows lack of respect for the game.” If that means -- which it may -- reducing the game to a bore, both shameless and brainless, then Sam Allardyce stands convicted in my judgment.

4 comments about "Needed: A Special Rule Book for Goalkeepers".
  1. Gene Jay, May 5, 2010 at 9:06 a.m.

    this is tough issue; I have always been a believer of sending in one striker to gain a position right infront of the goalie on the premise everyone has a right to a spot. Never thought about circling the keeper with men. Probably would have tried it to see what happened had I thought of it!
    In reality, any self respecting defender is going to stomp on your instep real hard (by accident of course) if you block his goalie, so that usually puts an end to the controversy.

  2. Jason T, May 5, 2010 at 9:36 a.m.

    I have long believed that the hockey gets this one right, and the football gets it all wrong. Make the six-yard box mean something. In hockey no attacking player in hockey is permitted in the GK's crease ahead of the puck. It would make for some interesting and exciting football if no attacking player was allowed to enter the six-yard area until the ball enters it.

  3. Kent James, May 5, 2010 at 9:50 a.m.

    Wenger is right, and if he's not, he should be. Although a player has a right to a spot on the field (so a striker can stand in front of the GK for example), but in order not to obstruct, the player must play the ball, which in most cases, requires moving towards it (a player could remain where they stood if the ball is moving towards them). Its the difference between shielding and obstructing. Using your body to prevent another player from getting to the ball is legal as long as the ball is in playing distance (or you're moving towards the ball so you can play it). So you could surround the GK with 8 players, but if the ball was played and they did not move to play it, they should be called for obstruction. Without this interpretation, what would prevent those 8 players (and it could probably be done with 3 or 4 players) from locking their arms and literally trapping the goalkeeper? Yes, coaches often crowd the keeper, and that is a legal (and I think, smart) as long as all the players in question attempt to play the ball. As a ref, if I see a player (or players) stationing themselves around the keeper, I usually remind them that they cannot simply obstruct the goalkeeper, they must attempt to play the ball. If they don't go to the ball (and it matters), I call them for it (and since I just warned them, they don't have much grounds to complain). Additionally, this usually prevents the goalkeeper from shoving players who station themselves in front of them (which they will do if players are obstructing them). This is not special treatment for goalkeepers, but goalkeepers are usually the only players targeted for such obstructive tactics. The bottom line is looking at the big picture; the rules should prohibit behavior that prevents players from playing, and obstruction is something that violates that goal.

  4. karl ortmertl, May 5, 2010 at 10:33 a.m.

    Until soccer changes the basic premise of every ball is a free for all and there is no concept of possession, Americans are going to be very dissatisfied with how soccer is officiated. It needs to be a lot more like basketball for us to accept the officiating. Possession with every foul being called. Right now, with every ball being a free for all and the referee having way too much discretion as to when to call a foul and how severe the foul should be, it all ends up being a farce with the referee in ninety percent of the cases calling nothing when there's a foul. I don't see anything like this ever happening so the debate about refereeing will go on forever with nothing ever being resolved.

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