Impeding the goalkeeper, tackling from behind -- difficulties of definition

By Paul Gardner

The new FIFA Rule book for 2015-2016 presents the usual problem. What has been changed? The book is helpful in identifying what has been added -- any new wording is clearly indicated as such by a prominent vertical line in the margin.

So far so good. But there are two problems here. One, there have been cases where no indication was given of wording that has been omitted. And two,  slight changes -- possibly just one word -- have not been flagged. Yet the addition or omission of a single word can mark a considerable change in the application of a rule.

For instance: in the 2002 rulebook a new sentence appeared in the “Additional Instructions” section. It read -- “It is an offense to restrict the movement of the goalkeeper by unfairly impeding him at the taking of a corner kick.”

This wording appeared, unchanged, for the next few years until, in 2007, it appeared in this form -- “It is an offense to restrict the movement of the goalkeeper by unfairly impeding him, e.g. at the taking of a corner kick.”

The change is minimal and difficult to spot -- merely the addition of two letters, “e.g.” But it is a change that seriously alters
the rule. The original wording clearly treated “unfairly impeding” a goalkeeper during a corner-kick play as a special case, and carried the curious implication that “unfairly impeding” the keeper was OK during non-corner-kick action.

Adding the “e.g.” however, indicates that corner kicks are merely one example of situations in which the goalkeeper must not be “unfairly impeded.” One is left wondering why the sentence was included in the first place -- shouldn’t “unfair impeding” be an offense against any player, at any time?

Maybe. But my point is that this change, minimal (the addition of just two letters) but important, was made without flagging it. No vertical line appeared in the margin. Spotting the change  required a close comparative reading (or a computer scanning?) of the 2006 and the 2007 rule books.

There have been other un-announced changes, some belonging to this category of tidying up poorly-worded rules. It is baffling that IFAB, which produces the rulebook, should not want to demonstrate that it is making sensible adjustments. Unless, of course, it is embarrassed to admit that it didn’t get the original wording right.

But settling on the correct wording for a rule, one that is not open to ambiguity, is a tricky business. A classic example concerned - still concerns - the tackle-from-behind, and this was one that IFAB did, eventually get right. Well, maybe. Let us see.

Concern about serious injuries resulting from tackles-from-behind mounted during the 1990s with growing, and justifiable, demands that such challenges be outlawed. IFAB responded, and the 1998 rules included, as an “IFAB Decision,”the following sentence:

“A tackle from behind which endangers the safety of an opponent must be sanctioned as serious foul play.”

Meaning that it should be punished with a red card. The intention was admirable, but the wording was -- exactly as it was later to be with the goalkeeper-impeding problem -- too restrictive. The implication of the new rule was that, when it came to a tackle that “endangers the safety of an opponent,” it was only a tackle from behind that demanded a red card. So, dangerous tackles from the front or the side did not call for the mandatory red card, as though they were to be considered less dangerous.

It took four years for the anomaly to be recognized, though it was hardly resolved by the appearance in the “Additional Instructions” section of the 2002 rulebook of this statement:

“Any player who lunges at an opponent in challenging for the ball from the front, from the side or from behind using one or both legs, with excessive force and endangering the safety of an opponent is guilty of serious foul play.”

That was a much more comprehensive assessment of the dangers. But confusion remained because the original clause, singling out the tackle-from-behind as particularly venomous, remained in the rulebook. The nonsense of the two competing versions existing in the same rule book went on until 2005 when the words “from behind” were dropped from the “IFAB Decision” quoted above. And this time, the change was flagged with a vertical line.

That is where we are today. The tackle-from-behind is not regarded as uniquely dangerous. It is not singled out. It is mentioned only once in the rulebook, in the Guidelines section; it is mentioned alongside the tackle from the front or the side, and all three are treated identically.

Not that you’d ever know that from listening to our TV commentators, who frequently refer to the tackle-from-behind as though it is still uniquely identified in the rules. Of course they’re wrong, they haven’t checked the rulebook for 10 years.

Even so, their devotion to the idea of such tackles as particularly heinous is worth some thought. Because there surely is something that does separate the tackle-from-behind from the others: the obvious thing, really -- that the victim cannot see the tackle coming, so cannot take evasive action, cannot protect himself. Which both increases the danger for the victim, and adds an extra element of nastiness to the aggressor’s foul.

I think the problem should be revisited and I think it could be solved in this way. For tackles from the front or side, stick with the wording about “endangering the safety of an opponent.” But treat the tackle from behind differently and more stringently. Ban it. By ruling that every tackle from behind is dangerous and will be red-carded. Period.

Which is actually a pretty good solution. Of course, it does leave awkwardly undecided the matter of when a tackle from behind becomes a tackle from the side, and vice-versa. I would be perfectly willing to leave that one for referees to judge -- provided all referees are required to pledge that they will always give any benefit of doubt to the player with the ball, which will usually be the attacking player. But I’m not sure I could rely on getting that pledge.

8 comments about "Impeding the goalkeeper, tackling from behind -- difficulties of definition".
  1. R2 Dad, August 2, 2015 at 2:52 p.m.

    Props to PG for addressing an important issue that would normally fall between the cracks. This is the sort of minutia that matters to officials but should also concern coaches and fans/parents. This audit trail of LOTG changes helps us understand where the game has been as well as where it's going.

  2. beautiful game, August 3, 2015 at 10:09 a.m.

    The whole rule book needs to be revisited and reinvented. In most cases, i.e., refs are derelict in enforcing encroachment, delay of game by players picking up the ball and prancing into a defensive position, corner kick mayhem, off-sides, etc.

  3. Santiago 1314 replied, August 3, 2015 at 2:21 p.m.

    WOW, a Reply Button Awesome!!!... Iw, On this, you and I can agree... What do you think about "Handball" being Divided into "Direct" and "Indirect" Free Kicks... I know the Dynamo got away with one this weekend... Of course we were Punished Unfairly, earlier in the Season...MLS even Rescinded the Red Card, but we still lost points...

  4. Kent James, August 3, 2015 at 10:12 a.m.

    Sorry Paul, I disagree that a tackle from behind is inherently dangerous, and deserves a red card. First, what exactly, does "from behind" mean? If you mean the defender is directly behind the attacker, then yes, I'm not sure how such a tackle could even occur (since the offensive players is in the path of the defender), so that's inherently dangerous (at least if both players are moving; how about a toe-poke tackle between the offensive players legs while he's shielding the ball? Does such a "tackle from behind" warrant a red card?). But assuming you mean the tackler is somewhere behind the shoulders of the attacker (half the world is in front of the attacker, the other half behind), tackles from behind are only fractionally more dangerous than other tackles. The idea that an attacker is unaware of such a tackle is wrong; most players are very aware when a defender is chasing them, and most will be keeping an eye on the defender behind them. And good defenders can certainly time a tackle 'from behind' so that they get nothing but ball, and if that is the case, the ref is supposed to eject them?? It's not going to happen (and it shouldn't). Now I will grant you that a cynical, 'this player is past me and the only way I can stop him now is to take him out' tackle from behind clearly deserves a red card, but the rules already allow that. Tackles from behind are more challenging (and therefore more likely to foul), but it does not mean they are all fouls (and certainly not all worthy of ejections). Physics would suggest that slide tackles from the front, where the defender is sliding into the attacker are more dangerous, since the collision is head on, rather than by two players traveling the same speed and the same direction. That's when bones get broken (and I cringe whenever I see it coming).

  5. craig sweet, August 3, 2015 at 2:25 p.m.

    In a high school game last season the opposition team surrounded my Keeper on a corner kick. In other words one girl stood behind my Keeper with her hands on my Keepers back, one girl stood in front of my Keeper, and two girls stood along side her. They were very close and did not permit my Keeper to take a single step in any direction. I asked the Ref if that was not impeding and he said, maybe, maybe not. So, I said, well, you had better decide one way or the other because they will keep doing this until you tell them it is impeding. They did it twice more.

  6. Kent James replied, August 3, 2015 at 4:14 p.m.

    Kudos to SA for providing a "reply" button. As for your situation, the players in question are allowed to stand on the field next to the goalie, but they must move to the ball (to play it), otherwise they are obstructing the keeper (assuming the keeper is moving to play the ball, and the ball is not in playing distance of the obstructing players). If the ref sees them lining up like that, he (or she) should remind them that if they don't go to the ball when it is in play, they will be called for obstruction. Usually that solves the problem (better than letting the GK push them out of the way). Many teams do put a number of people around the GK and then serve the ball into that mass, hoping it will be hard for the GK to get to it; as long as the ball is served there, it's a fair play (and I think a relatively smart strategy), since the ball is there and the players are going for it (not there just to obstruct the keeper so their teammates can play the ball).

  7. Charles Stamos, August 7, 2015 at 10:27 a.m.

    If a player places their hands on the goalkeepers back, or a player on the side or in front of the keeper does not go to the ball, then the moment the ball is played, blow the whistle for impeding the goalkeeper. If the hands come down, and the players go to the ball, at the moment the ball is played, no impedment.

  8. Charles Stamos, August 7, 2015 at 10:30 a.m.

    The problem happens when players and goalkeeper go to the ball and there is inadvertant contact that can knock the keepeer off balance. This is a fine line and any suggestion of impeding the keeper needs to be called.

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