Violent Goalkeeping (Part 1): Players at risk as soccer ignores its own rules

By Paul Gardner

Goalkeepers, we are told, need protection. No doubt we all agree. Up to a point. 

But this “point” -- always difficult to define precisely -- is a limitation that no longer has much meaning. How can it mean anything when the “protection” now allows goalkeepers to go unpunished when they commit flagrant and dangerous fouls. Fouls that are clearly against the rules of the sport, fouls that would surely be severely penalized if committed by field players.

This is a serious situation -- borderline scandalous -- which calls for prompt action from FIFA. It hardly demands drastic action, for no new rules are needed.  All that is required is that FIFA makes sure that the current rules are enforced. That referees do their job. Nothing more than that.

Consider the following two examples of soccer action -- both of them likely to be seen in almost any game. Anomalies that FIFA and IFAB (soccer’s rule-making body) must correct.

Anomaly No. 1: The goalkeeper races out of his goal to catch or punch away a cross. It is more than likely that there will be a crowd of players -- teammates and opponents -- in front of him. But this does not concern our intrepid keeper who launches himself forcefully -- and, yes, bravely -- into the crowd. Maybe he gets the ball, maybe not. But he will collide heavily with at least one player -- usually an opponent. 

Now, how many penalty kicks are given against keepers who do that? It never happens -- either the referee makes no call, or he calls a foul on the opponent who has just been smashed into.

This takes some explaining, especially given that the keeper is likely to be jumping high, and leading with a raised knee. To which can be added an element of bullying -- the keeper is very likely to be the biggest and heaviest member of his team.

This is clearly yellow-card reckless, if not outright red-card excessive force. But the penalty kicks that should result are never given. They never have been. 

Anomaly No. 2: “Playing in a dangerous manner” is nicely identified in the rulebook as action that “threatens injury to someone (including the player themself) ...”  The example that is usually cited is that of a player who stoops low to head the ball. Even though he will be the one likely to get his head kicked in, he is the one in the wrong, placing his head down where feet are deemed to belong.

So he gets an indirect free kick called against him. But ... why is it that the rule is never applied to goalkeepers? When a keeper dives at an opponent’s feet, he is putting his head quite close to ground level. It is a dangerous move, indeed a brave one, by the keeper. But it surely fits the rulebook’s definition of dangerous play, and a foul should be called against the goalkeeper. So why do referees never call it?

Two examples of violent and dangerous play by goalkeepers. Particularly dangerous as they are likely to lead to head injuries. Both clearly contravene the rules, yet both are systematically ignored by referees.  How so?

Because a tradition has arisen in soccer that it is OK for goalkeepers to crash into opponents, often with a knee making contact with the opponent’s head, or for them to throw themselves at the feet of moving opponents. Those actions, carrying a high risk of nasty injuries to both the keeper and his opponents, are considered acceptable.

I am unaware of the origin of this extraordinary mindset. But, apparently, it is not to be questioned. It is duly referred to, never critically, by TV pundits (invariably ex-players) whenever the incidents occur -- which they do quite frequently.  

Some choice examples of recent punditry:

• “If you’re going to come out, as a goalkeeper you take everything in your way, you take the players, the ball ...”  That’s former Arsenal and England defender, Lee Dixon.

The goalkeeper pundits have plenty to say, of course -- not only defending the mayhem, but actually praising it:

• Brad Friedel, former Spurs and USA goalkeeper, quite carried away as he describes how Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando has just come racing out of his goal to punch the ball away ... and in doing so has jumped into Colorado’s Lucas Pittinari and left him lying dazed on the ground: “That is outstanding goalkeeping -- a big strong punch, a big strong body, big collision, exactly what you want.”

Dallas keeper Chris Seitz flattens Kansas City's Dom Dwyer.

• Andy Gruenebaum, former Columbus Crew goalkeeper, was equally excited after Dallas keeper Chris Seitz had punched the ball away while jumping knee-first into the back of, and flattening, Kansas City’s Dom Dwyer: “He [Seitz] has made up his mind from square one, he’s coming for this ball, that’s what you’re taught to do, protect yourself, you can’t worry about them ... I think it’s great goalkeeping, but also unlucky for Dwyer to get in the way of that.”

We can add a contribution from another U.S. national team keeper, Brad Guzan, playing for Aston Villa in a 2015 game against Leicester, racing forward to punch out a high ball and simply hurling himself into a group of players in front of his goal. Guzan did not get to the ball. Leicester’s Nathan Dyer got there first and headed it into the goal. Guzan, left knee raised, jumped high into Dyer and knocked him out cold. The following morning’s Daily Star had no criticism of Guzan, and evidently found the incident quite amusing, referring to “Knockout Nathan” and how Guzan had “made him see stars.”

Ignoring blatant goalkeeper fouls reached a shameful peak during the 2014 World Cup final when the German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer (widely ranked as the world’s best) leapt into Argentine forward Gonzalo Higuain, just inside the German penalty area. The collision was spectacular ... and frightening, as the leaping Neuer smashed his knee -- his raised knee -- into Higuain’s head.

A dangerous foul that recalled Harald Schumacher’s appallingly brutal assault on Patrick Batiston in a 1982 World Cup semifinal between Germany and France -- for many, the worst foul they have ever seen. 

Incredibly, the Italian referee Nicola Rizzoli (presumably the world’s best?) called a foul against Higuain. As Higuain had been hardly moving at the moment of impact, with his back to Neuer, what could he have been guilty of? Did Rizzoli think that Higuain was committing a foul simply by being in Neuer’s way?

But that has never been a foul. FIFA has made a point of emphasizing this, starting in the 2007 rule book: “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.”

Rizzoli obviously knew that his call didn’t make sense. Some days later he backed down, slightly, stating that no foul had been committed, neither by Neuer nor Higuain. It was 1982 all over again, when Schumacher went unpunished for his violence.

The incidents were evidently just a normal part of the game. 

Maybe they were, once upon a time. But not now. They cannot be, not in 2017. And this is where FIFA’s attitude simply defies understanding. Because it surely knows that during the past decade there has been an explosion of knowledge about -- and much research into -- the dangers of concussive head injuries.

Knowledge that all sports administrators must respond to. Any sport that unnecessarily exposes its players to head injuries is surely going to find itself in big legal trouble pretty soon. So what action has soccer taken to at least reduce the incidence of head injuries in the sport?

Violent Goalkeeping (Part 2): FIFA must radically rethink the goalkeeper’s role

25 comments about "Violent Goalkeeping (Part 1): Players at risk as soccer ignores its own rules".
  1. Allan Lindh, April 20, 2017 at 4:36 p.m.

    PG see's what others don't, and tells it like it is. Make goalies follow the rules, it would lead to more scoring. And maybe reduce the trend to toward goalkeepers built like tight ends.

  2. David Mont, April 20, 2017 at 4:41 p.m.

    Impossible to argue with anything in this column.

  3. Nathan Billy, April 20, 2017 at 4:47 p.m.

    On item 2 you are more likely to get hit in the head if you slide in feet first than head first as the field player usually leaps and lands were your head would be in you were sliding in. At least this is what was explained to me at a goal keeping coaching class I attended by a university keeper coach

    This argument goes both ways. I've seen keepers taken out by forwards during corner kick when the center refs not looking and I've seen keepers play with reckless abandon and neither one get called. maybe the benefit of the doubt goes to the keeper but his job is so radically different than any other player. You ask the keep to get his hands on the ball in box full of people trying to get their head on the ball. This is a recipe for hand to head contact. I guess you could ban the use of headers or ban the use of the keepers hands if you wanted to minimize the collisions. (Not a real solution just being a little sarcastic)

  4. beautiful game, April 20, 2017 at 4:53 p.m.

    Good article PG. Safe to say that the LOTG are marginally enforced be it for a field player or keeper. As for Brad Friedel, good keeper, but lack of oxygen during his game commentary is quite delusional. He is oblivious to any kind of contact even after the replay clearly shows contact. It's a sad day for the game when officials are delinquent and the commentary becomes fabrication.

  5. Joe Linzner, April 20, 2017 at 4:59 p.m.

    I certainly agree that keepers are given way too much latitude and very often are guilty of dangerous play. Back in nineteen hundred and froze to death right after I was drafted up to first team duty at 16 in the greater LA League I had scored to embarrassing goals against a keeper (LA Kickers) and had again managed a one on one against that keeper, he quite rightly charged me to narrow the angle. He, however, instead of making himself big he straight out leaped at me directly with both knees up right at my rib cage and drove them up unto my lungs and the adjoining ribs sprung over them. I went down in a heap with my feet pointing up. As he came down on top of me my feet smashed his huevos and I was given a red card! PS, I toed the ball under him as he left his feet! He finished the game and I went to Kaiser Hospital

  6. Miguel Dedo, April 20, 2017 at 5:57 p.m.

    Well said. You might add a reference to Law 12.1 listing "jumping at" an opponent in a careless, reckless, etc. Manner, As a foul, where "at" refers to direction rather than to intention.

  7. stewart hayes, April 20, 2017 at 9:02 p.m.

    There's a part II? Part I was bad, ... true enough. What more can be said I am curious.

    Anomaly No.2 ... can't say I agree PG that any time a keeper dives at the feet he is putting himself in danger. There are many situations where the keeper is risking a head injury. For example, dives to the near post or attempts to reach balls looping to the upper far post also put he keeper at risk. The position has it's inherent risks.

  8. Alvaro Bettucchi, April 20, 2017 at 11:02 p.m.

    I became a soccer fan because it take skill, intelligence and when played correctly it's the "BEAUTIFUL GAME"! It is time to begin enforcing some of the rules, so it will not become available to the fans that enjoy force and violence and carry that mentality in the stands.. Then it becomes another Football, Rugby or hockey game, which I sought to get away from!.

  9. Jay Wall, April 20, 2017 at 11:03 p.m.

    Unfortunally parents of children are influenced by professional athletes taking each other out in professional games. Many assume, right or wrong, that their children are at greater risk. And this will directly impact the number of children playing youth sports where contact that causes injuries is allowed. > Referees are influenced by what they see on TV and many referees assume this is the way the game must be allowed to be played. > In Northern Virginia, for example, the local youth football league in one community had 14 teams for elementary school players a year and a half ago. Last Fall fear of concussion and the life long consequences has reduced the number of teams to 2. Fear of injury is practically eliminating this program. > In ESPN's survey of players leaving youth sports 14% leave due to an injury and an additional 13% quit because their parents are scared of an injury. That's over 1 in 4 players quiting do to fear of injury. > Youth soccer registrations in the United States have started going down and we need referees calling games tightly and protecting players or our player pool by 2026 will be at least 20% or more smaller than it is now. > For the good of the game, safety of players and as a risk management issue we need immediate action to protect the youth soccer game from bad press.

  10. Dan Eckert, April 21, 2017 at 1:01 a.m.

    A lot of whining by field players if you ask me. Boo Hoo Mr GK crashed into me while punching away a high ball on a corner kick. Given this piece - let's just remove goalkeepers all together so even you people could score a goal. Or just turn them into field players and not let them touch the ball - that way the beautiful game can be explained to those dumb Americans and not confuse them with the simple rule that no one can touch the ball other the a the Goalie.

    Goalies make the game exciting - neuter them and you change it to basketball with feet. Yawn.

  11. Joe Linzner replied, April 21, 2017 at 10:21 a.m.

    Enlightened insight Mr. Eckert!

  12. R2 Dad, April 21, 2017 at 1:28 a.m.

    This will be a long battle with IFAB and FIFA to change consensus on keeper contact. PG is correct, but the officiating world is not in agreement, which is why the Higuain ruling splits opinion. Miguel is correct about the jumping issue. In my mind, as with punted balls at midfield, jumping up to head a ball vs a lateral jump helps determine who has position and who is fouling whom. Wish there was still Advice to Referees, which helped clarify and emphasize issues like this.

  13. Leia Ambra, April 21, 2017 at 2:53 a.m.

    I remember Neuer's awful jump with knee high to the Argentinine's head; Higuain did not see Neuer coming, Neuer did see Niguain, and the awful decision by the referee to give Neuer the gaol kick.
    I have to diagree though that each time a keeper dives for the ball he makes a dangerous play if other okayers are close. I think in this instance, most of us referees agree that died players need to look out more to protect the keeper because of the inherent completely different nature of his or her job.
    I agree though that more keeper thuggery is going unpunished.

  14. Nick Daverese, April 21, 2017 at 3:50 a.m.

    Well, if you see a keeper jump up in a crowd of opponents and that knee is out in front and hits a player that is a foul.

    What the keeper is supposed to do when he jumps up is to move his knee up and cross his body. So the knee is not out and used like a weapon. The leg comes up and his hip turns so the leg is across his body. So his hip is across the front of the keeper. That is the keepers protection not a knee in front of his body.

  15. ROBERT BOND, April 21, 2017 at 8:36 a.m.

    Neuer a stupid example and defeats your premise because Higgie moved into his path after Neuer was already in the air.still, can send you a video of a keeper leaping forward into the air, going over the back of a stationary player, having the ball come out on one of his own player's shoulder who was in front of the attacker-and the attacker was called for a foul for just standing there while the keeper went oner his back!

  16. Kent James replied, April 21, 2017 at 9:48 a.m.

    You've nailed it. Had Higuain been stationary PG's assessment would be correct. As it was, both Higuain and Neuer were moving towards the ball, Neuer got there first, punched the ball and Higuain (who had turned his back but was still moving in the same direction) banged into Neuer (and because Neuer jumped and Higuain did not, Higuain's head hit Neuer's knee; if Higuain had not been moving, there would have been no collision, since Neuer was moving across Higuain's path).

    That is very different than the all too common scenario where the goalkeeper goes through offensive players to get the ball (and they often are stationary or jumping straight up, whereas the GK is almost always moving forward). These are the cases where PG is right. If the GK goes over the players (using his hands to extend his reach), he can do this legally. But he should be treated like the other players when he is committing a foul. Allowing goalkeepers to get away with murder is not "protecting" them.

    You're also spot on about the position of the knee; thrusting forward it is a weapon, across the body, it is protecting the GK's midsection (and is only defensive).

  17. Rick Golden, April 21, 2017 at 9:49 a.m.

    Paul, you do understand that penalty kicks are only given for fouls against an opponent in their attacking box, right? I get your point, but I think you mean to say that direct free kick should be awarded against the offending GK, not a penalty kick.

  18. Kent James, April 21, 2017 at 9:49 a.m.

    Sorry, the last comment about the position of the knee was a reference to Nick's comment.

  19. Rick Golden, April 21, 2017 at 9:52 a.m.

    Because Higuain was outside the box.

  20. Fajkus Rules, April 21, 2017 at 2:18 p.m.

    PG leaves out the riskiness added by every attacker running in on goalkeepers with no REAL opportunity to play the ball, some running into keeper at full speed -- which should be serious foul play. As a referee, I'm evaluating each "head-on" situation for malfeasance by either side. I give more cautions for attackers running into keepers, but have given more red cards to keepers running into attackers without playing the ball when it was DOGSO. Now with the treble penalty eliminated, those will become yellows unless outside the box. Don't see keepers coming out in an "out-of-control" manner as much as I see attackers coming in. Maybe that reverses in the pros & international play.

  21. Fajkus Rules, April 21, 2017 at 2:25 p.m.

    Unfortunately, much of this is proper "pre-training" by pro referees to get things that we have on video called correctly when they see them again in an actual game. Assuming that the governing bodies recognize the "out-of-control" players as the problem, and I have been in advanced USSF clinics where both goalkeeper and attacker malfeasance incidents have been shown in video clips, it's now up to refs to do a better job of getting this right.

  22. Leia Ambra, April 21, 2017 at 2:38 p.m.

    Looking at the video replay, Neuer's knee hits Higuain super hard where Higuain did not see Neuer coming. Neuer punches into Higuain. I believe keeper's error here and caution able. Keeper acted with recklessness, not considering the safety of the opponent (Law 12).

  23. Kent James replied, April 21, 2017 at 11:04 p.m.

    I've heard experienced referees make this argument, so it is obviously credible and in the rule book (sorry, "Laws of the game"), but pretty much anytime a keeper and a forward are going for the ball from opposite directions, the danger is high, so both could be cited for recklessness. I think the problem was the Higuain turned his back to receive the ball, and thus did not see when the collision would occur (I would think he would know Neuer was coming though). Under this interpretation, if Higuain does not turn his back, Neuer is making a fair challenge because both players are simply going for a 50/50 ball, but once Higuain turns his back, Neuer's formerly legal challenge is now illegal because Higuain is now vulnerable (through his own actions). Technically understandable, but realistically impractical. I don't think either player did anything wrong. I wanted Argentina to win, but I did not think Neuer should have been punished (had Higuain gotten to the ball first, then Neuer would've deserved punishment).

  24. James Griffin, April 23, 2017 at 10:55 p.m.

    Agree with PG on some of the reckless, jumping into opponents by keepers. However, I disagree with the diving at the feet of attackers. Goalkeepers can use their hands and can protect themselves. If executed properly, a goalkeeper dive is appropriate and usually results in no one getting injured.

  25. Scot Sutherland, May 19, 2017 at 5:22 p.m.

    Sorry PG. I agree wholeheartedly that something needs to be done about violent play in the penalty box, and that goalkeepers cannot continue to do what they are currently doing without consequence. However, I do not think the same rules can apply to goalkeepers that apply to players in the field. Goalkeepers have a special set of rules already, when they are inside the penalty box that field players do not have. You can't penalize the goalkeeper for putting his head in harms way when the field player must not touch the ball with his hands but the goalie can use his hands. How are goalies supposed to get their hands down to the ball without lowering their heads. On high balls into the box the same problem applies. The goalie can punch or catch the ball with their hands but the field player must use the head. A special set of "laws of the game" need to be created to govern actions between field players and goalkeepers in the penalty box (goalkeepers are field players outside the box). Disallowing contact with an extended leg or knee by the goalkeeper and disallowing field player attempts to kick the ball endangers a diving keeper would be another. Interference with the goalkeeper without an attempt at the ball by field players should be disallowed and barging by goalkeepers disallowed (which is different than barging by a field player because the goalie make attempts at the ball with their hands). FIFA should do something, but they must add laws like these to the game to correct the problem. Goalies and field players already play by different rules in the box.

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