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

By Paul Gardner

Last time, I asked: “What action has soccer taken to at least reduce the incidence of head injuries in the sport?”

Well, FIFA -- which should be the body making the moves -- has done nothing. Incredibly, nothing.

Evidence has been mounting that even apparently slight concussions can have serious long-term effects. This is bad news for all sports. But soccer -- as the only sport in which the head is used to play the ball -- has inevitably received a good deal of attention. 

Heading the ball (i.e. head-to-ball contact) is being closely looked at, with -- so far -- inconclusive results. At the moment, head-to-head and elbow-to-head clashes look far more indictable. 

Surely, in this situation of uncertainty -- in which a “normal part of the game” is under suspicion of causing serious injuries -- FIFA should take immediate action to at least reduce the number of heading incidents.

But FIFA has done nothing like that. The game continues to be played as though the concussion research does not exist. In particular, goalkeeper violence continues unabated. As I emphasized in Part 1 of this series, goalkeeper fouls are high on the list of those likely to cause head injuries. Goalkeepers are also the cause of many heading incidents, for their long, high, aimless goal kicks (plenty of those in every game) frequently lead to players getting involved in ugly heading duels.

The only moves so far from FIFA make no attempt to cut down on head injuries. Instead, FIFA has issued a high-sounding “Concussion Protocol” telling referees and medical staff what they should do when they suspect a concussion. So soccer players worldwide are being told “You’ll still be getting the head injuries, but we’re arranging for quicker and better treatment.”

An inadequate, almost cynical, response, and an elitist one too -- fine for top pro leagues where doctors and equipment are instantly available, useless down near the base of the soccer pyramid, where most games are played, and where such help is unlikely to be on hand.

It is not to be expected that FIFA will boldly announce a ban on heading, but it urgently needs to be seen as concerned. At the moment it is clearly dragging its feet. It is denying responsibility, basically saying “There is nothing we can do.”

An insight into FIFA’s mentality came at a hearing during the so-called “soccer moms’” lawsuit that asked for a heading ban in youth soccer, and more stringent rules on medical attention. The FIFA lawyer claimed that FIFA couldn’t change the rules of the game because they are set by the International Football Association Board (IFAB), and while FIFA controls four of the board’s eight members, six votes are required for any rule changes.

To call that argument disingenuous is putting it mildly. FIFA can get what it wants from IFAB, which has long been a hopelessly servile body. 

The FIFA lawyer’s statement was followed by some even more stupid statements from a lawyer for the U.S. Soccer Federation, who insisted that governing bodies cannot be blamed for injuries occurring in risky (i.e. contact) sports. Otherwise, he continued, boxing would have to ban punches to the head. Then came this: “So what’s next? Do we need to reduce the speed of running in soccer? Do we need to eliminate kicking?”

I have already pointed out that soccer’s rules do not need to be changed to diminish the threat presented by goalkeeper violence. The current rules need to be enforced. FIFA could hardly hope for a simpler precautionary measure -- something that would show that it takes concussions seriously.

The notion -- implicit in the U.S. Soccer lawyer’s position -- that governing bodies have no responsibility to ensure that their sports are not dangerously violent, is arrant nonsense. Football’s “unnecessary roughness” rule makes it clear that the NFL knows they have a responsibility to pay attention to player safety. Whether that responsibility is a moral one, or merely one taken to avoid legal charges hardly matters -- it is a reality

As for that drivel about eliminating kicking, the U.S. Soccer lawyer should be ashamed. Cheap jokes have no place in any discussion of concussion injuries.

Fortunately, the U.S. Federation evidently does not listen to its own lawyer’s legal smart-assery. Even though the soccer moms’ lawsuit was thrown out, U.S. Soccer has implemented a ban on heading in under-11 and younger age groups, and permits the use of temporary substitutes while head-injured players are being assessed.

This remains the only positive step taken by any major soccer authority that I am aware of. U.S. Soccer deserves a lot of praise for making the move. Because the advent of concussion awareness is, in the most literal sense, a game-changer. I do believe that soccer will have to modify the way that the sport is played. This is certainly the case for goalkeepers.

Soccer -- meaning FIFA -- has now to take a hard look at how goalkeepers play the sport. At the moment they are granted an exceptional degree of freedom to commit fouls. Concussion-causing fouls. That freedom will have to be ruled out.

Giving the goalkeeper exceptional -- and privileged -- status starts in the rulebook. I have counted, in the current rulebook, 44 occasions where the word “goalkeeper” is used. That is quite a distinction for an individual player. No other player gets that treatment. There is no mention of strikers or midfielders or center backs. They are all merely “players.”

Of those 44 mentions, 11 are preceded by words like “except” or “unless” or “other than” -- exclusionary words indicating that a rule is about to be modified to accommodate the goalkeeper. This is significant, because there is no exception granted that could possibly justify keepers jumping into opponents, or diving at their feet.

I can see no alternative -- unless soccer wishes to be seen as a sport that doesn’t care about concussions (something that would no doubt benefit the lawyers) -- to a radical re-think of the keeper’s role. Of course that will not be easy, but it is necessary.

Any such re-think could do worse than to start with what the rules of soccer said in 1878. This was the first time that the word “goal-keeper” was used. His duties were defined -- he was “allowed to use his hands in defense of his goal.” A strict adherence to that requirement might be enough to make it illegal for a keeper to race out to punch away a cross some 18 yards from his goal.

A cross that far away can hardly be interpreted as a direct threat to the goal. The keeper’s responsibility would be to deal with any shot or header that results from the cross.

Of course, any change to the goalkeeper’s play will understandably meet stiff resistance from the keepers themselves.

Frankly, I do not think they have a very strong case. In Part 1, I quoted keeper Andy Gruenebaum who had lavished praise on a goalkeeper who had smashed into a forward. But Gruenebaum rather gave the game away when he said “that’s what you’re taught to do.”

Really? Is that what goalkeeper schools teach youngsters? To jump violently into opponents with knee raised? I have to ask: Have the proponents of this rough-house play really thought about what they’re advocating? 

Change there must be -- and keepers might expect to gain something from it in terms of better protection in the goalmouth, maybe in the entire 6-yard area. There is plenty to be discussed, but the days of bullying, wild-west goalkeeping must be brought to an end.

I have sought the opinions of eight experienced referees -- mostly ex-referees -- on the matter of whether current goalkeeper actions break the rules. While all agreed that is the case, no one ventured to suggest that keepers should be reined in. Yet it seemed to me that all were uncomfortable with the situation.

In many ways, it is the submissive attitude of the referees themselves that is the most disappointing factor. They know -- they have to know -- that they are distorting the game by not making these calls against goalkeepers. Yet, game after game, referees perpetuate this obviously harmful tradition. I suppose that’s a case of pleasing their instructors, who then become the ones to blame.

But the blame game, as so often, gets us nowhere. All that we need to know is that the rulebook seems to disappear when goalkeepers cut up rough. That cries out for change. The looming menace of legal action makes it imperative. Can FIFA really be unaware of the $1 billion settlement the NFL has agreed with former players who charged that injuries sustained during their playing careers have resulted in various debilitating brain disorders? That’s one billion dollars.

If the suffering caused by game injuries, plus the cost of legal action are not strong enough spurs, there are other reasons why FIFA should step in. Sporting reasons that seem highly cogent to me: Allowing the goalkeeper to escape punishment for foul play is unfair, it is dangerous, and it does great damage to the integrity of the sport.

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

18 comments about "Violent Goalkeeping (Part 2): FIFA must radically rethink the goalkeeper's role".
  1. Nathan Billy, April 20, 2017 at 10:51 p.m.

    I get it the Keepers are evil and there goals kicks are lazy dangerous bombs from the air. And the forwards are these frail innocent victims. Then you watch two forwards gang up on your kid and do the one high one low game to get the keeper to the ground while the refs not looking. Keepers win 50/50 balls with the hands and field players win them with there heads both dangerous so deal with both instead of blaming all head injuries on keepers. To ask a keeper to not to fight for a 50/50 ball in the box is same as as asking the midfielder not to battle for a header.
    The article goes a little over the top bordering on showing that Paul seem to almost hate keepers.
    Here are some silly rule changes if you want to minimize keeper collisions

    Keepers can only use hands in the 6 yard box and goals can not be scored from inside the six yard box.

    Keepers use feet only but the goal is only 3 foot high

    No headers

    No keeper just use 4 ft pop up goals.

  2. Nick Daverese, April 21, 2017 at 4:07 a.m.

    Want to keep the keeper from using his height and reach advantage. Play the ball on the ground instead of in the air. Want to air the ball play it into open space not congested space.

  3. Gus Keri, April 21, 2017 at 9 a.m.

    For every one foul by a goalkeeper against a forward, there are ten fouls committed by a forward charging into a goalkeeper. There are so many nasty forwards out there. And the risk is there for both players. How many examples are there for goalkeepers being injured from such collisions? To be fair, you have to bring up both sides of the issue.

  4. R2 Dad, April 21, 2017 at 12:42 p.m.

    This is an important issue in the game and I'm glad PG is taking this on. We're primarily discussing professional leagues and adults, but my first concern is always youth soccer and there are distinctions in how that position functions at the youth level; perhaps a line in the sand should be drawn at U12 the way it has been for headed balls? The keepers I see at the youth level rarely have been trained to go up with a knee, and they are usually coming out worse for the wear in these challenges. But I don't think training them all to raise their knees is the answer. The kids don't know what they don't know, and most don't get proper keeper training until U13 or so. Also, the risk of keeper head-to-goalpost is probably 3rd after head-to-head and elbow-to-head. I can see Petr Cech helmets becoming mandatory for U12 and below keepers. The keeper for my son's team just sustained a concussion due to a foot to the head. The old center ref gave a yellow that was arguably red, but if officials aren't more definitive in protecting youth players, we won't have many keepers by U18. Lastly, #smart-assery.

  5. Ed M, April 21, 2017 at 1:59 p.m.

    Another poorly written article to only cause readers to read and argue and get hits online for SA and author. "goalkeeper violence?" Really? Blame the goalkeeper? How many injuries can the author cite as caused by the nonsense written within the article? What other "goalkeeper violence" can the author cite as factual? FIFA has nothing to do with how players choose to play. No other sport regulates these things either.

    Suggest writing on something more pertinent interesting and factual.

  6. Barry Ulrich, April 21, 2017 at 2:57 p.m.

    Under the current LOTG, goalkeepers are permitted to venture out of their Penalty Area; and when they do so, they are considered field players (and unable to use their hands). Field players may pass the ball back to their GK, who is within the PA. At that point the GK may only “handle the ball” with their feet. So when a GK goes out of the PA to retrieve a ball, why should the GK be able to dribble the ball back into the PA, pick it up and make a distribution? Remember that the GK out of the PA is considered a field player. So as a field player, why should the GK be able to pass the ball to himself and be able to “handle the ball?” Should that not be an infraction (IFK)? (Attributed to H. Krollfeifer Jr., who was on the USSF FIFA list in the early to mid-80s.)

  7. Fajkus Rules, April 21, 2017 at 3:26 p.m.

    WOW!! Attacking GKs for taking goal kicks is ridiculous, no one at the other end is required to head the ball, and not all goal kicks are taken by keepers. Smart teams who don't pressure the immediate short kicks to wing defenders don't have to worry about heading long kicks.

  8. Ric Fonseca, April 21, 2017 at 3:44 p.m.

    Well, PG has done it again! Although I agree it is an "interesting" article that covers a wealth of issues, if one were not familiar with our sport, or even the LOTG, the reader could go away, put it down and prevent their child from playing "this dirty and foreign sport!" However, I suppose that those of us in the know, do know better, but I was appalled with PG's mention of the NFL's $1 billion settlement for head injuries in a sport that is VIOLENT in and of itself?!?!? NFL pro players, as well as collegiate, high school, and even Pop Warner games generate much more violence vis-a-vis the way the game is played! How many times have we seen a regular pro football game, and hear the crunch-groans-and-moans of players colliding! In our sport, yes the game is a fast-paced and at times violent sport, however, I would caution PG to not appear to be calling out or focusing on the goalkeepers, and maybe, just maybe call for and push some sort of FIFA LOTG rule change in Law 4, adding that ALL goalies MUST wear a head protector such as some in Europe do, and since PG is somewhat of a football historian, call on Shep Messing former pro back in the day and interview him on the topic - or that European GK (his name escapes me) who wears one. But to label GK's as just being plain "violent" is akin to saying that Suarez biting is only a forward still teething!

  9. Ric Fonseca, April 21, 2017 at 3:50 p.m.

    Part 2. I forgot to mention that rugby in and of itself is very rough - I know as I remember getting a rib broken during a tournament when I played for the college team where I was teaching - and BTW, you all should know that the good ole Brits said that football (soccer) is a game played by ruffians while rugby is played by gentlemen (golly-gee, is that why ruggers, after a match all get together in a bar-pub, and down several pints?) And do you all remember that in the early years of "American football", it was a US President (T.R. Roosevelt?) that banned the sport from being played in college, while soccer-football was allowed to continue though it was considered to be a sport that only foreigners/immigrants were the ones that played the sport?

  10. beautiful game, April 21, 2017 at 5 p.m.

    When can anyone claim that a keeper running into a wall of players is ever cautioned and a PK given; and a phantom foul on the keeper in such a situation is called more often than not. LOTG needs to be tweaked to the modern game in order to establish a consistent red line of behavior on all players. Time to rid the game of professional fouls and time wasting.

  11. uffe gustafsson, April 21, 2017 at 5:55 p.m.

    The knee up is not just to protect keeper or hurt another player, it's the normal way to get up high in the air to collect the ball in the air.
    Try to jump up without using your knee up, how high u jump? A cpl of inches maybe.
    But crashing into a players back w knee up is a different issue, that should be a foul for dangerous tackle. That's called every time out on the field by field players.
    So I think PG have a good argument.
    And not only GK are rough housing inside PK box. And that should be addressed as well.
    I don't think this is a problem for youth soccer until you get up in the upper age groups and especially boys. Don't really see it in girls soccer.
    But concussion is a real problem and need to have a focus on it. The no heading for 11 and under is the step in right direction.
    And head gear for GK is also something that should be done. Our new fields have cushening around the goal post and think all goal post should have it.

  12. Nick Daverese, April 21, 2017 at 6:25 p.m.

    Knee up when going straight up and get the knee to cross the keeper body.not go forward with knee up. If you think that is normal sorry but your wrong uffe.

  13. Nick Daverese, April 21, 2017 at 6:31 p.m.

    Early days of American football no one passed the ball.

    Everyone said MMA was too violent , but boxing was fine. You can wrestle, use Judo and BJJ in MMA to submit an opponent. So you are actually getting punched to the head less then in boxing.

  14. Mark Landefeld, April 22, 2017 at 2:13 p.m.

    When PG has nightmares, do you think he sees Schumacher taking out Battiston?

  15. Scott Johnson, April 24, 2017 at 2:07 a.m.

    Reducing the penalty area to the six-yard box is an interesting idea... but if done, that also would mean that only fouls committed within the six-yard box would result in a PK. Note I didn't say it was a good idea, merely an interesting one.

  16. Scot Sutherland, May 24, 2017 at 1:55 p.m.

    Goalkeepers play by different rules than field players while in the penally box...Period. So there needs to be a set of laws to govern interactions between field players and goalkeepers in the penalty box. We have to start there or we will make no progress.

    Larger picture. If we take all the dangers out of a sport, will there be any sport left to watch. We all live on a march inextricably toward death. To some degree we each must have the choice about what that march looks like for us. As a player I realized that I could be injured, and the consequences could be long term. I suffered one complete knockout concussion and several smaller ones over the years. I can no longer run at the age of 60 because my standing leg took a great deal of beating and I suffered a series of patellar dislocations. I have arthritis that would most likely not be as advanced had I not devoted a large part of my life to soccer for 28 years.

  17. Scot Sutherland, May 24, 2017 at 2 p.m.

    On reducing head injuries. I think there are actually more head injuries since referees started cracking down on the use of the arms while heading. When both players use their arms there is less likelihood of head to head contact and elbow to head contact. We kept our arms relatively straight to make space in the air and the result as fingernail scratches and bruises but much fewer violent collisions.

  18. Jogo Bonito, September 19, 2019 at 11:39 a.m.

    I have to say that I agree with PG here. If a keeper comes off their line and punches a high lofted ball cleanly but takes out a player in the process it has to be a foul. Like a field player, I believe goalkeepers should have to show more awareness when jumping for a ball so they are able to clear the ball without running into a player. Goalkeepers are taught to go in hard to avoid injury. Goalkeepers should also be taught to make good decisions. If you can’t get to the ball without fouling, a goalkeeper may have to choose to hold their line and deal with a close range header because coming off your line aggressively and out of control might result in a penalty. You may see goalkeepers holding their line more. 

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