Commentary

Goalkeepers revisited

I must return to the matter of aggressive goalkeeping. A number of recent incidents make it clear that slamming into an opponent, often making violent contact with his head, remains part of the goalkeeper’s repertoire. An important, trusted part, I would say.

Obviously -- and I mean obviously -- that should not be the case. Violent assaults on opponents, which accurately defines these collisions, are not permitted by the sport’s rules. Yet goalkeepers, for reasons that no one can explain, are allowed to get away with them. I have yet to find anyone with an acceptable explanation of this and, believe me, I’ve asked a lot of people over the years, including goalkeepers and referees.

Consider what happened in Tuesday’s Champions League game between Borussia Dortmund and Barcelona. At the 35th minute, Barcelona was given a free kick out on the left flank, maybe 25 yards from the Dortmund goal line. Arthur Melo took the kick, swinging an aerial ball into the Dortmund penalty area. The ball was played, awkwardly, by a defender who headed it more or less straight up in the air. Dortmund goalkeeper Roman Burki, saw his opportunity and raced forward to punch away the dropping ball. There were two players, trying to head the ball, in his way. No problem. Burki simply flung himself at them and did manage to punch the ball away (though not very far) with his right hand.

But there was a problem. Burki plowed into one of the players, knocking him to the ground, and as he punched the ball, his elbow made hefty contact with the player’s head. The referee did not call a foul, but he did quickly signal for medical help and the game was held up for nearly 2 minutes as the player was treated on the field.

He then left the field, but quickly returned to the action. As this looked like a concussion issue, one is bound to wonder if the much-touted “concussion protocol” was applied. But that is not the point I want to make.

Suppose it were not the goalkeeper, but a defender, who decided to race into the fray and get his head on that dropping ball? To get to it, he would have to jump vigorously into the other two players, knocking at least one of them down. And we can further suppose that, in the act of jumping, he raised his arms and that his elbow made contact with a head.

I feel pretty confident that most referees would see that as a serious foul (“jumping at an opponent in a reckless manner” for starters) and award a penalty kick (maybe not every referee, giving penalty kicks does not come easy to some). Yet what the defender did was pretty well exactly what the goalkeeper did. And for which goalkeepers are rarely, if ever, penalized.

In the case cited, I am not criticizing the referee (the Romanian Ovidiu Hategan). He was faced with a tricky decision, because the player injured by goalkeeper Burki happened to be his Dortmund teammate, Paco Alcacer. Awarding a penalty kick when no Barcelona player was involved? I can’t see a ref doing that (even though I think it would have been justified).

So I’ll be content with the incident as an example of what goalkeepers do, and -- quite inexplicably -- are allowed to do. More than allowed to do -- they are praised for so doing. Here are three recent examples of goalkeeper violence greeted with acclaim by TV commentators.

MLS: Red Bulls-Colorado, Aug. 31 (19th minute). Colorado keeper Tim Howard races to the edge of his area to confront a Red Bull player who has broken through the Colorado defense. Howard simply blocks his process by standing in his way and, of course, knocking him down. No foul is called, but Howard is praised by TV guru Shep Messing (an ex-goalkeeper) for “making himself big.”

English Premier League: Chelsea-Sheffield United, Aug. 21 (19th minute). Chelsea scores as Sheffield goalkeeper Dean Henderson bobbles the ball. TV guru Tony Gale (an ex-defender) criticizes Henderson: “the goalkeeper has to be attacking that ball -- taking everything out of his way.”

EPL: Aston Villa-West Ham United, Sept. 16 (39th minute). As the ball is played long into the West Ham penalty area, Villa forward Anwar El Ghazi races to head it as West Ham goalkeeper races off his line to punch it away. The inevitable collision is violent and ugly. Fabianski stretches to punch the ball, also making solid contact with El Ghazi, who goes down. From the TV commentator: “Great goalkeeping by Fabianski!” From TV guru (ex-midfielder Leon Osman): “Fabianski knew he has to get there, knew he has to be brave and strong ... unfortunately for the Villa player, who’s come off all the worse for it.”

Thus the ingrained attitude in soccer is that it is praiseworthy for goalkeepers to knock opponents (and maybe teammates) out of the way, without any regard “to the danger to, or consequences for, an opponent.” The phrase is taken from the rulebook. And it’s not unusual to hear that line about it being “unfortunate” for the player who happens to be in the way.

This is evidently a deeply ingrained attitude, one that surely needs to be grained out as soon as possible.

FURTHER READING: Violent Goalkeeping: Players at risk as soccer ignores its own rules

8 comments about "Goalkeepers revisited".
  1. Bill Riviere, September 19, 2019 at 9:37 a.m.

    Paul, as I commented after your first article on this, I concur that changes are needed! The plays in the video, were they to have taken place on an NFL or NCAA football field, would most assuredly have resulted in a DQ for targeting a defenseless player.

    A referee's number one job is keeping a game safe, and that should be at any cost to the course of a game, the score, etc.  As the rules stand now, the plays on the video should have been send offs for the keepers or at a minimum a caution in the case of injuring his own teammate, but I think a send off there too.  Of course that's a PK for the attacking team.

    Let's also not forget that the rules allow that a player can commit a punishable "dangerous play" against either an opponent or a teammate, normally resulting in an indirect kick and possibly a caution, etc.  What's the difference if it is a GK in the area or even in his own 6 yard box who does the same thing, but even more egregiously?

    You are 100% right; it should be called and let the consequences to the defending team fall where they may according to the rules (send off, caution, PK or indirect kick depending on the offense).  Excessive force and dangerous play MUST be curtailed for the safety of the players. Too often it is not.

  2. Jogo Bonito, September 19, 2019 at 11:42 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. 

  3. beautiful game, September 19, 2019 at 3:47 p.m.

    I agree with PG. FIFA is derelict in its duties when the safety of players is not the #1 priority. There are plenty of LOTG rules that need to be revisited in order to eliminate 'selective foul' calls and to guarantee safety of players. 

  4. Alan Rubin, September 19, 2019 at 5:04 p.m.

    I'm a former goalkeeper who played in the 1950's, middle school up through Lehigh University and a few years of semi-pro..  A goalkeeper has the right to a clear path to an incominmg high ball, particularly within the six.  However, they should be called for it if they are overly aggressive and make unnecessay body contact.

    I think that too many current goalkeepers are coming out for balls that they are sure of clearing cleanly.

  5. R2 Dad replied, September 19, 2019 at 9:43 p.m.

    The problem is always in the definition of "overly". Not sure how the LOTG should best be revised to address this issue. As we saw with the world cup during the summer, changing keeper habits takes a long time because--as identified in the article--ingrained behaviors reinforced by coaches, players and officials are slow to change. Leaving their feet is not necessary to inflict dangerous contact. Should the keeper own the 6 yard box? What about the 18? For me, I rarely see keepers getting injured--field players always end up with the impacts of the contact. Is that fair? It certainly doesn't seem safe. Given how IFAB handled the keeper positioning cluster in the spring, I'd hope they'd take their time to assess, advise and then EVENTUALLY implement changes to address this. Otherwise, it might be more Ready/Fire/Aim.

  6. Kent James, September 19, 2019 at 9:05 p.m.

    Paul, the ref would not only have a hard time selling the call if he called a PK on the goalkeeper for hurting his teammate, he would be wrong.  I just checked the FIFA 2019 rulebook and  the rule is: "A direct free kick is awarded if a player commits any of the following offences against an opponent in a manner...". It has to be against an opponent.  I haven't reffed for a few years, but I do think he could card the goal keeper for actions against a teammate, but no kick would be awareded to the other team. 

  7. Kent James, September 20, 2019 at 12:03 a.m.

    I also don't think the West Ham clip justifies your case of outrageous behavior by goalkeepers.  Both players are moving towards the collision, the goalkeeper gets there first, and gets the ball. He doesn't go through El Ghazito get the ball, he gets the ball cleanly (the collision is afterwards).  El Ghazi comes out the worse for wear because Fabianski gets there first, and El Ghazi's head seems to hit Fabianski's shoulder.  If Fabianski were a defender, and got to the ball first with his head, the collision would likely be worse (because it might be head to head).  This type of challenge (50/50 ball, people coming at speed from two different directions) is inherently dangerous, regardless of the role of the players involved (goalkeepers are more likely to engage in them, because of positioning).  I think each player has an obligation to judge whether they an win the ball, and the one who is going to get there second has the obligation to pull out.  This is complicated by the fact that El Ghazi is looking back towards the ball (and doesn't see Fabianski), but I think it's unfair to blame Fabianski for the collision, since El Ghazi should have pulled out.  Is Fabianski supposed to stop his challenge and let El Ghazi score?  If Fabianski were 2nd to the challenge, then he would be totally at fault.  But that's not the case.  I don't think "good refereeing" can solve either of the cases you have clips for.  If you really want to eliminate such collisions, get rid fo the GK and use a smaller goal.  But it would be a different game (but it would be interesting...).

  8. Bill Riviere, September 20, 2019 at 8:15 a.m.

    From the LOTG: "Playing in a dangerous manner.  Playing in a dangerous manner is any action that, while trying to play the ball, threatens injury to someone (including the player themself) and includes preventing a nearby opponent from playing the ball for fear of injury."

    This would result in an indirect free kick, and cover the goalkeeper injuring his teammate.

    Plenty of other laws cover reckless play and the referees (I'm one for 24 years) simply have to be trained to implement the LOTG already written and apply them in the area.  Perhaps an oversimplifying statement, but nonetheless the solution.

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