Commentary

An extraordinary refereeing oversight

A rather unpleasant article popped up recently on the website run by PRO — the group that represents the referees engaged in professional soccer in the USA. It is the official voice of the MLS referees, and the article I refer to deals with four incidents from MLS games.

Not only unpleasant, but more ominously, fallacious. It is headed “Avoidable contact with goalkeepers.” We are given four examples — with video backup — of attacking players deliberately injuring goalkeepers. The anonymous authors (there is a group of them, I gather) may deny that they are alleging intent. But the descriptions of all four incidents will support no other view.

Hear ye:

Incident No. 1: "the attacker does not retract his foot, but rather keeps his foot extended to make contact with the head of the goalkeeper with his studs."

Incidents No. 2 and No.3: “the attacker ... does not try to avoid making contact, but rather keeps his foot low and makes contact with the head of the goalkeeper."

Incident No. 4: "the attacker ... not only does he leave his foot in, but he also deliberately opens his leg[s] to ensure that he makes contact with goalkeeper’s head."

No qualms there. "Off with his head!” is the verdict, given after an almost spitefully anti-attacker analysis, and briskly delivered with the words “The attacker should be sent off for violent conduct."

The expert group has fingered four MLS players who they are satisfied will not hesitate to inflict a serious head injury on a fellow professional.

Unpleasant, no? I’m finding it very difficult to believe. It would be easy enough, should the PRO experts be interested, to put together a series of tapes showing attacking players simply pulling out of such incidents before they happen, failing that is, to go through with a legitimate challenge for fear of injuring the keeper (and, no doubt, because they know that if there is an injury, they will be blamed for it). There will be many more examples of these aborted challenges than of the villains that the experts are so keen to discover.

I have not bothered to find out whether the offending attackers were, in fact, red-carded. What matters is simply that the PRO website is ruling that they should have been. That, then, must be the official PRO position.

And it is wrong. Not merely wrong, but calamitously and dangerously so. PRO should be ashamed to be so mindlessly adopting such a position.

We can start with just plain common sense. Can it ever be a good idea for a goalkeeper to dive head-first at the feet of an on-rushing opponent? What is a likely outcome of the inevitable collision? Any intelligent person will fear a serious head injury to the goalkeeper. And any intelligent person will say, “That must not be allowed.”

But the people at PRO — who must surely qualify as intelligent persons — have apparently not spotted the danger. Nor have referees in general. Nor have soccer’s rule-makers at the hopeless IFAB.

Bad enough. But it gets worse, much worse. Where have all those key people been for the past decade or so? Is it conceivable that they are all unaware of the growing concern about head injuries in sports, of the mounting evidence that concussions must be taken very seriously?

Apparently they have indeed all been asleep. How else to explain that they have left intact in their sport this phase of play that almost encourages head injuries to goalkeepers?

And, would you believe it, things do manage to get even worse. We’re hitting rock bottom now ... because soccer, especially its rule makers and its referees, has been blatantly contravening its own rules in allowing goalkeepers to dive at the feet of opponents.

Rule 12 (officially known, with due pomposity, as Law XII) tells us that:

“An indirect free kick is awarded if a player ‘plays in a dangerous manner.’” It used to be called “dangerous play,” and it’s been in the rulebook since at least 1891. Some years later — during my early soccer days — we were told about it and the example we learned was that of a player stooping low to head the ball. Lowering your head down to where the feet belonged was dangerous play even though the danger was to the player who committed the offense: he ran the risk of getting his head kicked off, but the free kick (indirect) went against him. Of course, we all felt pretty smart about knowing this counter-intuitive but very sensible rule.

What we did not do — and no one has done since — was to apply the rule to goalkeepers. If a head lowered to waist level is dangerous play, how can a head down among flying feet at ground level not be even more, much more, dangerous?

This is how the current rulebook, on page 101, defines the offense: “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.” A definition that specifically underlines that the player committing the offense may be the one who gets hurt.

The point needs no discussion. When a goalkeeper dives at an opponent’s feet he is guilty of playing in a dangerous manner. Big time.

Which thoroughly destroys PRO’s arguments against what it sees as deliberately dirty play by attackers. The guilty party in all their examples is the goalkeeper. Guilty of playing in a dangerous manner. He is the one who introduces the “dangerous” element into the play.

Yet ... the goalkeeper’s guilt is excusable. He is diving at feet because referees allow this. So the referees are guilty? Partially, yes. The ultimate guilt, of course, lies with the ultimate authority, FIFA and its pathetic rule-making body IFAB.

The incidents condemned by PRO could be banished from the game overnight. No change to the rulebook is needed. Just a simple reminder from FIFA that referees are to enforce a rule that is already in the rulebook, and has been for decades. The rule against playing in a dangerous manner.

9 comments about "An extraordinary refereeing oversight".
  1. Matthew Shaddock, July 27, 2022 at 4:01 p.m.

    Watching the first two clips... I disagree. In both instances, the goalkeeper is grabbing the ball in a legal manner. Both times the attacker leaves a foot in and does not make contact with the ball. As with any other player on any other part of the field, if he does not touch the ball but does make contact with the body of the other player, this is a foul o the attacker. And that it be in the most sensitive area of the body, the head, makes it more severe and worse. These should all be yellow cards if not reds. The attacker should anticipate that a goalkeeper is in his rights to pick up a ball on the ground, and should avoid the contact as much as possible. Protect the keepers, punish the offenders. Simple. 

  2. Larry Blake, July 27, 2022 at 4:17 p.m.

    Beware when a newsman preaches about "injustice." It's often the case that he (she) is not seeing that there is another side. It seems to me that goalies should be throwing themselves around in all directions and attacking players should realize that and take care.

  3. Derek Liecty, July 27, 2022 at 5:25 p.m.

    Why should goalkeepers get extra protection when they throw their head down on the ground at the foot of an attacking player.  It is ridiculous to expect an attacker to make a split second decision to withdraw his foot in this situation. Mr. Gardner brings up an interesting conundrum.  He is correct:  goalkeepers are at fault when they throw their heads down the ground as an attacker is about kick the ball.  The goalkeeper is putting himself in danger.  But, would a referee EVER call this as Dangerous Play on the part of the goalkeeper and award an Indirect Free Kick a few yards out in front of the goal mouth?  It is the same hypocrisy that occurs when a defender is injured by no one's intentional fault in front of his own goal and play is stopped.  In my day, the way to restart play would be with a Drop Ball at the point of injury.  Why is it that today the way to restart play is to give an Indirect Free Kick in favor of the defense when in fact no LaW has been broken?  I must say that as much as I hated the way the NCAA perverted the Laws of the Game, the NCAA rule in my day was to give a Drop Ball at the nearest point out side the Penalty Area.

  4. Bill Riviere, July 27, 2022 at 7:28 p.m.

    I've only seen the video that leads with your article, Paul.  That was a dangerous play by the keeper.  In my opinion as a referee, I saw no attempt by the attacker that qualifies as a foul.  The keeper's sliding head actually initiates contact.

  5. Wooden Ships, July 28, 2022 at 10:16 a.m.

    Assumption of Risk. Keepers are a brave lot, there aren't many aspects of their position that endear them  to field players, this is one. Do we expect Keepers to remain standing, trying to stop all shots with kick saves? Would a helmet requirement be the answer? We get injured in life and betrayed by fairness. Spirit of the game allows for valiant net minders. 

  6. R2 Dad, July 28, 2022 at 11:49 a.m.

    I think the obvious solution is to make keepers wear helmets. Like in the NHL, where old guys could avoid the rule but young guys could not. Not just any helmet, I think keepers should be required to wear big, dorky foam helmets. Not very manly, but safe. The perfect antidote in a sport  that insists professional players at this position are better if they have a screw loose.

  7. Kent James, July 28, 2022 at 2:06 p.m.

    As usual, Paul finds an interesting situation and sheds a light on it.  These are all very difficult calls; I think a red card would be pretty harsh (I think the last one was the most likely to be valid, the others, I don't think so).  Most cases there is a 50/50 ball that both players have a belief they can get, but the GK gets there first. So fouls on the player who got there second, sure.  But a red card? Not unless there were egregious circumstances (that attacker could have pulled out and did not, or the attacker was so reckless (going in studs up when contact was inevitable, e.g.).  


    To Paul's point, that the GK should be penalized for endangering themselves, I don't think that's fair unless there is a specific rule change that says GKs cannot dive when there are attackers who might kick them, and I think that would be very hard to enforce.  Although thinking about it, if there was a rule that GKs cannot dive at all (and you made the goal smaller), that might be interesting.  More people would want to play goalkeeper (and it would be easier to play GK on hard surfaces), but that's a different discussion.


    As it is, it's up to the GK to dive or not (though there's certainly pressure on them to endanger themselves). An injury is punishment enough, no need to call dangerous play to that (something about "adding insult to injury" seems appropriate here).  And continuing with Paul's logic, should we call a dangerous play against two people that go up for a 50/50 head ball, since they are both endagering themselves and their opponent?  I don't think that's workable.  


    In short, referees won't save goalkeepers from themselves by ramping up dangerous play calls.  If you want to stop these sorts of situations, you have to change the rules substantially, which would change the game.  Maybe we get rid of goalkeepers altogether, and place smaller goals in an area with a "no man's land" so defenders can't act like keepers, as is done with a lot of pickup games.  But then you miss powerful shots on goal (since there is rarely a need), which would be quite a loss.  Good topic, not resolved.

  8. Wayne Norris, August 5, 2022 at 7:12 p.m.

    Whatever happened to "stuff happens"? Why does blame need to be applied to every instance of injury? 


    In the video example for this article NEITHER player does anything wrong. Sometimes contact happens and sometimes players get injured on clean?

    PRO needs to dissolve itself immediately!!

  9. R2 Dad, August 7, 2022 at 12:04 p.m.

    I'm wondering your thoughts on a version of above scenario where the keeper comes out to punch a ball, the attacker gets the ball first but then keeper clocks attacker with forearm to the neck. (This was an EPL match I think). Is there some unwritten understanding that if the keeper gets the ball first he can ram players without consequence, much like if defender clears the ball before the attacker reaches it, all sort of after-contact has been rationalized?

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