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Playing the Ball in the Goalkeeper's Possession

By Jim Allen, National Instructor Staff

This article is designed to help make referees and players aware of what constitutes goalkeeper possession and what opponents may and may not do when the goalkeeper has possession.

  • Watch an Application of This Law From a World Cup Qualifier Between Trinidad and Bahrain

What Does "Possession” Mean?
While the ball is in the possession of the goalkeeper, it cannot be played by an opponent. Any attempt to do so may be punished by a direct free kick.  "In the possession of the goalkeeper" is defined as the goalkeeper having the ball trapped between one hand and a surface (which may include the other hand, the ground, a goalpost, or the keeper's own body).  International Board Decision Two of Law 12 emphasizes that the hand includes any part of the hand or arm.  However, as stated in the Advice to Referees on the Laws of the Game (Advice 12.16 and 12.17), the goalkeeper is also considered to be in possession of the ball while bouncing it on the ground or while throwing it into the air.  Possession is given up if, while throwing the ball into the air, it is allowed to strike the ground.

Once the goalkeeper has gained possession (also known as "control") of the ball, an opponent may not interfere with or block the goalkeeper's distribution of the ball.  For example, players have a right to maintain a position achieved during the normal course of play, but they may not try to block the goalkeeper's movement while he or she is holding the ball and trying to distribute it.  Nor may opposing players do anything to hinder, interfere with, or block a goalkeeper who is throwing or punting the ball back into play.  The goalkeeper has already gained possession and is granted up to six seconds to release the ball back into play by other players.  A goalkeeper in the act of distributing the ball may not be challenged under these circumstances.  (This includes trying to head a ball out of the goalkeeper's open hand or playing a ball being bounced or tossed into the air by the goalkeeper.)  An opponent does not violate the Law, however, if that player takes advantage of a ball clearly released by the goalkeeper directly to him or her, in his or her direction, or deflecting off him or her nonviolently.

When is Possession Lost?
The critical question is when the goalkeeper has released the ball into play and thus has allowed the ball to be played by an opponent.  Based on traditional interpretations of this issue and the International Board's Questions and Answers, the referee should consider the ball as having been released into play after leaving the goalkeeper's hands only if the goalkeeper has completed a throw or kick (punt) and the goalkeeper is not able directly to possess the ball again in his or her hands.  Thus, the ball is not playable by an opponent during the entire time it is being held by the goalkeeper (including when the ball is being bounced on the ground) or during the entire process of being released into play (including the action of throwing or kicking/punting the ball).  In short, opponents may play the ball only if the goalkeeper has clearly distributed the ball by kicking or throwing it.

"Parrying" Versus "Saving"
The concept of "parrying" is still in the Law; however, parrying is no longer seen at the higher levels of play, because it is no longer an effective tool for the goalkeeper, who has only six seconds to distribute the ball after achieving possession.  "Parrying" should not be confused with making a "save."  "Parrying" occurs when the goalkeeper controls the ball with the hands by pushing it to an area where it can be played later. By parrying the ball, the goalkeeper has done two things simultaneously:  (1) established control and (2) given up possession.  The ball is now free for all to play and the goalkeeper may not play it again with the hands. Referees must watch carefully to see that the goalkeeper does not use a parry (disguised as a “save”) in an attempt to hide the fact that he or she has established possession.

When the Goalkeeper Releases the Ball
Since the overhaul of the Laws in 1997, other players may not attempt to play the ball while the goalkeeper has possession of the ball or is attempting to release the ball so that others may play it.  An opposing player attempting to do so with the foot should be whistled for either kicking or attempting to kick, and the referee must award a direct free kick.  The goalkeeper gives up possession if, while throwing the ball into the air, he allows it to strike the ground.  The goalkeeper also gives up possession by clearly releasing it for general play.  It is playable in such a case as soon as it hits the ground.  (NOTE:  The released ball must hit the ground to be playable.  If the goalkeeper is punting the ball, the opponent may not interfere or attempt to play the ball.)  Any attempt to kick the ball while it is in the possession of the 'keeper may be punished by a direct free kick (and may be subject to caution or send-off, depending on the circumstances).

If the goalkeeper has control—but not full possession—by means other than the hands (e.g., dribbling with the feet or holding the ball against the ground with his body or feet), an opponent may challenge the goalkeeper in any permissible way.  As there are very few permissible ways to play a ball trapped by the goalkeeper's body or legs, the goalkeeper must either release the ball immediately or rise and play the ball immediately.  Failure to do so could result in the awarding of an indirect free kick against the goalkeeper for playing dangerously, and, if this illegal control persists, possibly a caution and yellow card for unsporting behavior.

Why Are These Provisions Important?
These provisions are important because the IFAB wants the ball to be playable as much and for as long as possible.  Anything that reduces legal challenges for the ball must be strictly limited.  That is why there are rules against the goalkeeper establishing second possession (also known as second touch) or handling a ball that has been deliberately kicked to him or her by a teammate, handling on a throw-in from a teammate, and even the basic limitation of six seconds. They are all designed to keep to a minimum the time an opponent may not challenge for the ball.

What the Referee Looks For
The referee's perception of goalkeeper possession should be tempered by the players’ skill level.  At very young ages, possession of the ball should be defined broadly to include having a hand on the ball, other than purely incidental contact.  Once the goalkeeper is in possession of the ball, opponents must stop challenging or attempting to play the ball. Any attempt to kick, head, knee, or otherwise play the ball in the goalkeeper's possession must be considered as an action directed at the goalkeeper and therefore should be considered as a direct free kick offense.  If contact is made, the referee might consider that the kicking player committed serious foul play and might then send off the player and show the red card.