© 1998 jointly in the following individuals: Jim Geissman, David Graham, Jim MacQueen, Connie Matthies, Jim Meinhold, Chris Mohr, Gary Rue, Ken Smith, Dave Teetz, Ron Tremper, who are together known pseudonymously as the SOCCER-COACH-L LOTG COLLECTIVE

Law 12 - Fouls and Misconduct

Text | Offenses punishable by DFK | Offenses punishable by IFK | Misconduct | The Goalkeeper | Download

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Offenses punishable by Direct Free Kick
Tripping, pushing, jumping, striking, kicking
Holding, spitting, handling
Tackling and charging offenses
Offenses punishable by Indirect Free Kick
Dangerous play
The Goalkeeper

Offenses punishable by Direct Free Kick

1. Tripping, pushing, jumping, striking, kicking, charging

Thumbnail | Commentary | FAQ | Contents of Law 12


The initial section of Law 12, "direct free kick", lists a set of six offences which, if committed against an opponent in a manner that the referee judges to be "careless, reckless or with excessive force", result in a DFK to the non-offending team. The offences are kicking or attempting to kick, tripping or attempting to trip, jumping at, charging, striking or attempting to strike, and pushing.

Law 12 further provides that, if a player commits any of these six offenses inside his own penalty area (PA), the opposing team will be awarded a penalty kick (PK). While the offence must occur within the PA, the ball does not have to be in the PA for a PK to be awarded.


So the word is out. Even in the "gentlemanly" game of soccer, people sometimes lose control and do things that are not exactly appropriate. To be a foul, the first six of these, listed above, must not only occur, but must be committed in a manner "considered by the referee to be careless, reckless, or using excessive force".

First off, what's "careless or reckless?" Synonyms for these words are rash, negligent, wild, unconcerned, neglectful, improvident and a few others, but you get the idea. While excessive force is harder to define, let's just agree that it's a bit more violent than the norm since the referee makes the decision on the field anyway (and what's an "excessive" push in a U-8 game might not even be noticed in a professional match).

So there we have it. Three things that you get in trouble for even trying to do (kicking, tripping, striking) and a couple that you have to actually accomplish in order to create a foul (jump at, push). And by the way, possession of or proximity to the ball isn't even involved in any of them. If A trips B while the ball is 60 meters away, it can still be a foul. However, all of these do require that the action be directed at an opponent. Therefore, if a keeper decides to strike her own defender for an especially poor play, this section of the law is not applicable. However, it's quite likely that the referee will decide that this is violent conduct under a later section of law 12 and act accordingly.

Right from the git go, be aware that if a player stands there and sticks her foot out and clearly trips an opponent on the way past or runs up to another player and kicks her, the referee will judge this to be either careless, reckless or with excessive force and call a foul. It seems to get a little murkier, however, when the non-offending player has the ball, as either the trip or kick might possibly be an unintended consequence of trying to get the ball. But have no fear, intent has nothing to do with this one. If a player trys to steal the ball and, through carelessness or recklessness, misses and takes the attacker to the ground, the referee will call a trip. In fact, even if she "gets ball" prior to the opponent hitting the deck, the referee might judge the "getting ball" to be just an unintended consequence of the takedown and call a foul.

Now, with all of that said, be aware that any of these offences, if committed violently enough, can land the perpetrator on the bad side of a yellow or even red card for serious foul play or violent conduct.

Questions on tripping, jumping, pushing, striking and kicking

12.1.01 My player was dribbling down the field and an opponent tripped her but the referee didn't call it. How come?

Several possibilities. Remember that advantage applies to most everything in soccer so the referee might have thought that he'd be giving an advantage to the other team by calling the trip. Also, maybe the defender "had the ball" and your player tripped over that.

12.1.02. If a foul, of the type for which a direct free kick is awarded, occurs right on the penalty area line but not inside it, is the result a direct free kick or a penalty kick?

Remember that "on it is inside it" (or "the lines are part of the area they define") so a PK will be awarded.

12.1.03. Many parents, and some coaches and players, frequently complain the other team is getting away with "pushing", and this is listed as a penalizable offense in the rules. What exactly do the rules mean is illegal pushing, and what is not illegal?

Specifically, they mean that if the pushing is careless, reckless or done with excessive force in the opinion of the referee, the foul will be called. If a player pushes another to the ground with two hands in the back, it's clearly a foul. If a player pushes off another while both jumping for a ball, its likely marginal depending on the force of the push. As mentioned earlier, the level of pushing allowed varies greatly from game to game depending on the nationality of the teams involved, level of play, experience and mood of the referee, the position of the moon, etc.

12.1.04. An attacker in possession of the ball has broken ahead of everyone, and will soon have a shot opportunity on goal 1-vs-1 against the goalkeeper. The attacker is tripped up by a defender, who deliberately tackles from behind before the attacker reaches the penalty area, to prevent the breakaway, figuring the attackers will get a direct free kick, not a goal or penalty shot and the worst that will likely happen is a yellow card. Apart from sportsmanship considerations, to what extent has the defender miscalculated the severity of the potential consequences, and to what extent (if any) is the defender correct in his / her Machiavellian calculations?

If the referee judges that the attacker had an obvious goal-scoring opportunity (more detail later in this law), the defender will have plenty of time to contemplate his act from the sidelines after he receives a red card. In that case, this is actually counted both as a) a trip and b) committing a foul punishable by a free kick to prevent an obvious goal-scoring opportunity.

12.1.05. Another player jumped at me (I think)! How can I know for sure?

Any player whose feet leave the ground and who does not jump straight up may be called for "jumping at" if he or she makes contact with an opponent. You should be careful not to confuse "jumping at" with a fair (shoulder) charge, in which a player may legitimately use his or her shoulder to push an opponent off the ball, as long as contact is made with the opponent's shoulder. But if a player jumps at an opponent, the offence will be called no matter what parts of the body actually make contact -- "jumping at" can also involve the cleats.

12.1.06. I thought striking or kicking an opponent was serious foul play or violent conduct and would get a player sent off?

Well, they can be but not necessarily. A good example here is "spitting". If you spit at an opponent (dealt with later in this law), you're off. Gone. Period. No question of severity, amount, referee's judgement, whatever. In opposition to that approach, all of the fouls dealt with in this section can earn a red card if the referee decides that they're done in such either violently or carelessly enough to merit same. So there you are shielding the ball with the opponent bumping you from behind and you swing your arm back to "clear some space". Maybe a free kick for striking, but not likely a red. If, in the same instance, you turn and punch the opponent in the head, bingo. Red and gone. In another example, an opponent falls on the ground with the ball at his feet and you go up and kick at the ball and hit him at the same time. Maybe a free kick for kicking an opponent. In the same circumstance, you go up and kick him in the stomach to teach him not to lie on or about the ball and you're gone. So in this section it's not necessarily whether a player pushes or kicks or strikes that determines whether it's just a free kick or a red card (and sending off) but how it's done.


12.1.07. What's the difference between 'pushing' and 'striking'?

Well, I'm sure that any of your U-6's would be able to tell you whether they got "pushed" or "hit" better than I but here goes. Try to picture "striking" as using your hand or elbow or the ball (more on this in a minute) to simply pop the opponent in the nose. For pushing, see yourself placing your hands gently on the opponent's back and shoving him 10M into the cheap seats. There's your difference. With regard to striking with the ball, be aware that it's a foul penalized by a penalty kick if the keeper, in his own penalty area, strikes an opponent by throwing the ball at him while the ball is in play, regardless of where the opponent is located.

12.1.08. A player swung his arm as part of his windup for a shot on goal, and in the process accidentally hit and knocked out a player from the other team who was approaching from behind. The other team was screaming for my player to be sent off, but the referee restarted with a drop ball -- what do you think about this?

A GREAT backswing and likely a good non-call based on the "accidentally" and "from behind" wording. Now if the defender was approaching from the FRONT, a send-off would have been more likely.

12.1.09. A player on the other team decided to try a bicycle kick in midfield, and in the process broke the jaw of one of my players who was coming to challenge the ball. The referee awarded a DFK to us -- would this have been for kicking an opponent?

That's the likely choice since the other best possibility, dangerous play, is an IFK offence.

2. Holding, Spitting, and Handling the Ball
(Strictly Enforced DFK Offenses)

Thumbnail | Commentary | FAQ | Contents of Law 12


The second section of Law 12 provides for the award of a direct free kick to the non-offending team for the commission of the following four offenses:

  1. holding an opponent;
  2. spitting at an opponent;
  3. handling the ball deliberately (other than by goalkeepers in their own penalty area);
  4. tackling an opponent to gain possession of the ball, but making physical contact with the opponent before contact with the ball. Tackling and the closely related subject of physically charging opponents are important subjects which will be treated in a separate subtopic of their own, and we will mainly cover only holding, spitting, and handling in this subtopic.

This section of Law 12 further provides that, if this offense is committed by a player within his own defensive penalty area (PA), the opponent is awarded a penalty kick (PK). While the offense must occur in the PA, the ball does not have to be in the PA for a PK to be awarded, unless the offense is for handling the ball.

Commentary and Coaching Points

In contrast to the six types of actions listed in the first section of Law 12, there is no requirement that the referee first consider any of the four types of actions listed in the second section of Law 12 to have been committed by a player carelessly, recklessly, or using excessive force before calling them as an offense. This second section of Law 12 reflects an intent for referees to be stricter and allow less leeway to regard these four types of actions as acceptably accidental, unintentional, or incidental side effects of otherwise fair play. The six actions listed in the first section of Law 12 mostly represent unacceptably overboard or improperly motivated extensions to types of activities whose nature would otherwise be consistent with the law and spirit of the game, or else be realistically unavoidable incidentals to a contact sport like soccer. By comparison, the first three types of actions listed in the second section of Law 12 have far less consistency with any fair objective of the game, and hence are tolerable only when they are wholly unintentional and accidental in the course of otherwise fair play. Tackling an opponent to win possession of the ball is a special case of a deliberate type of activity that of itself is entirely consistent with the spirit and law of the game, but unavoidably risks creating rough and even dangerous play. The compromise is to license the player to make the attempt, but add by way of caveat that the player better contact the ball first or else strongly risk being charged with an offense (plus a card, if the referee regards the attempt as reckless or excessively forceful).

  1. Holding an opponent: A player is not allowed to deliberately use their hands to grab an opponent's body or jersey or to use the arms (or legs) to hook the opponent, for the purpose of restraining the opponent or to force them off-balance. Holding can also include extending the arms outward physically against another player to form a barrier to their progress, although this particular action likewise could be characterized as illegal obstruction, if the referee so choses. A player caught deliberately pulling an opponent's jersey also is at particularly strong risk from many referees of receiving a yellow card.

  2. Spitting at an opponent: This offense is primarily about an unacceptably inflammatory show of disrespect to an opponent, and only secondarily (if at all) about health risks. Even if a player is standing near one touch line while exchanging hard stares with an opponent who is standing across the field near the other touch line, if the player spits at the opponent, the referee can call the player for an offense. So long as the referee judges the player to have hurled an insult by spitting in an opponent's direction, it does not matter that the force of the spitting is limited or whether the player stays at a distance that poses no risk of the spit actually reaching the opponent. A player called for the offense of spitting will very likely also be ejected from the game with a red card, since spitting is specifically listed in the last section of Law 12 as an offense that merits sending off the guilty player.

  3. Handling the ball deliberately: Few rules in soccer are so simple, yet so often misunderstood as the one making deliberate handling of the ball an offense. The language police may seem insufferable to fuss at people for calling it a "handball", but this time they have a point: this terminology is not a harmlessly incorrect informality like calling offside instead "offsides", but instead subtly misleads toward incorrect understanding of the rule itself. It is a rule against deliberately playing the ball with the hands or arms, i.e. "handling" it, and not a rule against the ball striking the hand and arms during play, i.e. a "handball". Law 12 establishes two requirements before handling the ball is considered a foul:

    1. The handling must be deliberate (not accidental) - in other words, there must be an intent to play the ball with the hand or arm.
    2. The hand/arm must actually come into contact with the ball (i.e., it is not an offense to swing and miss - although some referees might consider this to be unsporting behavior which would warrant a caution).

    Understanding what the rule actually means by requiring that handling be "deliberate" and fully appreciating the spirit-of-the-game rationale behind the rule are fundamental to gaining a practical, accurate grasp of when it does or does not likely apply. The very essence of soccer is that the hands and arms are NOT to be deliberately used to play the ball, either directly to deflect it or indirectly to block or control the possible paths along which others may direct the ball. Soccer would be essentially the same sport, with a bit more scoring, if the goalkeeper position were eliminated, but a quite different one if every player had the same right as the goalkeeper to use hands or arms. Philosophically, the handling rule is the most important rule in the game, defining the most distinguishing characteristic of the sport. On the other hand, there is nothing much lost to the game, either essentially or practically, from accidental contact that truly does not result from any deliberate attempt to play the ball with the hand or arm.

    Deliberately attempting to "play" the ball includes, as expected, any attempt to intentionally deflect an imminently anticipated or already incoming ball using the hand or arms. However, deliberately attempting to "play" the ball also includes deliberately extending the hands and arms into the potential paths available to any ball that might come into the player's vicinity, even if the ball is not imminently expected or even nearby at the moment the hand or arm is extended. Without this inclusion to what constitutes "deliberate" handling, players would be able implicitly "guard" an area of the field with their arms and hands, so long as they extended them before an incoming ball was imminently anticipated or nearby. Their arsenal of tools available for playing the ball would expand to include the hands and arms. This is why a player running down the field with the arms held out in front or extended out from the side of the body is inviting a handling call if struck by the ball.

    So, with such a liberal interpretation of what is "deliberate" handling, how could ball-to-hand or arm contacts ever avoid being "deliberate"?

    First, leeway is usually given for players to extend their arms momentarily to keep from losing balance, but this leeway may be lost or quickly exhausted if a player seems to be contriving to abuse this tolerance.

    Second, anatomically there is no way humans can ever totally keep their hands and arms out of harms way. Some leeway is usually given players for this fact without requiring them to be contortionists, so long as the player seems to be making a fair attempt to avoid using the hands and arms to play the ball. However, it is important to realize that a player, even one who has hands and arms tucked as tightly straight down against their side as possible, who deliberately turns sideways into the ball so the arm and hand are exposed to the incoming ball, will often be regarded by the referee as having attempted to play the ball and therefore having committed a deliberate handling offense. This is especially true if the player makes any gesture to angle that side of the body to influence the deflection.

    Third, many refs will often allow some leeway for truly unexpected bounces into the player's hand or arm when the player is clearly reasonably expecting to be able to play the ball cleanly without difficulty by only using the feet and is in fact trying to do so. However, this leeway is extended more inconsistently and less often than the other two types, and applies mainly when hands and arms appear to be extended only to a position the player reasonably expected to be well out of the way of potential play on the incoming ball.

    It should now be clear why each of the following common, persistent assumptions is false.

    1. an assumption that any hand or arm-to ball contact is a handling offense (a Hand-Ball ;=);
    2. an assumption that an instance of handling cannot be deliberate, because either:
      1. the player extended their hand or arm before the ball was in their vicinity, or else before they knew the ball would be kicked in their particular direction; or
      2. the player may have know that the ball was in their vicinity, but the ball was kicked unexpectedly soon or hard, so the player did not have time to move out of the way of the ball before it struck them.

Questions on holding, spitting and handling

12.2.01 What is the difference between holding and obstruction, and what practical difference does it make which characterization the referee gives to the situation?

Obstruction requires no physical contact with an opponent to be an offense, but instead focuses on a player's improper attempt, while they are not within playing distance of the ball, to shade an opponent from the ball (see the more complete discussion in the obstruction section of this FAQ). To the extent physical contact may be involved, it could consist entirely of conduct that would be entirely permissible if the player was legitimately playing for the ball or to fairly gain a position to receive it. Holding OTOH requires physical contact, concerns a player seeking to restrain an opponent by improperly extending the hands, arms, or (less commonly) legs to restrain or even hook the opponent, and can be committed even by a player immediately in possession of the ball. Another important difference is that even if a player commits an obstruction offense within their own defensive penalty area, the opponents are only awarded an indirect free kick. By contrast, a holding offense would result in a penalty kick for the opponents if committed within that location (and a direct free kick if committed elsewhere). Thus, whether obstruction or holding is called will have practical consequences roughly in direct proportion to how close to the opponent's goal the action occurred. The next question explores the issue of sorting out illegal physical contact by holding from legal contact that nonetheless is being used to obstruct an opponent.

12.2.02 What if a player is improperly obstructs an opponent, in part by fending them off with a partly outstretched arm. Which offense, holding or obstruction, will the referee probably call?

If the arm is held out far enough or used aggressively enough to restrain the opponent as to clearly be holding even apart from the obstruction, then LOTG 5 directs the referee to call the more serious of any two simultaneous offenses, which in this case is holding. However, there is no bright-line demarcation between using the arms in a way that is clearly holding even independent of whether obstruction is involved, and action that is clearly designed to obstruct, but where the deployment of the arms would be legal or at least tolerably incidental in another context. In part, this comes down to the need for the rules to accommodate human anatomy realistically during dynamic movement and play: players simply aren't expected to play with their arms held rigidly tight against their sides. They are allowed some freedom of action to moderately extend the arm outward for balance and natural running action, and even to take some deliberate incidental advantage of this leeway to occupy and preserve their playing space; just not overly much.

A good, informal test is this: assume a vertical standing position, with arms held loosely against the sides. Now, take one modest leaping step forward, allowing the arms to swing forward a bit for natural balance, without attempting to throw them outward. When you land, the elbows will still be pointing nearly, but not quite vertically downward, but perhaps 4 or a tad more inches out from the body (of course, varying somewhat with your height, etc). You're probably safe at least out to here, unless you are actively jabbing your opponent with your elbow, piston-style. You are allowed a bit more leeway when cutting or turning, so long as the elbow is held predominately down. However, the more your elbow comes out at an angle from this, the more risk the contact will be viewed as holding, rather than fairly incidental to your right to occupy space and keep balance, including taking into account contact from your opponent. Also, so far, we've only taken into account mainly the action of the upper arm and elbow. Actively using or extending the lower arm or hand at any angle other than in a mostly vertical or straight forward plane is suspect, and greatly increases the chances the you will be regarded as holding or pushing, rather than fairly taking incidental advantage of your right to occupy space and keep balance against your opponent's contact.

Other situational factors may also enter the referee's judgment of whether to call holding or obstruction (or maybe nothing) in this gray zone, such as the age and level of competition involved (higher == more physical play tolerated) and whether the consequences of the call seem disproportionate to the particular nature of the action involved. This may especially be true where the action occurs in the guilty player's defensive penalty area, and the referee feels that a penalty kick is unfairly disproportionate in the particular circumstances. However, this logic is not available to bail out a defender who has regained possession of the ball right in front of their own goal and is madly trying to fend off an attacker long enough to turn and safely clear the ball, but is getting over-aggressive with their arms. Obstruction within playing distance of the ball is perfectly legal, whereas holding is not, leaving the referee with an all-or-nothing decision whether to call a penalty kick offense in the particular circumstances.

12.2.03 How far is a player allowed to extend their arms out during contact with an opponent before it will be called holding rather than a fair incident of maintaining balance of occupying playing space?

This question is entirely answered in the previous question 12.2.02, especially the second paragraph of that answer, which applies to other situations as well.

12.2.04 What is the difference between holding, pushing, and tripping, and what practical difference does it make which characterization the referee gives to the situation?

The consequences for each are the same (direct free kick, except penalty kick when committed in the player's own defensive penalty area), and the referee need not articulate which occurred to signal an offense. All the referee need signal is any stoppage in play necessitated thereby and the appropriate restart. Therefore it matters little which characterization the referee chooses, although the referee may be somewhat quicker to call something that looks like holding rather than let it go as an incidental effect of otherwise fair play. It is important to remember that these characterizations are not tightly defined criminal statutory offenses in soccer, but rather serve as convenient labels for various improper uses by a player of their hands, arms, and legs. The distinction between pushing and holding is mostly arbitrary, except that hooking or grabbing an opponent with the hands or arms is unlikely to be a part of any fair play, and more likely characterized as holding (and likely more quickly called). Otherwise, informally, holding seeks to restrain whereas pushing seeks to positively force an opponent in an undesired direction (for them). A player extending their legs to block an opponent will be more likely characterized as tripping or attempting to trip their opponent than as holding them, except possibly when the player raises their leg higher up against their opponent's leg to hook and restrain them far more than possibly to upset their balance, the action may be recognized as holding. Again, however, the distinction is somewhat arbitrary.

12.2.05 I recently watched a game in which players from the two teams repeatedly contended for high balls, with one player typically stationed behind the other. On one occasion, the referee called a foul on the front player, and awarded his opponent an indirect free kick. Later, a couple of times a direct free kick was given against the back player, and other times nothing was called. Why are the calls so different? Is the referee merely being inconsistent or not calling some of these plays correctly?

When the player in front was called for the IFK foul, it was for illegal obstruction, because the referee felt that the front player was not primarily trying to play the ball himself but rather was trying to prevent his opponent from being able to play it by blocking him off the ball. When the back player was called for the foul, the referee in all likelihood thought the front player was making a legitimate attempt to play the incoming air ball himself, and that the back player was trying to use pressure from his hands and body to improperly to go over the back of the front player. In this case, the referee would call a holding or pushing foul. Especially in higher-level competition, the referee may want to "let 'em play" and may therefore decide to allow a fair degree of physical contact. Some incidents of such contact may not be called fouls at all so long as the shoving doesn't get out of hand or become truly unfair.

12.2.06 Sometimes when two players from opposite teams are positioned one just in front of the other on an incoming ball from the air, I will see the player in back place his hands on the upper back of the player in front of them. A foul is not always called on this, even when the referee has a good view of what's going on. I thought this should clearly be holding or pushing. Is the referee properly refraining from calling anything, or merely being inattentive or inconsistent?

So long as the back player doesn't actually push with the hands, some referees will tolerate this up to a point in order for the back player to protect his chin from the head, shoulders, and arms of the front player when they both jump up for the ball. Obviously, even a referee who is favorably disposed to tolerate this technique will usually recognize limits beyond which the back player is abusing this tolerance, in order to push the front player, or is holding the front player for an unfair advantage. In those cases, a foul will be called.

12.2.07 One of my players is in the habit of sometimes casually spitting on the ground in front of him at moments when play is paused, even sometimes when there's an opponent standing nearby to mark him. I'm sure he means nothing by it, but could this habit be serious trouble?

He is doing nothing illegal merely by spitting on the field, even when an opponent is nearby, so long as it is clear in the context to both the referee and the opponent that nothing is meant by it. However, because of the potentially very serious consequences if the opponent (and the referee, perhaps influenced by the opponent's upset reaction) misinterprets his action, you would be wise to make sure he knows the seriousness of what is at stake. This could include not only a direct free kick or penalty kick, but his expulsion from the game with a red card, which in most leagues and tournaments requires at least his being barred from the next game as well (possibly more). He should be instructed to always keep this in mind, and spit only when no one else is closely around, and in a direction away from anyone. Substitute him out of the game if he is getting careless about this, or you may be doing without him anyway (and be forced to lay the rest of the game with only 10 players on the field if he is expelled with a red card).

12.2.08 What if players react instinctively to throw their arms and hands up to protect themselves against against a sudden, hard ball that seems to be coming directly at them? Will this be called as handling?

The vast majority of the time, yes! There is no general right to handle the ball to protect oneself! The proper response is to try to duck out of the way instead. This is another situation where the risk of inadvertently legalizing use of the hands and arms would be an unacceptable consequence, if players were able to justify redirecting any ball that comes in hard at them as self-defense. What may be tolerated sometimes by some referees is to for a player to place their arms and hands tightly against their body and face, straight up, so long as no attempt is made to use the arms to affect the angle angle or strength of the ball's deflection, or move unnecessarily to meet the ball. Otherwise, such will be regarded as an attempt to play the ball. However, be aware that this practice will tend to be only inconsistently and occasionally tolerated, more so the younger and less experienced the player and less so the higher level competitive, older, or more experienced the player. An attitude prevalent among referees is that players should usually be expected to duck instead of parry the ball with the arms in self-defense, even as described. Young players are not really being extended a favor by permitting them over-laxity about handling calls, since this will only reinforce bad habits that will not be tolerated later on, or by all referees even for their age players.

12.2.09 I thought men and women are allowed to protect sensitive areas when they stand as part of the wall in front of the goal on free kicks for the opponent. Can't men protect their crotch and women their breasts?

Yes, provided that the arms and hands are held tightly against the body to protect the affected area, and provided they do not abuse this privilege by trying to use it for any collateral purpose to affect the ball other than as truly required for self-protection. In particular, they must not play the ball by seeking to control its deflection in any conscious or predetermined way (i.e. they should face forward, into the music). For men, this means arms held straight down tightly against their chest, and hands crossed against their crotches, facing straight forward into the ball to the extent possible in the circumstances. For women, this means arms held tightly against their chest, with elbows pointing more or less straight down, and forearms crossed in front of their breasts, held tightly against them, again facing straight into the ball to the extent possible in the circumstances.

12.2.10 Same question as 12.2.09, except that the players are protecting themselves from an incoming ball during regular play, not in a set piece like the wall. Does the same exemption from the handling rule apply for both sexes?

The application of these exemptions become much less consistent and reliable other than in wall situations. Women (including any players old enough to have developed breasts) have traditionally been extended some leeway by many referees to use the crossed-arms-against-chest protection described in question 12.2.09, and men to use the hands covering the crotch protection also described in that same question. However, many referees feel that just as with protecting the head, the proper response is to duck or move, rather than to needlessly tolerate an opening for players to play the ball by parrying it under the guise of flinching while protecting themselves. The higher the level competition, the older the player, the less leeway will be extended except in wall situations on free kicks, and the more skilled play or effort to avoid the ball will be expected of the player instead.

12.2.11 I coach a younger girls' team, and when the ball comes in the air toward them, some of them tend to involuntary react with a shriek of "EEK!" and lean back and perhaps to the side, with their hands and arms extended out in front of them. How much tolerance is extended for this natural reaction, and what can I do to help cure it?

No tolerance whatsoever is usually extended to them, nor should be for this understandable, but unacceptable reaction. Your mileage may vary with your local soft-hearted ref of the day. However, young players are not really being extended a favor to permit over-laxity on handling calls which will only ingrain bad habits that will not be tolerated later on, or even with many other referees calling games for their age group. So, what to do? The quick fix is to instruct players to grab their shorts whenever the ball comes at them. This both tends to negate for the referee any impression that the player intends to try to improperly play the ball or extend their arms, and promotes the proper response by the player as well, which is to try to duck out of the way. At your team's practices, you should conduct exercises designed to accustom players in small steps to having to the ball coming directly at them other than on the ground. A good way to start is by having someone stand very near them and toss the ball gently into their chests for them to play, and then progress from there. Some gentle heading practice helps, even though you may not want to emphasize this technique as a formal real skill to acquire until players get older. Make sure that they understand, even in practice, that arm or hand-to-ball contact is a serious no-no, and not simply an accident to giggle about their own haplessness.

12.2.12 One of my players reacted (seemingly instinctively) to a ball coming at them not by extending their arms out, but by turning to the side, with their arms and hands held tightly against their side. However, when the ball struck their arm, the referee called handling against them. Was this a proper call?

If a player uses their arm to deliberately play the ball at all, even if held tightly against their side, this is considered impermissible handling. Some referees will allow some leeway for this reaction of turning to the side as a sometimes-permissible form of instinctive self-protection against a sudden, hard ball coming at a player at about stomach to shoulder level where the player, so long as the player does not seem make any effort to control its redirection, whereas other referees will almost never allow this without calling the player for a handling offense. Players should, in general, be discouraged from using this turn-to-the-side reaction, even though it is perhaps not as egregious as sticking the arms out extended in front. The grace extended to this practice by referees is at best, inconsistent and unreliable. If a player seems dip their shoulder or body to in any way consciously control the redirection of the ball, a handling call is near certain even from the most generous of referees. The predominate attitude among many referees is is that players should either learn to play the ball properly, or learn to duck out of the way.

12.2.13 Where in the shoulder area is the line drawn between permissible use of the body to play the ball and punishable use of the arm?

In general, the side of the shoulder is viewed as part of the arm. The front of the shoulder is viewed as part of the body, so long as the player does not try to dip the shoulder forward or out of the plane of the torso. The top and front of the shoulder above and inside the armpit is considered part of the body, whereas outside of the armpit, the shoulder tends to be viewed as part of the arm. The back of the shoulder is also usually viewed as part of the body rather than the arm. A player who turns their back on the ball (and not just to the side) with their arms held in is less likely to be called for handling if the ball strikes the shoulder, because this is rarely consistent with an attempt to truly play the ball with the arms (little or no eye-arm coordination is possible in this situation, for one thing). This brings the issue into its proper focus: the real concern is when the shoulder is used as if part of the arm rather than as an integral part of the torso to consciously attempt to control the manner in which the ball deflects from it, with the caveat that the side of the shoulder is presumptively considered as part of the arm in most cases. A player is allowed to play the ball with the torso, but not with the arm.

12.2.14 I saw a player who had her arms held out somewhat try to receive what appeared to be an easy roller and dribble forward with it, but she inadvertently misplayed it off her foot, and it hopped up into her arm but the referee called nothing. On another occasion in the game, handling was called on a seemingly similar play. Did the referee simply miss the correct call in one of these instances?

We'll assume that the referee had a clear view of both plays and appears to be competent. In the first instance, where handling was not called against the player, the most likely possibility is he or she thought that the player reasonably expected to be able to play this ball cleanly and without difficulty using only the feet. In other words, under the particular circumstances, the nature of the incoming ball made it unlikely that the player could reasonably have recognized that her arm was truly in the potential playing area for the ball. A second reason to extend leeway to the player would be if the arm appeared to the referee to have been momentarily extended reflexively for balance, rather than heedlessly held out.

In the second instance, where handling was called against the player, perhaps the referee did not think the the player had any right under those particular circumstances to believe her arms were not potentially in the playing space on the ball, nor did the referee believe the arm was justifiably reflexively extended for balance. Finally, referee tolerance for unexpected bad hops into the arm is always going to be something of an ad hoc snap judgment, and therefore will always be an inconsistently extended grace from situation to situation and referee to referee.

3. Tackling and Charging Offenses

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There is probably no more tricky segment for the referee in applying Law 12 dealing with fouls and misconduct than judging fair challenges for the ball. A challenge here is defined as one player making an attempt to take the ball away from an opponent who has possession. This is accomplished by one of two challenges defined by the LOTG as "tackling" (an action in which the player tries to physically take the ball from the opponent) or "charging" (an act in which the player attempts physically to move the opponent away from the ball). Purists will note that in the strictest sense, charging is any act of running at an opponent and making contact, so there can indeed be charging away from the point of play--such charging is almost always a foul.

As has already been noted, the LOTG defines unfair play as being careless, reckless or using excessive force IN THE OPINION OF THE REFEREE. Specifically, when these standards are applied to tackling, the LOTG further specify that it is unfair when the player "tackles an opponent to gain possession of the ball, making contact with the opponent BEFORE touching the ball." Of course, this is where it gets tricky. Most experienced referees believe it is virtually impossible to make a fair challenge from behind, i.e., it is practically impossible to touch the ball before the opponent unless the challenger is at least shoulder level. However, it can be done, and the referee must make the final judgment. One sees this particularly in tackles where a player comes from behind between the opponents legs, or in cases where the tackler makes a sliding challenge and manages to get a leg around the player with the ball to make contact with the ball. Additional instructions in the older version of the LOTG specifically forbid the referee from calling a foul when a player makes a successful tackle with an outstretched leg over which the player losing the ball then falls. This instruction has been removed from the new version and it remains to be seen if referees will continue to apply the old interpretation. Finally, if it is difficult to tackle fairly from behind, it is just as hard to tackle unfairly from the front. If the players are facing one another, it takes a pretty reckless swing and a miss to commit a tackling foul, though sliding with the studs up or taking the dribbler's legs just after he has pushed the ball to one side are common, usually because of clumsiness or inexperience, not because of any intention to do harm. Generally, when players are facing one another, the most reckless tackles are those where the tackler comes from above and steps down towards the ball (and lower leg) of the opponent...what the South Americans call "la plancha"or "the flat iron".

Charging is essentially rushing at another player, resulting in body contact. Without the essential contact, the foul may be jumping at the opponent, but it cannot be charging. The difficulty for the referee is that there are "fair" charges and fouls. A fair charge is a shoulder-to-shoulder attempt to knock an opponent off the ball which is performed with at least one foot on the ground, with the arms in close to the body, and with the ball close enough to both that it can be played by either...what we call "playing distance". Clearly, a fair charge meeting these criteria can result in one of the players falling down--the "big kid, little kid"problem--but if the charge is truly fair, this doesn't matter and no foul should be called. Players with the ball can also be charged from behind so long as the charge is not reckless or involve excessive force...the player with the ball is permitted to "shield"so the player trying to win the ball is permitted a certain amount of physical contact in an effort to get possession away from the attacker. When young players are involved, a challenge from behind is more likely to be deemed a foul by the referee; as players get older, play is more physical, and more bumping is usually permitted. Again, the use of hands and/or arms will change this action from a charge to what will probably be judged to be an illegal push.


From a coaching standpoint, the acts of tackling and charging are what modern high pressure soccer is all about. Getting players to apply as much pressure as possible without fouling and training them to hold the ball and maintain possession under pressure are at the heart of the modern North American style of the game.

There truly are very few tactics involved in teaching tackling and charging...they are fundamental soccer skills which are learned in 1v1 and 2v1 exercises, and through playing the game. Making sure players know the proper fundamentals for tackling (going in on balance, timing the tackle, making sure when you are chasing an opponent down from behind that you have completely caught up to him before trying to tackle) and charging (who may be charged and when, one foot on the ground, arms kept in, etc.) will help them successfully challenge for the ball and avoid being called for fouls.

But in the final analysis, more than any other LOTG, these are the fouls the experienced referee will use to control the game. The coach must understand that the referee is not going to whistle for every act of reckless tackling or charging, particularly if the fouled player maintains possession. The good referee will make broad use of the advantage clause, and only punish those actions which grossly affect the outcome of a play, or which are necessary to maintain control.

Questions about tackling and charging

12.3.01 Their goalkeeper held the ball and my player tried to challenge for it. The referee whistled and gave the GK a free kick. Why?

Most local rules prohibit charging the goalkeeper in his goal area. It also is specifically against the LOTG to try to "prevent the goalkeeper from releasing the ball from his hands".

12.3.02 I frequently see players using a bit of arm and elbow extension when side-to-side to try to fend one another off, even to the point sometimes of light back-of-hand contact with the other player, with many refs letting this go up to a point that varies with each ref. Is this properly considered legal because it's part and parcel of shoulder tackling, or essential for maintaining balance?

Depends. Mostly it depends on the degree to which both players are doing it and the amount of control the referee feels he needs to exert. Smart coaches will teach their players to "make themselves bigger" by using their hands and arms for balance. Not only does it help their balance, but it "increases their wheelbase" and makes it more difficult for an opponent to touch the ball without using excessive force. As long as two players are more or less hand checking or arm checking one another, referees will usually let it go on unless it looks like it will become violent--for one thing, it's often hard to tell how did what to who first!

12.3.03 I heard the referee say something to one of my players about "going in with his studs up". What does this mean? The referee was obviously warning him about it.

It is very important for players not to let their feet rise above the level of the ball when tackling, especially when sliding. Raised feet at the end of extended legs offer no mercy to an opponent's lower leg, and many very serious lower-leg injuries (including fractures so bad they put an immediate end to a player's career) have been caused by this practice. Obviously the referee thought your player had not had his studs up intentionally when tackling, or he would have given him an immediate caution at least. This is something you should ensure all your players are aware of.

12.3.04 One of my players keeps getting called for "going in sideways" or "backing in". What's the basis for this call?

When tackling, a player should normally make sure he is facing his opponent. The hockey 'hip check' is definitely not acceptable in soccer! Referees will normally immediately call any tackling attempt when contact is made with the opponent before the ball, and players who come at their opponents side-on normally do make contact with the other player before the ball, so it is hard for them not to be called for this.

"Backing in" is a little different, because it not normally so much a tackling offence as a kind of illegal charge. Imagine two players, one behind the other, waiting near midfield to receive a goal kick. If the length of the kick is slightly too much for the player nearer to the ball, he will be tempted to back up into his opponent, thereby fouling him if in so doing he disrupts his opponent's attempt to play the ball.

12.3.05 One of my players was slide-tackled by an opponent, went over the ball, fell heavily and broke his collarbone. The referee stopped play right away, but he eventually restarted with a drop ball and didn't even give us a free kick -- why not? surely there must have been a foul for this injury to occur.

You're probably not going to like this answer, but it sounds from your description as though the referee was right. If the opponent blocked the ball, causing your player to trip over it, no foul was committed, and the drop ball was the correct restart after the injury. Had the opponent made contact with your player before blocking the ball, you would have a point, but apparently the referee was sure that no foul had been committed.

Tip:Coaches can teach their players how to avoid injury from an impending tackle of this kind by leaping the sliding opponent. If the ball is pushed under or past the opponent's legs just before the tackle, it is often fairly easy for the player to hurdle the opponent and continue towards goal unimpeded. You can practice this technique with any low obstacle which allows a ball to be pushed under and the player to jump over, but it's safest to use something like a light bamboo or plastic rod between two vertical poles, arranged so that it will fall if the player bumps into it.

12.3.06 I think I must be doing something wrong in coaching my players on how to execute a fair charge, because we keep getting called for infractions when I can't see anything wrong with what my players are doing. What are some of the things that could be going wrong?

There are several things to watch out for in this situation, which is especially problematic when two players are both pursuing the ball to try to get into position to play it, yet are still clearly outside what could be considered "playing distance", and perhaps still well outside. They are typically jostling one shoulder to shoulder to win or maintain the most direct path to the ball, which may still be 20 or 30 feet away. As long as the initial contact is made at a reasonably shallow angle to the most direct path to the ball, there really should be no foul here, no matter who "initiated" the contact, since both players are really trying to play the ball and have equal rights to pursue it.

What turns this into a foul is if, either in the course of approaching to make the initial contact, or in later jockeying after the players are mutually engaged in a shoulder-to-shoulder race for the ball, one player changes her momentum deliberately to a sharp angle from a path to the ball in order to try to knock or shove the other player out of the play. This is a foul if one player is running clearly more at an angle toward the opponent rather than taking the shortest path to the ball and only diverts toward a direct path to the ball after having bumped the opponent out of the way. If in the same circumstances, one of the players suddenly starts using arms or elbows to unfairly win the race for position, just about every official will whistle.The same analysis can be applied where two players are jockeying not directly for the ball, but perhaps for a favorable position on the field, and they're in a close contest coming toward that spot from roughly the same side. Neither really "owns" the spot or most favorable line in such contests, at least not until one of them gets there first, having fairly won the position.

12.3.07 Someone told me that when two players are going shoulder to shoulder, it's a foul if one of them draws away from the other and then bumps him with his shoulder to try to push him off the ball. I thought that was a fair charge. Who's right?

Once again, it will probably depend to some extent at least on how old your players are and how physical the referee is prepared to allow the game to get. As has already been said, a player who extends his arm to push another player out of his way is likely to be called immediately for pushing. And anything which is construed by the referee as "playing the other player, not the ball" is likely to be called as well. So anything resembling an NHL body check (however legal it might be on the ice) is pretty well certain to be deemed a charging foul. So if your player appears to have as his primary goal pushing or steering the other player deliberately off to the side rather than going first and foremost straight to the ball, the referee is probably going to find fault with that approach.

12.3.08 My stopper is quite aggressive and is frequently called for fouls when he is marking an opposing forward who is playing with his back to our goal. Obviously we give up a lot of free kicks in dangerous positions because of this. What could he be doing wrong (we are a U15 team)?

Again, the use of hands and/or arms will change this action from a charge to what will probably be judged to be an illegal push. If you listen during a high-level game involving older players, you may hear the referee say fairly frequently near the beginning of the game, as they and the players are establishing the limits within which the match will be played, "Blue, get your hands off his back!" or "Keep your arms down, Red!" It's important to remember that it is not illegal in itself to charge from behind a player with the ball, as long as the charge is not reckless and does not involve excessive force. This is the case because the player with the ball is permitted to "shield" it -- if no charge were possible, the defender could never hope to win the ball. This is a good example of how soccer can simultaneously be a very physical and a very sporting contest. It will be important for your player to learn to put pressure on his opponents without pushing them.

12.3.09 I've heard some coaches discussing whether "riding" a player off the ball is a foul or not. What were they talking about, and is it or isn't it an infraction?

By "riding someone off the ball", most soccer folks mean continuous contact shoulder to shoulder with the object being to dislodge the player from possession of the ball. Once again, if hands or arms are involved, this can be considered holding or pushing. Many refs miss fouls here, by assuming it's a normal "fair" play -- whereas the player commiting the foul is actually playing the man, not the ball. Of course the other requirements of having an effect on the game and/or careless-reckless-excessive force also apply, but in a fair charge, even the staccato shoulder bump is supposed to be an integral part of an attempt to get the ball, not simply to move the opponent away. That's one reason why it's always a foul for attempting to charge the goalkeeper when he's holding the ball -- the action in isolation might be "fair", but how can one realistically expect shoulder contact to lead to possession of a ball held in the keeper's hands, unless it's done with excessive force?

Offenses punishable by Indirect Free Kick


"An indirect free kick is awarded to the opposing team if a player, in the opinion of the referee ... impedes the progress of an opponent...."

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A player is supposed to play the ball.

Blocking or screening a player from a route to the ball is not allowed. However, a player who has the ball within playing distance may shield the ball from an opponent.

This is not a common foul and enforcement of it varies considerably from referee to referee. NOTE: The foul of "impeding" is commonly called "obstruction", but in recent years, FIFA has increasingly recommended that referees use the term "obstruction" to describe situations where a player may legally prevent an opponent from reaching the ball, and "impeding" to describe this foul.

Questions on obstruction

12.4.01. How do I know if obstruction occurs?

If the player is not playing the ball but is preventing someone else from moving toward the ball, he is impeding the other player.

Referees expect collision and jostling to occur among players moving toward the ball. However, if a player is, moving across the path to the ball, he may be more likely to be called for obstruction. Players are generally expected to look at the ball and react to the ball. A player who seems to be instead watching his opponent or moving in reaction to his opponent's run, is more likely to be called for obstruction.

12.4.02. Can a player "play the ball" without touching it?

Yes. However, to be "playing the ball", one should be close enough to touch it if one wished.

12.4.03. A player on my team kicked the ball toward our opponent's goal line. One of our forwards tried to get to it before it went over the goal line but a back on the other team ran along in front of him, blocking him from the ball. The back never played the ball but just let it cross the goal line and then the referee awarded a goal kick. Why wasn't the back whistled for obstruction?

Presumably, in the opinion of the referee, the back was within playing distance of the ball and was therefore shielding a playable ball. This is not a foul.

12.4.04. Does contact need to be made for obstruction to occur?

No. A player (who is not playing the ball) may commit this foul simply by forcing an opponent to slow down or change her path to the ball.

12.4.05. How does obstruction differ from shielding the ball?

A player shielding the ball must have the ball within playing distance and presumably is paying some attention to the position of the ball. Obstruction occurs when the player is not playing the ball, that is, either the ball is too far away to be played or the player's attention is focused on an opponent and not the ball.

12.4.06. Is it legal to set an attacker in front of the goalkeeper to block him on corner kicks or other set plays?

It is illegal to impede the progress of the goalkeeper toward the ball. If the attacker blocks the keeper from the ball, without trying to play the ball himself, then this is a foul. However, there is nothing wrong with an attacker standing near the keeper, if when the ball is kicked, the attacker moves to play the ball, not the keeper.

12.4.07. The opposing team is preparing a corner kick or a free kick just outside our penalty area. The attackers attempt to form a wall around my goalkeeper. Can they do that? What can I, as coach, do about it?

The attacking players may position themselves anywhere on the field. However, when play starts, they may not impede the keeper's progress toward the ball. If the referee is aware of the "wall" forming around the goalkeeper, he will watch for obstruction when the kick is taken. In order to defend against the tactic of obstructing the goalkeeper, you should try to bring this to the attention of the referee. One might do this by simply having the keeper move around quite a bit before the kick; players trying to obstruct the keeper will then have to move with the keeper and this off-the-ball action may draw the referee's attention.

12.4.08. A player on our team received what appeared to be a shoulder charge after passing the ball to a team mate. The referee blew his whistle and signaled an indirect free kick for us. Why?

The 1996 laws explicitly listed as a foul, "charging fairly ... when the ball is not within playing distance". The 1997/98 laws do not explicitly mention this foul but most referees would consider it a form of obstruction

Dangerous play

"An indirect free kick is awarded to the opposing team if a player, in the opinion of the referee.... plays in a dangerous manner."

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There are few guidelines here. "Dangerous play" is completely in the opinion of the referee. The USSF interpretation is that dangerous play occurs when, in the opinion of the referee, the play is dangerous to the opponent or oneself and the action denies an opponent the fair opportunity to play.

Questions on Dangerous Play

12.5.01 What do referees look for in making the "dangerous play" call?

Dangerous play is completely within the opinion of the referee; calls may differ from game to game and from referee to referee. However, a typical example of dangerous play involves a player kicking near the face or torso of an opponent. The foul might not be the fault of the player kicking the ball; if a player is lying on the ground next to the ball, s/he may be guilty of creating the "dangerous play"; similarly, a player attempting to head a ball which is near the ground may be guilty of dangerous play if another player is kicking at the ball (or *would* kick at the ball if the other player were not there.)

When dangerous play occurs, the referee is going to give the benefit of the doubt to the player who was making the most natural play of the ball. If the ball is on the ground, one expects a player to kick at it; someone who is trying to head the ball when it is near the ground will be blamed for creating the dangerous play situation. On the other hand, if the ball is high in the air, the one heading the ball will be given the benefit and someone else kicking at the high ball may receive the whistle.

12.5.02 Is it a foul to kick the ball while lying on the ground?

No, kicking the ball while lying on the ground is not in itself a foul. However, if a player, by lying on the ground, is putting himself in danger, he may be penalized for dangerous play.

12.5.03 Is it a foul to do a "high kick", where the player's foot is neck or head high?

No, such kicks are not, in themselves, fouls. The bicycle kick is an example of a legal (and beautiful) play, unless it puts another player in danger.

12.5.04 Does the foul of "dangerous play" require contact between the players?

No. Contact is not necessary for a call of "dangerous play". Indeed, if contact occurs during dangerous play, a more serious foul (kicking, tripping, illegal charging) will probably be called. These more serious fouls lead to a *direct* free kick. A soccer cleat in another player's face will usually be considered dangerous play if no contact occurred; it is the foul of kicking another player if there is contact. Similarly a studs-up tackle may be whistled for dangerous play if the player does not hit anyone but may be an illegal tackle, trip or kick if contact is made. (N.B.: the fouls of "kicking or attempting to kick", "tripping or attempting to trip", "jumping at an opponent", or "striking or attempting to strike" do not require contact either. Those fouls lead to a direct free kick.)

12.5.05 Can dangerous play be called when all the players involved are on the same team?

Referees do not agree as to whether dangerous play can be called only when the action affects an opponent, or whether the call may be made when opponents are not involved. One could argue that a foul requires an opponent; for a team to benefit from a free kick, they must have been fouled. Thus a common interpretation of the laws of the game would argue that "dangerous play" should not be called unless an opponent is involved. (See the USSF interpretation in the introduction to this section.)

However, referees of youth games feel an obligation to keep the players safe and to provide some instruction to the players. For this reason one might see a "dangerous play" foul called when one player engages in a tactic which could harm himself or a teammate, even if no opponents are nearby.

12.5.06 A player collided with the goalkeeper before he had the ball. The ball bounced away but the goalkeeper stayed on the ground and the referee blew his whistle and called an IFK for the defending team. Was this "dangerous play"? If so, what is dangerous about it?

If the call is truly an *indirect* free kick then the referee is probably calling dangerous play for the manner in which the player collided with the goalkeeper. Since the goalkeeper is often dangerously exposed to collisions and kicks, many referees attempt to especially protect the goalkeeper and are more likely to penalize an attacker for dangerous play when the collision involves the keeper.

12.5.07 Can a player be cautioned (receive a yellow card) for dangerous play?

No. However, one who plays in an uncontrolled and dangerous manner may receive a yellow card for "unsporting conduct". A player who repeatedly fouls opponents may, after engaging in dangerous play, receive a yellow card for "persistent infringement" of the laws. Therefore a player might be whistled for a "dangerous play" foul and *then* immediately after that be cautioned for one of these more serious violations.


[cautions ( yellow cards) and sending off (red cards)]

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Thumbnail (misconduct)

Misconduct covers serious offenses against the spirit of the game. Yellow and red cards are the referee's strongest weapons against unsporting and potentially violent behavior. Many leagues penalize misconduct with fines and suspensions.


One way to understand misconduct is to compare it with "standard" fouls.

The direct free kick fouls mentioned in Law 12 are, with the exception of handling the ball, unfair actions committed against an opponent, and all -- with the exception of spitting -- will normally occur only while the ball is in play. They result in the other team being awarded a free kick or penalty kick, if appropriate. In general, fouls are similar to acts of normal play, which become fouls when they are executed carelessly, recklessly or with excessive force. (Handling is different because it is committed against the ball and against the other team in general, but not against a specific opponent.)

Misconduct, by contrast, covers actions of deliberate poor sportsmanship contrary to the concept of fair play itself, rather than just "normal play carried to excess." The act can be committed against anyone, including a teammate, spectator or the referee, as well as against an opponent. It can occur off the field, or while the ball is out of play. The consequence of misconduct is a personal punishment to the player committing the act, which the referee signifies by showing a yellow or red card. If an act of misconduct is also a foul, such as handling the ball to prevent it from entering the goal, the foul is called and the free kick or penalty kick is awarded along with the card.

Although the LOTG specify yellow or red cards for certain acts, some referees will "go up the ladder" by first talking to players and coaches, then warning, and only showing a card if these steps do not cause the unsporting play to cease. Other referees will issue a caution much more quickly. Referees seem to show the most variation in their reaction to dissent -- from near-total deafness to rabbit ears.

Cautions were originally intended as severe warnings of a potential sending-off. In a game with no substitution, as soccer used to be, this was a serious threat. Still today, two cautions in a game lead to a sending-off, and that team plays short. However, the substitution rules that often apply today -- the relatively free substitution found in most youth soccer, for example -- have changed the dynamics of cautions. Instead of simply warning of a potential sending-off, cautions are of interest in themselves, and leagues may have rules disqualifying teams or players who accumulate a certain number over a season; cards are used as a tie-breaker in tournaments. This makes it essential that players and coaches recognize and avoid acts that can lead to cautions, and that players and coaches understand the referee's decision-making processes. In recent years FIFA has tried to add consistency to the decision by adding more specific acts to the list of misconduct offenses, but most red and yellow cards are still largely up to the referee.

Questions on Misconduct

12.6.01 What's the difference between the yellow and red card offenses?

Yellow card offenses generally cover acts that demonstrate poor sportsmanship and disrupt the game, but don't directly affect the score or cause injury. "Persistent infringement" is a good example -- it's usually called for a succession of "ordinary" fouls, despite a warning from the referee. "Unsporting behaviour" covers almost any action that shows disregard for fair play but is not extremely violent, such as an overly aggressive tackle, or verbally calling an opponent off the ball. Three cautionable offenses give the referee specific weapons to maintain his authority: dissent, and entering and leaving the field without permission.

Red card offenses are acts completely against the spirit of the game (serious foul play), behavior that should never occur on a soccer field regardless of how the game is going (violent conduct; spitting; offensive, insulting or abusive language), and repeated yellow card offenses.

12.6.02 Some refs go "up the ladder" and pressure players to stop potential misconduct before showing cards, others show cards quickly and without warning, and still others completely ignore a lot of stuff that looks like misconduct to me. How can I predict what a particular referee will do?

This varies among leagues, among referee associations, and from one referee to another. Part of it is the referee's personality, which you just have to size up. Directives from above can also play a role, so pay attention when the referee administrator speaks about his objectives for the season. There may also be local rules about cautions, such as a mandatory caution for a sliding tackle in an over-50's tournament.

Some referees treat cards as simply a letter-of-the-law issue, rather than as flexible tools for game control. In recent years, the lists of yellow and red card offenses have become longer and more specific. Delaying the game and failing to retreat 10 yards on a free kick were always considered unsporting behavior (yellow), but have only been specifically listed since 1997. Denying a goal or an obvious goal-scoring opportunity through a deliberate foul was always a form of serious foul play (red), but these variations were only listed recently. The hope of the law writers is that having specific offenses singled out should cause referees to call them more often -- this is their battle against the "professional foul" seen in high-level games. Some over-zealous referees have responded by looking for reasons to caution and send off players even in recreational youth games, rather than looking for ways to keep all the players on the field and the game flowing.

12.6.03 My defender committed a deliberate foul to try to stop an attack, but the referee called out, "Advantage" and didn't stop play. The game continued and it was almost a minute later before the ball went out of bounds. Then the referee showed the defender a yellow card -- for the foul that had occurred earlier. Can he wait that long? If he's going to caution, doesn't he have to do it when the foul occurs?

What the referee did was legal, and often happens when a cautionable offense and advantage occur together -- the referee waits for the ball to go out of play. There is a slight danger for the referee in this, because a second act of misconduct might occur in the interim, and it's not good to have too many yellow cards "queued up". And if the offense leads to a red card, referees almost always stop play immediately.

The referee also had another option. He could have waited for the original advantage situation to finish, stopped play with his whistle, shown the yellow card, and then restarted with an indirect free kick for the other team. In this case the stoppage is not for the foul itself, but merely to create a break in play for issuing the caution.

12.6.04 We are in a tournament where the teams are more "competitive" than we have experienced. My players aren't accustomed to the physical play, and I'm afraid they might get hurt -- or retaliate, leading to cards, even though they're very mild-mannered in their own league. I can't afford to have players disqualified from tomorrow's games. Help!

This is a common problem. Different teams, leagues, ethnic groups, geographical regions and referees have different expectations of how much physical play is "normal." At World Cup level, Scotland vs. Norway, for instance, would be a very physical game without player complaints, whereas South American teams might expect the referee to call more fouls. Another possibility is that the referee is simply missing fouls he should be calling, which makes this issue more ticklish -- he may interpret your comments or questions as dissent.

Initially, tell your players to play harder than they're used to and to expect the same in return from the other team. Try to talk with the referee and present your analysis. If he responds by being firm in his view that the game is going okay, and it's you who are acting like a crybaby, then that's that -- tell your players to put up with it and not retaliate. On the other hand, your information may open his eyes somewhat. In either case, retaliation is not called for. Once you raise an issue like this with the referee and if you and your team then remain calm, the ref may give your team the benefit of the doubt. If you start complaining, then he may label you a trouble-maker and go from there.

12.6.05 I'm a "good guy" regarding sportsmanship. I don't complain to the ref, I don't micro-manage or complain about my team's play, and I encourage the parents to share these attitudes. The opposing coaches and parents are violating all these rules leading to a poisonous atmosphere -- yet the referee doesn't do anything.

Referees differ in their expectations. They usually don't do anything about excessive coaching from the side, but some clamp down quickly on dissent and negativity, while others act quite deaf. Let's hope this referee will learn from other refs or assessors, and start acting to improve the atmosphere.

12.6.06 What's the difference between serious foul play and violent conduct? Why is some very violent play considered SFP and some other VC?

SFP covers actions that, although blatantly unfair, are part of the game and usually involve some attempt to play the ball. VC is simply fighting. If a player violently jumps cleats-first into an opponent who has the ball, it would probably be considered a form of tackle and be treated as SFP; if his target doesn't have the ball, it's probably VC. If a spectator is attacked, it's certainly VC, not SFP. Leagues commonly impose longer suspensions for VC than SFP, so it matters what the referee writes in the report.

12.6.07 The Law says it's a red card to "deny an obvious goal-scoring opportunity" (OGSO) through a deliberate foul. It's also a red card to to "deny a goal or an obvious goal-scoring opportunity by deliberately handling the ball." What's the difference between those two?

Denying a goal refers to situations where the ball would, without the handling foul, enter the goal for a score. This means a defender other than the goalkeeper using his hands to stop a ball that's definitely on its way in. It might also mean the goalkeeper handling a shot outside his penalty area, although the farther away from the goal, the harder for the referee to be sure the ball would have gone in.

An obvious goal-scoring *opportunity* occurs before the actual shot on goal. According to FIFA/USSF guidelines, there are four conditions that have to be met to have an OGSO:

  1. attacker moving directly towards the goal
  2. only one or no defenders between the attacker and the goal
  3. ball in proximity to the attacker, who can play it without much extra effort
  4. attacker with a reasonable shooting opportunity

So for example, it's an OGSO if an attacker near the outer edge of the penalty area feints, dribbles past the last fullback, and heads for the goal with only the keeper to beat. It's also an OGSO if the keeper comes out and the attacker then dribbles past him so there's nobody defending ahead. In either of these cases, if the beaten defender grabs the attacker and pulls him down before he can take a shot, an OGSO has been denied by a deliberate foul and the LOTG say send off the defender.

Remember that all four conditions have to be met. If the situation is exactly the same except the attacker is a nine year-old girl and she's pulled down 35 yards from the goal, then it may not be an OGSO -- that's probably too far out to consider it a reasonable shooting opportunity. Or take the case where the defender successfully turns the attacker so he is heading across the field, and then pulls him down. That's not denying an OGSO, either -- not heading directly towards the goal.

Another potential OGSO denial is where there's an open attacker at the penalty spot with no defender ahead of him except the keeper, the ball is passed, and a defender handles the ball to prevent it from reaching him. That call depends on the referee's judgment of whether the pass was controllable, and how wide-open the attacker would have been if he had received it.

Any kind of foul can be considered. Players have been sent off for obstruction, which only leads to an indirect free kick by itself -- because the obstruction denied an OGSO.

If a goal or an OGSO is denied, the Law says the offender must be sent off, whatever happens afterwards. So if a defender in the goal mouth deliberately handles the ball to keep it out, but the ball rebounds to another attacker who then scores before the referee has had a chance to blow the whistle, technically the defender should still be sent off -- the first goal was denied, and the score was the result of a different play. However, some referees feel this is excessive, and will instead show a yellow card or no card at all, believing that (a) the goal was not in fact denied, and/or (b) the goal scored was sufficient punishment.

12.6.08 I was letting the referee know how unhappy I was with him, and he came over and said he was warning me. I kept criticizing, so he said, "Okay, that's enough, you're gone!" -- and said I was "dismissed." He explained the sending-off was for a second caution, but I don't remember getting the first one. He hadn't shown a yellow card earlier, and he didn't show a red one when he sent me off. If I had known, I would have been more careful.

The purpose of the cards is to make it perfectly clear to everyone when a caution or sending-off has occurred. However, the exact words of the law limit showing cards to players (those currently in the game), although a year or so ago a new interpretation extended it to substitutes on the bench. Because of their proximity to the referee, plus the cards, players almost always know when they're cautioned, although if the referee shows a yellow card to a group, they should ask exactly which player or players it applies to.

Coaches and others on the touchline are also under the referee's authority, and he may caution or send them off, although he shouldn't show cards. There are some important differences in technique for non-players. First, the referee can't really send off non-players, but he can suspend and/or terminate a game. When he does send somebody off, he will usually say something like, "The game is suspended, and it will restart only after so-and-so has left; if he hasn't left within two minutes, the game will be terminated." Second, the referee may just say he's warning you that you might be dismissed, or simply that he's warning you, as did the referee you asked about. (The terms warning and dismissal are commonly used instead of caution and sending-off, when applied to non-players.) Third, many referees don't note these warnings in their book, so you won't have the added clue of seeing him writing it down. This is partly because it's not a normal caution, and partly to avoid drawing attention to the dispute with the coach.

There are differences from place to place in the scope of these rules. Some leagues explicitly bring coaches under the referee's misconduct authority, and/or require the referee to show cards to anyone warned/cautioned or sent off. In USA high school (National Federation) and NCAA, red and yellow cards are shown to players, coaches and other bench personnel. In high school, a red card is called a disqualification; in NCAA, it's an ejection.

If you're in one of those leagues, you'll know if you've been cautioned or sent off. Otherwise, be sure to check, to avoid an unpleasant surprise.

The Goalkeeper

Thumbnail | Goalkeeper Supplement | Contents of Law 12


Law 12 lists five offenses which are specific to goalkeepers in their own penalty areas, all of which are punishable by an indirect free kick (IFK). The keeper may not do any of the following:

  1. take more than four steps while controlling the ball with his hands, before releasing it from his possession;
  2. touch the ball again with his hands after it has been released from his possession and has not touched any other player;
  3. touch the ball with his hands after it has been deliberately kicked to him by a team-mate;
  4. touch the ball with his hands after he has received it directly from a throw-in taken by a team-mate;
  5. waste time.

Other than these offenses the keeper is mostly just like another field player, and is subject to the same sanctions for the same offenses. Because special situations involving the keeper can occur under so many of the laws, however, all questions concerning goalkeepers -- including those dealing with these five offenses -- are grouped together in a special supplement on the Goalkeeper and the Laws.

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Law 12

Text | Offenses punishable by DFK | Offenses punishable by IFK | Misconduct | The Goalkeeper | Download

Updated February 26, 1998