When does a goalkeeper’s control of the ball end?

There was a very odd goal scored in the Premier League last Saturday and I am sad to have to admit that it was a mistake on the part of the referee. Those of you who watched the BBC’s Match of the Day will know that I am talking about the Chelsea equalising goad against Cardiff. David Marshall the Cardiff goalkeeper had the ball in his hands and bounced it as he moved across his penalty area. At least that was the plan. Instead, Chelsea player Samuel Eto was just behind him and flicked out his foot as the ball touched the ground, knocking it into the path of team mate Eden Hazard who promptly put it into the open goal. Something else odd happened on Match of the Day, pundit Alan Shearer quoted correctly from the Laws of the Game.

It may be thought that the Cardiff goalkeeper made a mistake trying to bounce the ball with an opponent in such close attendance, but what the law is trying to achieve in this situation is simply to get the ball back into play as soon as possible. The six second rule says a goalkeeper gives away an indirect free kick if ‘he controls the ball with his hands for more than six seconds before releasing it from his possession’. The question is what does the Law mean by control? In the Interpretations and Guidance to Referees it tells us that a goalkeeper is considered to be in control of the ball, ‘whilst it is between his hands or between his hand and any surface, for example the ground or his own body, also while holding the ball in his outstretched hand, or while in the act of bouncing it on the ground or (rather bizarrely) tossing it into the air,’  So this means a goalkeeper can go about his penalty area bouncing the ball as many times as he likes, providing he releases it into play in not more than six seconds.

What however makes the Chelsea goal against the law is that to goes on to say, ‘when a goalkeeper has gained possession of the ball with his hands, he cannot be challenged by an opponent,’ further more it says, ‘it is an offence for a player to prevent a goalkeeper from releasing the ball from his hands’. So why didn’t referee Anthony Taylor disallow the goal? The Cardiff manager, Malky Mackay, claims that he told him that he considered the goalkeeper had dropped the ball, which would of course meant it was no longer under his control. However the replay shows that the goalkeeper was definitely trying to bounce the ball. Further viewing of the replay might suggest that the referee turned his head away at the vital moment and this can happen. Referees are trained to keep their eye on the ball and when the goalkeeper has the ball in his hands his instinct would be to run backwards up the field to where the ball might be kicked but always keeping his eye on the ball. So was there something that momentarily distracted him?

For me there was a little irony in this incident. Some years ago in a game shown on Match of the Day, a player stuck out his foot as the goalkeeper dropped the ball to kick it clear. The referee not only gave a foul but also cautioned the player. Gary Lineker was adamant that the player was perfectly entitled to take this action. After he had read my column pointing out that this was contrary to the law, he sent me a little note. It said simply, ‘I still think I’m right’. I hope that Alan Shearer has now showed him that he wasn’t.

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