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Football Back Pass Rule Explained

First used in 1992, the FIFA back pass rule in association football (also called soccer) is often misunderstood and misinterpreted. The information in this section explains how the football pass back rule discourages time-wasting and 'excessive' defencive play.

When is the Back Pass Allowed in Football?

The Laws of the Game (LOTG) allow the goalkeeper (aka goalie) to handle the ball inside their own penalty area.

In most cases, they can pick up the ball and keep hold of it with their hands to retain control of possession.

As a result, none of the opposition players can make a challenge for the ball while the keeper is holding it.

But, there are specific times when the soccer back-pass rule prohibits this kind of play. Typical situations where a goalkeeper cannot handle the ball are:

  • After a teammate ‘deliberately’ passes the ball back to their goalkeeper.
  • After a teammate throws the ball direct to their keeper from a throw-in.
  • After a keeper releases the ball to the ground (e.g. following a save).

Note: The FIFA back pass rule is a popular title used in association football. But, the rules do not state that the kick or the throw-in must be passed backwards. In fact, handling the ball would result in a foul no matter which direction it travels.

What Happens if a Keeper Picks Up a Back Pass?

The penalty for goalkeepers who handle deliberate back-passes is an indirect free kick. The referee will award the kick at the same position where the actual handling offence took place.

But, the rules change if the goalie picks up or catches the ball inside their own 6-yard goal area. If this happens, an indirect free kick gets taken from a mark on the 6-yard line closest to the spot of the offence.

So, you might be wondering:

FIFA Law 12 describes all the fouls punishable by an indirect free kick. The rulings take place if, while inside their own penalty area, a goalkeeper:

  • Controls the ball with their hands for more than six (6) seconds before releasing it from their possession.
  • Touches the ball again with their hands after releasing it from their possession and before it has touched another player.
  • Touches the ball with their hands after it has been ‘deliberately’ kicked to them by a teammate, or thrown to them from a throw-in.

Evading the Back Pass Rule with Trickery

FIFA pass back rules do not allow a goalkeeper to pick up or catch a deliberate back pass. But, there have been instances of soccer trickery to try and evade or ‘bypass’ the ruling.

There are several ways that a few players have tried to deceive the referee. The officials will not always allow a player to use a flick or a kick technique to chest, knee, or head the ball back to the keeper.

Let’s take a closer look:

Players can use a chest pass, a knee, or a header of the ball, back to the goalkeeper if the objective is to stop an attacking move by the opposition.

As a rule, this move would not be a deliberate back pass rule violation. Nonetheless, the referee must see them as unintentional back-passes to avoid awarding a free kick.

Referees will penalize any deceitful circumvention of the rule. An indirect free kick would get awarded even if the goalkeeper does not actually touch the ball.

Players using such tricks to circumvent the back-passing rule usually get cautioned. The officials would view the trickery as unsporting behaviour, in the same vein as excessive goal celebrations.

So, What is a Legal Back Pass in Football?

Banning goalkeepers from handling deliberate back-passes has changed the game in many ways. Yet, players can still make legal back-passes to their goalie.

The back pass to goalkeeper rule has not completely outlawed the strategy. Outfield players can still pass the ball back. But, if they do, the goalkeeper must use their feet for ball control.

Note: Keepers can handle the ball if it’s deflected or redirected to them. As a rule, referees would not consider backpasses as fouls if they are unintentional deflections.

Goalkeeper Handling Rules

The principle role of a keeper is to stop goals! Thus, the regulations make special provision for protecting their safety. This applies most while they are holding the ball in their hands.

That is why goalkeeper rules grant them the privilege of handling and holding the ball. In most cases, they can handle the ball without any retribution by footballing sanctions.

But, it should never be used to delay the game or waste time – with the intent of gaining an advantage for their team.

A goalkeeper is the only player who can ‘legally’ touch the ball in English soccer. But, they cannot handle it with either of their hands, arms, or any moving parts of their shoulder (if outside their own penalty area).

Doing so, would be breaching the football handball rules. The foul is most likely to get punished by a direct free kick. It’s awarded to the opponents and taken from the location of the infringement.

Note: It is rarely a set plan for the goalkeeper to be the initiator or participant of attacking play. This is despite being within the professional game rules of soccer.

How Long can a Goalkeeper Hold the Ball?

Soccer referees have now received even more ‘football enhancing’ mandatory instructions. The official must not allow a goalkeeper to take more than four (4) steps while holding the ball.

What happens if a goalkeeper holds the ball with his hands for more than 5-6 seconds? In this case, the referee rules it as a time-wasting offence. The official has the right to award an indirect free kick to the opposition.

Time Wasting in Football

Time wasting is bad in any spectator sport. It is one of the worst forms of unsporting behavior and dishonorable gamesmanship.

Wasting play time in football is not pretty to watch either. It means you are denying the opponents a fair chance of using the full allotted time to win the game.

FIFA have commented often about the real reason spectators watch football matches. They understand and agree that the attraction is not to admire a goalie standing still with the ball.

Soccer fans want to see real footballing skills. As most supporters know, the prices of season tickets rarely goes down. They pay money to watch sharp tactical passes, nifty dribbles, and goals. Lots of goals!

Thus, as soon as the keeper has a clear opportunity to deliver the ball in play, they must do so – for the good of the game.

Football Rule-Makers Strike Back

The International Football Association Board are the rule-makers of association football. The IFAB is always trying to counteract time-wasting in soccer. It has resulted in long running battles between the ruler-makers and many goalkeepers.

During the early 1960s, goalkeepers kept the ball in their hands ‘indefinitely’ – or so it seemed. Furthermore, it was a style of play that failed to receive any kind of sanction.

But here’s the kicker:

It was a footballing era when keepers would take as many steps as they liked. They could do so – providing they bounced the ball on the ground as they moved (or threw it in the air and caught again).

But, the rule-makers hit back! They declared that if a keeper held the ball with his hands, and then placed it on the ground, the ball must make contact with another player before they could touch it again with their hands.

Goalkeepers responded. They started holding the ball and then throwing it to a nearest defender. The defenders would return it, and then repeat the whole process over again. It was another shoddy display of wasting time, and wholly against the spirit of the FIFA ruling.

Football Back Pass Rule Solved

Soccer welcomed a solution to this kind of time-wasting in 1992. FIFA called it the ‘football back-pass rule’ and some fans call it the ‘kick back to goalie rule’.

It targets a deliberate passing of the ball with the feet to the team goalkeeper. It results in an indirect free-kick to the opposing team if the goalie touches it with hands or arms. They did it as part of the rules of fair play.

FIFA made clear rulings for any player negating the spirit of the new soccer pass back rule – with intent. Players would get cautioned. This show of unsporting behaviour would also get punished by an indirect free-kick.

And the outcome…

There were many long debates. They decided to extend the successful football pass back rule. They also applied it to throw-ins from defenders to their own goalkeeper. Even so, the urge to extend it to all back-passes (with the head, thigh, chest, etc.) got resisted.

The International Football Association Board and FIFA both agreed. They always insisted they have no deliberate conspiracy against footballers or goalkeepers. But, their aim is to keep the game of association football as fluid and as skillful as they can.

In the end, their main goal [pardon the intended pun] is to attract as many supporters to the beautiful game as possible.

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