Referees must ensure goalkeepers are protected when challenged while making a save. It is not uncommon for a goalkeeper to have both feet off the ground with arms outstretched while reaching for the ball. These two factors make them particularly vulnerable to physical challenges. If they are fouled by an opponent while in midair, there is little that can be done to prevent being knocked in a different direction. Furthermore, they are even more vulnerable in the air than other players because, while trying to grasp for the ball, they cannot protect themselves from an opponent or a hard fall with their hands and arms. Since goalkeeping is such a vital role and goalkeepers are more prone to injury in a situation like this, many teams are extremely sensitive to their goalkeeper’s protection.
A caveat regarding goalkeeper protection is there are no special privileges in the laws or rules restricting the amount of contact on goalkeepers from what is permitted with any other player if the goalkeeper does not have control of the ball. Therefore, the onus is on the referee to protect the goalkeeper by quickly penalizing contact that rises from the level of fair to foul — fitting into the categories of careless, reckless, or excessive force. If not protected, goalkeepers may take it upon themselves to make sure their safety is not threatened. This is often done through actions that are outside of the rules, and which must be penalized because they, in turn, put the safety of the opponents in jeopardy. These actions can be hard for a referee to spot or, if seen, hard to determine the line between fair self-protection and foul.
One such action is when goalkeepers raise a knee while challenging for a ball in the air. The knee acts as a shield, preventing an opponent from moving any closer. If an opponent does make contact with the goalkeeper’s knee, the opponent is likely to take the brunt of that challenge with the hard surface of the knee contacting a soft surface on the opponent’s body. Referees must be aware that any challenge that includes a hard surface of one player (knee, elbow, fist, cleats) against a soft surface of another increases the risk for injury. Therefore, this type of foul should be called very tightly to eliminate it from the game. Even though the knee is being used as a protective barrier, it also leads to unfair contact with the opponent and is a foul.
Another action goalkeepers make to create space from opponents is stepping on feet. If opponents cross into space the goalkeeper feels belongs to him or her, a message may be sent to get out of that space through a well-disguised stomp on the foot, generally delivered with the unforgiving pound of cleats. There is a greater likelihood of this happening in a dead-ball situation, like a corner kick or free kick. A strong stance against this is needed as it is another circumstance in which a hard surface (the bottom of the shoe or the cleat) is contacting a soft surface (the top of the foot), which has greater potential to injure. However, this can also be difficult to spot with its swiftness and occurring when many players are jumbled together. Potential for inflammatory behavior should send a clear message to referees that a stoppage is not the time to take a mental break. It is important to be closely observing players always and clearly communicating expectations.
A third example of actions referees should be aware of when attacking players are positioned tightly against the goalkeeper is a punch to the kidneys or back. Again, a hard surface — the fist — contacting a soft one — the back. Like the stomp to the foot, this can be a well-hidden action that is almost undetectable to referees and used by goalkeepers to protect their space.
A final example is when goalkeepers challenge for the ball with their hands but contact an opponent’s neck, face or any region above the shoulders along with getting the ball. Just like every other player, a goalkeeper is responsible for playing in a fair manner. Since the hard surface of a fist against the soft surface of a face may lead to injury, referees should provide little leeway in allowing this type of contact to go unpenalized. The higher level the players are, the savvier they can be in making intentional and targeted contact appear to be incidental. Referees must be in a position and prepared to judge any challenge between an attacker and a goalkeeper. While a goalkeeper’s safety must be protected, so too does the goalkeeper have the responsibility to play the ball and not expand their movements to ensure additional and more aggressive contact with their opponents using hands, arms, elbows or other hard surfaces.
Protecting the goalkeeper is a vital role of the referee that is high priority for teams. In order to manage the game well, a referee must take extra diligence in ensuring that goalkeepers are protected from foul play and prevent goalkeepers from attempting to take justice into their own hands. Referee communication with goalkeepers goes a long way in discouraging aggressive actions in an effort to protect their space. The moments before corner kicks, free kicks, or any other dead-ball situation is a good time to make eye contact or have a quick word with the goalkeeper to let them know you are watching the matchups and are prepared to make any needed decisions. This one step in communication can bring a much greater sense of trust in the referee from the goalkeeper, causing them to steer away from unfair play. However, this communication is not enough. The referee must have the courage to follow through and make the call if a foul is committed by either an attacker or goalkeeper.
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