Recently, we confronted those who follow us on Twitter with a rather thorny question regarding outside interference. So, without further ado, here’s the question that we asked: Goal Kick is taken by the goalkeeper. The ball leaves the penalty box and then hits an overhanging tree branch. The ball bounces back into the penalty box and the goalkeeper catches it with his hands. Decision?
Now, before we provide a correct answer to this question, we have to admit that we posed this question being fully aware that it would cause some difficulty, because the Laws of the Game do not specifically deal with the situation we described. We also posed this question because we knew that your first reaction would be to call for the restart by dropped ball since there was “interference” when the ball contacted an object that was not part of the field of play. Finally, we wanted to examine more closely the USSF’s analysis of what constitutes “outside interference” and what a proper restart is when it occurs.
So, here’s the answer. According to USSF, because an overhanging tree branch is classified as a “pre-existing condition,” the restart is an Indirect Free Kick awarded to the opposing team. The USSF determined that the play is not stopped in the situation where the ball touches an object classified as a “pre-existing condition.” Thus, in accordance with Law 16 – The Goal Kick, “if, after the ball is in play, the goalkeeper deliberately handles the ball before it has touched another player … an indirect free kick is awarded to the opposing team if the infringement occurred inside the goalkeeper’s penalty area…”
Of course, this result becomes self-evident once you know that an overhanging tree branch is a “pre-existing condition” and that the ball remains in play even though it touches an object classified as a pre-existing condition. But why would an overhanging tree branch be classified as a “pre-existing condition?” Well, USSF explained in its Advice to Referees that pre-existing conditions “are things on or above the field which are not described in Law 1 but are deemed safe and not generally subject to movement. These include trees overhanging the field, wires running above the field, and covers on sprinkling or draining systems. They do not affect one team more adversely than the other and are considered to be a part of the field. If the ball leaves the field after contact with any item considered under the local ground rules of the field to be a pre-existing condition, the restart is in accordance with the Law, based on which team last played the ball.” (Emphasis added.)
By now, you are probably thinking that if this is the case then the uprights on combination of soccer/football goals (something that is not unusual to see on fields that are used for playing soccer and football in the United States) would have to be considered “preexisting conditions” as well. After all, they are “safe” and not “subject to movement.” However, in its Advice to Referees, USSF specifically stated that “the uprights on combination soccer/football goals [are] superfluous items” called “non-regulation appurtenances.” When contact is made between the ball and these “non-regulation appurtenances”, the ball is “deemed to be automatically out of play and the restart is in accordance with the Law, based on which team last played the ball.”
USSF’s Advice to Referees does not provide a good and principled explanation for making a distinction between “non-regulation appurtenances” and “pre-existing conditions.” Indeed, the division between the two appears somewhat strained and that is precisely the reason why your – and our – first reaction would be to stop play when the ball makes any contact with both superfluous football goal structures and overhanging tree branches. Remember, the Laws of the Game too do not deal with this situation and, in the absence of any guidance from FIFA or IFAB, USSF could have determined that the restart should have been dropped ball. Indeed, we believe that a better decision, and one that would be more consistent with and in conformity with the Laws of the Game, would have been to require the Referee to restart play with a dropped ball.
Under Law 8 (The Start and Restart of Play), “a dropped ball is a method of restarting play when, while the ball is still in play, the referee is required to stop play temporarily for any reason not mentioned elsewhere in the Laws of the Game.” The situation described here is precisely this kind of situation; that is, not mentioned elsewhere in the Laws of the Game. This is simple as that – period! You don’t have to make any tortured arguments and/or analysis what constitutes “pre-existing conditions” and “non-regulation appurtenances.”
Moreover, this kind of approach is more consistent with the way the Laws of the Game deal with other kinds of “interferences.” For example, IFAB’s interpretation of Law 5 states that “if a spectator blows a whistle and the referee considers the whistle interfered with play…, the referee must stop the match and restart the play with a dropped ball. Similarly, “if an extra ball, other object or animal enters the field of play during the match, the referee must stop the match only if it interferes with play. Play must be restarted by a dropped ball.” Also, in accordance with Law 3 (The Number of Players), “the referee must stop the play” if the outside agent interferes with play and “he must restart play with a dropped ball.” One common theme for all of these examples is that something or someone not belonging on the field interferes with play. What’s more, in all of these cases of interference the referee is required to stop the play and restart it with dropped ball.
Admittedly, these examples are different in kind from the situation we presented. One principal difference is that in all of the examples above; the sounds (whistle), objects, animals or people who interfered with play were “introduced” after the match has started while in our example the overhanging tree branch was there from the beginning. This distinction, however, seems to us immaterial. A hanging tree branch, whether it was there before a game or was introduced after it started, does not belong on the field of play. Like the American football superstructures erected on top of goals, an overhanging tree branch is not a part of the field. Therefore, like in all of the examples covered by IFAB, it would be more consistent with IFAB’s interpretations of the Laws of the Game to require the referee to stop play and restart it with a dropped ball when the ball makes a contact with an overhanging tree branch.
Finally, we want to point out that, under Law 5 (The Referee), the referee has full authority to stop the match for, among other reasons, “outside interference of any kind” and he/she “indicates the restart of the match after it has been stopped.” Thus, it seems to us that the Referee would be fully authorized to stop the game when the ball hit an overhanging tree branch and restart it with a dropped ball. This, in combination with Law 8 and IFAB’s interpretations of Laws 3 and 5 as discussed above provide well-grounded reasoning for requiring the referee to stop play and restart it with a dropped ball under the circumstances we described.
Nevertheless, for those referees subject to the jurisdiction of the United States Soccer Federation, when the ball touches, bounces or ricochets off any overhanging tree branches, the required course of action is to let the play continue.