In the 91st minute of the game between West Brom and Aston Villa, Aston Villa’s Lowton and West Brom’s Lukaku were locked in a fierce battle for a ball near Aston Villa’s penalty area. Panicking Lowton, who appeared to be on the losing end of the battle for the ball, in his last ditch effort to prevent Lukaku from taking control over the ball, kicked the ball toward his goalkeeper Brad Guzan. Guzan calmly collected the ball and the dangerous attack petered out. Despite some protestation from West Brom players, Referee Lee Probert did not spot any infringement and let the game continue (see the video below). We believe Mr. Probert decision to let the play continue was wrong.
Before we dive into the exact reasons for our disagreement with Mr. Probert’s decision, here’s a little bit of a background about the “pass-back” violation rule. The pass-back rule became part of the Laws of the Game in 1992. The rule was introduced after the 1990 World Cup in Italy. The 1990 World Cup was arguably one the least entertaining tournaments and the games were criticized for being dull, slow and full of time-wasting techniques which often included repeated passing of the ball back to the goalkeeper in order to delay the game and “waste” some time. The pass-back rule was part of a series of amendments and changes to the Laws of the Game, often referred to as for the “Good of the Game”, designed to improve and promote attacking style of soccer. The rule was designed to discourage time-wasting by making it illegal for the goalkeeper to handle the ball that was kicked to him by his teammate.
The Laws of the Game state that “an indirect free kick is awarded to the opposing team if a goalkeeper, inside his own penalty area … touches the ball with his hands after it has been deliberately kicked to him by a teammate.” The IFAB’s interpretation further describes that “a goalkeeper is not permitted to touch the ball with his hand inside his own penalty area … after it has been deliberately kicked to him by a teammate.” Furthermore, the United States Soccer Federation explained that “the requirement that the ball be kicked means only that it has been played with the foot” and “the requirement that the ball be “kicked to” the goalkeeper means only that the play is to or toward a place where the ‘keeper can (otherwise) legally handle the ball. The requirement that the ball be “deliberately kicked” means that the play on the ball is deliberate and does not include situations in which the ball has been, in the opinion of the referee, accidentally deflected or misdirected.”
In subsequent position papers, the USSF clarified that the “pass-back” offense “rests on three events occurring in the following sequence: (1) the ball is kicked (played with the foot) by a teammate of the goalkeeper, (2) this action is deemed to be deliberate rather than a deflection, and (3) the goalkeeper handles the ball directly (no intervening touch or play of the ball by anyone else).”
What the Laws of the Game state and what the USSF guidance reinforces is that, since referees are no mind readers, they must observe and adjudge the “pass-back” violation based upon objectively available facts. Thus, the referee must find the act to be “deliberate” if the player intentionally kicked the ball and the ball was kicked to or in the direction of the goalkeeper where the goalkeeper could normally pick it up. Please also note that the Laws of the Game do not require any inquiry into the state of mind of the goalkeeper. In other words, what the goalkeeper thinks is immaterial. The violation is committed at the time he touches the ball with his hands.
As the video clip above clearly demonstrates, all of the requirements for the pass-back violation were met. First, Aston Villa’s Lowton deliberately kicked the ball. Indeed, the fact that he intentionally kicked the ball cannot be disputed. Lowton ran after the ball and raised his foot in order to make contact with it and with the sole purpose of preventing Lukaku from taking control over the ball. The ball did not deflect off Lawton’s foot or accidentally “landed” on his foot and thus was not inadvertently misdirected to Guzan. In short, Lowton’s effort to play the ball was deliberate. Secondly, the ball was played to/or in the direction of Guzan, allowing him to collect it. Finally, Guzan touched the ball with his hands. Under these circumstances, Mr. Probert’s decision to let the play continue was wrong. Let us know what you think.