This is a very interesting rule, as you might notice only at second glance. First of all, it should be mentioned that this rule – as a second rule alongside the fantastic but unfortunately never applied rule of giving the attacker the benefit of the doubt in offside situations – was enforced and introduced by the USA for the 1994 World Cup. If you have any doubts about the competence of this nation, the USA, which is completely alien to football, you might like to take a look at a football match before the introduction of this rule to dispel them.
Some of what you see is a farce, and if you use all the skills of everyone involved well enough, it is relatively easy to overcome any doubts that you will be able to keep a 20-minute lead with 20 minutes left in the game in the way you have seen: One can observe almost endless sequences in which the goalkeeper throws or rolls a ball to any of his team’s field players and the latter – due to the actual attack of an opponent — play this ball directly back to the goalkeeper. The goalkeeper who is then attacked, in order to demonstrate absolute sovereignty and control of the situation, allows the attacker to come within a few centimetres of him – and only then picks up the ball lying in front of him again with his hands. After that, the procedure is repeated. At that time, only a certain form of decency stood in the way of the fact that it was possible to completely stop football being played in this way. After the third pass, the goalkeeper decided to kick the ball wide – without any necessity.
In this respect, the introduction of this rule was not only desirable but, viewed in the mirror of time, a definite “must”. The fact that the USA was already so far along at that time to recognise that it was a necessity without having a deeper insight from home speaks volumes – namely for their foresight and understanding to put the spectators’ interests first.
On the other hand, this rule, of all things, has (at least) one catch as one can quite easily see today when looking at it even more closely. For this, however, one has to look at history, which, taking into account the intuitive intelligence of the players, has brought about a certain development. The players (and coaches) not only have to learn to deal with the rule itself, but also with the way it is interpreted and applied, as usual. Thus, at some point, a certain agreement emerges, from all sides, on how they have to act.
One of the first scenes after the introduction of the rule was curious: the rulebook explicitly stated that it only applied to back-heels with the foot, where the goalkeeper loses the right to pick up the ball with his hands. A smart defender (from memory: he played for Fortuna Cologne) was reasonably unpressured, knew about the exact wording of the rule, so, with the intention of not breaking the rule, went down on his knees and kicked the ball back to his goalkeeper with the same. The goalkeeper picked up the ball with his hands, after which the referee was unable to charge the goalkeeper with a violation of the rules. However, he spontaneously decided that the defender had committed an offence and showed him a yellow card. The officials recognised the loophole in the wording and added something to exclude such behaviour.
Now came a second phase in which the rule was “tapped”. The goalkeepers, who are generally considered to be less skilled with the ball – certainly not without good reason – were attacked by attackers after a ball was passed to them. As a result, some goalkeepers panicked and just kicked the ball away. They were no longer allowed to pick it up with their hands – following the old habit – and other kinds of skills had not yet been sufficiently trained. The ball, having been hit forward in an uncontrolled manner, was then often played back posthaste, by an opponent who profited from this coincidence. But now it turned out that the player attacking the goalkeeper had moved up so far that he was offside. In theory, he had successfully provoked the loss of the ball, but by moving up so far – which was necessary to put pressure on the keeper – he had made it impossible to take advantage of the loss of the ball.
Hm, so this behaviour also seemed unsuitable, at least if one was concerned with goal scoring intentions. The attackers quietened down again, as direct exploitation of the game situation in this way was demonstrably out of the question. Possibly winning the ball, yes, that’s possible. But scoring a goal? No, it still comes to that. So, when the opportunity presents itself, you do attack, but only to possibly win the ball for your own team. At the same time, goalkeepers developed a greater understanding of the game, and it is quite possible that goalkeeper coaches also felt compelled to work on the technical skills of those in their charge.
Now a new era began. For everyone involved, this consisted of finding an appropriate way of dealing with the rule. Of course, it was a kind of reflex for the goalkeeper, if the ball was played back to him with his foot and subjected to some pressure, never to pick it up with his hand, but instead to hit it back into the field, or even out of bounds in special pressure situations. But picking it up? No, that was not done. Because that would have resulted in an indirect free kick.
However, one gradually realises that the referees, through prolonged abstinence from applying the rule, gradually lost their memory of how it actually works. A goalkeeper did not take the ball if it was played back with his foot. Goalkeepers began to exploit this fact. In other words, if a ball was played back by a foot, it could still be picked up under certain circumstances. Here the key word was: controlled. Had the defender even played it back in a controlled manner?
Now a grey area began to install itself. The goalkeeper was often at a loss as to whether the ball would be considered to have been played back in a controlled manner if he picked it up? So would the ref penalise picking up the ball by hand, if he did? This hurdle was overcome by a gradual approach. One goalkeeper had some fairly simple thoughts in his head: “If I pick up this ball, it can’t really count as a return, because the ball was touched quite uncontrollably after all. I’ll give it a try.” The ball was picked up, the referee was perhaps irritated for a moment, but decided to play on.
So it happened that the goalkeepers gradually got to the point where nothing was actually classified as a backpass any more, provided they only picked up the ball with their hand. The decision about controlled or uncontrolled is up to the goalkeeper himself. If he picks me up, it was obviously not a back pass. After all, who would be so stupid as to grant the opponent a free kick – usually from a dangerous position – just like that, unhindered, unforced? No, that’s probably what the referee thought. The goalkeeper who picks up the ball surely only did so because it was not a controlled and intended return – required by the rule for penalties.
So the time came when no free kick was awarded at all because of a back pass. The referees basically let the ball go, there can be no penalty at all. There is no such thing as a violation of the rules. Every goalkeeper knows that he is not allowed to pick up the ball if it comes to him with his foot controlled and intended, so he only picks it up if these conditions are not met. The reader is invited to search his memory for such violations. The search is – almost – fruitless.
For there was this one practical case: The German championship in 2002 had been decided for about 3 minutes. In any case, there was exuberant celebration in Schalke. An unbelievable triumph that would have or had eclipsed everything there. Then, in the still unfinished game in Hamburg, against Bayern, HSV goalkeeper Schober picked up a back pass, right on the byline. It was not a controlled backpass, at least not one that deserved any more punishment than any of the 50 others played earlier in the season – all of which went unpunished. That’s the crux of the matter: Why was this championship-deciding scene, of all things, interpreted only in this one case in a way that was possibly correct, rule-compliant, justifiable, whatever? That is exactly what Schalke could have chalked off to the officials with some (customary) justification.
They had long been in agony after the equalising goal resulting from the indirect free kick in Hamburg and the championship lost as a result. There, where the aborted, throat-stuck jubilation had caused such incomprehensibility, disbelief, so many tears, one was simply speechless. And to another body, one would not have listened, but would have superimposed the usual “bad loser mentality” on those affected. But the comment is no less true: you can’t actually whistle a backpass as illegal just once in a season (please, research results to the contrary are gladly taken note of) when it decides the championship. No, that’s not possible. There must be another method behind it. Even if in this one case the decision was – and may be – classified as “in accordance with the rules”. However, the fact that the (indirect) free kick had to be taken by defender (!) Andersson (after a deflection) can confidently go down in history as the event of the century.
Unfortunately, a different scene description has not yet been observed in practice by the author’s side, but the result, how goalkeepers, media and rules commissions reacted, would be eagerly awaited. Here is the game situation:
A back-pass is clearly recognisable and deliberately played back to the goalkeeper with the foot. From which pressure situation may remain open for the time being. However, the ball is played so inaccurately that it goes towards the goal instead of the keeper. The goalkeeper has only one possibility to stop the ball from crossing the goal line: With his hands. Whether it is possibly too high (a bouncing ball that was nevertheless played intentionally and/or in a controlled manner), that it would have passed the goalkeeper and he would only be able to get behind it with a pike, or that it somehow comes about in another way, is also irrelevant at first. He played a back pass with his hand, intentionally, as the only way to prevent a goal against.
How would the referee react now? It is all clear about the situation. The claim here, of course, is that he would not decide on a free kick. The usual reasons would be mainly responsible for that. However, just as quickly as he decides to play on, he would come up with a justification for it. Presumably it would be this: “How can you talk about a controlled back pass when the ball is played so inaccurately that it doesn’t even reach the goalkeeper?”
That would be one side of the coin, practical examples would be interesting in this context. The other side would be how the media react to it. Because: On the one hand, one or the other player of the opposing team will certainly complain on the field, on the other hand, such scenes cannot avoid the cameras and a commentary anyway. The defender would explain that he couldn’t have handled the ball properly only because of the opponent’s attack, the goalkeeper would claim that he had no other chance and didn’t think any further at that moment – apart from the fact that, of course, he wouldn’t have had a better chance to prevent a goal, because even if justified, the indirect free kick would still be far from being a goal – and the referee would say what he had thought up above.
The rule-makers would make a lengthy analysis of the game scene and probably conclude that he should have blown the whistle, but that in the individual case, of course, the referee would not be blamed because, as usual, everything happened so quickly and he had to react in a flash (why it is then always against the goal chance is a tiresome topic, but not further mentioned here, especially not by the expert). If the waves caused by the wind were particularly high, a possible rewording of the rule would be sought, which would deal with this special case, of course, as is to be assumed, the goalkeeper would subsequently be granted the right to use his hands in the special situation.
Here, finally, as a conclusion, are the concerns about the back-pass rule. It is the only rule where a genuinely measurable time elapses before offence or no offence can be adjudicated. It is a combination of actions that must be judged. The ball is passed back. It is on its way. And the goalkeeper is not informed, for that period of time, whether the ball passed to him may be played with his hands or not. Theoretically, he would have this time to ask the referee: “Hey, referee, am I allowed to pick up this ball or not? Please tell me, but tell me quickly. I don’t want to break any rule, only I don’t know if I’m about to.” For his part, the referee might take that view: “Let’s see what you do with this ball. Oh, aha, you picked it up? Hehe, you shouldn’t have done that. This is a free kick.” Or, alternatively: “Oh, you voluntarily hit the ball out of bounds or to the opponent? Yes, all you had to do was ask me: Of course you could have taken it!” Actually, a light should be switched on (or not) as soon as the ball is on its way towards the goalkeeper. “You may” “You may not”.
A curious rule. It is good, it is necessary. But there is something wrong with it. Schalke, in particular, should have sung a little song after these statements, which they could later sing regularly…