Football player pulling the shirt of another player

Is Shirt Pulling Allowed in Football?

When you watch a football game – and it doesn’t really matter if it’s the World Cup final or a Sunday morning clash between the Dog & Duck and the Red Lion – it’s amazing how many little fouls and infringements, the kind that go unnoticed by the referee, occur. Of course, VAR has changed that somewhat at the top level, but football outside of the elite is still dogged by old school rough-housing that goes unnoticed by the officials. Shirt pulling is a classic example.

Whenever there’s a duel out on the pitch, you can almost assure that at least one of the players – if not both – are pulling the others’ shirt. You see it at set pieces too, with either the attacking or defending player desperate to gain a marginal advantage that might mean they are first to the header. But is shirt pulling allowed in football? And, if it’s not, what are the punishments?

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Getting Shirty

Pulling football shirt
Chris Turner /

One of the interesting things about the rules of football is that there isn’t anything in the handbook that outlaws shirt pulling. Law 12: Fouls and Misconduct, as governed by the International Football Association Board (IFAB), details all manner of reasons as to why a direct or indirect free kick can be given. Shirt pulling isn’t mentioned by name – the closest thing to it might be the prohibited ‘impeding an opponent with contact’. Weather shirt pulling falls under that remit is surely open to interpretation.

There’s also Law 12.1: A direct free kick will be awarded when a player ‘holds’ an opponent. Again, that’s open to interpretation whether shirt pulling is the same crime. Alternatively, we might consider shirt pulling to fall under the auspices of an indirect free kick crime: ‘impeding the progress of an opponent without any contact being made’.

For so long, shirt pulling and similar ‘grappling’ offences went unpunished, but prior to the start of the 2016/17 season, a new directive was introduced that aimed to stamp out such actions: within two games of the campaign, three players – including Raheem Sterling – had been punished for shirt pulls and general man-handling of their opponent.

There wasn’t a specific rule change implemented by IFAB, but referees in the Premier League were given a directive to clamp down on shirt pulls and ‘wrestling’ at set pieces – since then, plenty of free kicks and penalties have been awarded against offenders. However, the new way stopped short of assuring that a foul would be given, with the following briefing given to referees: ‘Players who clearly hold an opponent by pulling their shirt, or extend their arm to pull back an opponent, run the risk of being penalised.’

Clearly, ‘run the risk’ is not the same as a sure free kick or penalty being given. But even so, the changes were timely. To offer some context as to how much fans despise shirt pulling and shenanigans in the penalty area, somebody even started a petition for penalties to be automatically awarded for shirt pulling in the 18-yard box.

Can a Player Be Booked or Sent Off for Shirt Pulling?

Ref holding yellow and red cards

One of the decisions a referee must make when considering shirt pulling offences us did the act have a direct effect on the outcome of play? If the answer is no, a free kick may not even be given. If the answer is yes, the official has a full range of potential punishments at their disposal. There’s two situations in particular where shirt pulling will not be tolerated: when it stops a ‘promising attack’, i.e. where the attacking team is progressing at pace towards their opponent’s goal and perhaps have a numerical advantage, or where it denies a clear and obvious goalscoring opportunity.

When either of these boxes have been ticked, that’s when the shirt puller is in danger of being punished with a card. So, when the offender is considered by the referee or VAR to have stopped a promising attack, they can be shown a yellow card. If they are adjudged to have denied their opponent a clear goalscoring opportunity, they can be sent off.

There is still some room for interpretation: if the shirt pulling occurs while the defender is making a genuine attempt to make a clean tackle, they may get away with just a booking. Although shirt pulling itself is not expressly forbidden under IFAB’s rules, its application as a professional foul will likely yield a red card for the offender.