Goalkeeper pass back

What Is the Back Pass Rule in Football?

Picture the scene: a football team is a goal to the good, and with time running out they are engaging in the dark art of time wasting. The goalkeeper passes the ball to one of his/her teammates, who then immediately kicks the ball back to the keeper. They wait for an opposition player to approach, before picking up the ball. This process is then repeated again and again.

Legal? Yes. In the spirit of the game? Maybe not so much. With this dark art becoming commonplace in football leagues across the world, the sport’s governors got together to come up with a solution to an issue that was increasingly becoming an eyesore – the World Cup in 1990, in what should have been a celebration of the beautiful game, was blighted by this time wasting tomfoolery. Change was afoot…

When Was the Back Pass Rule Introduced?

Tired of excessive time wasting, which in one game at the World Cup in Italy saw Republic of Ireland goalkeeper, Pat Bonner, hold the ball for six of the 90-minutes against Egypt, football officials would take the best part of two years to come up with a solution.

Behind the scenes, they began working on a rule that would prevent goalkeepers from picking up the ball if passed to them by a teammate – it was trialled in a series of non-competitive games. With Euro 1992 also blighted by time wasting – champions Denmark, and future Manchester United goalkeeper, Peter Schmeichel, in particular excelling, the decision was taken: enough was enough.

In 1992, the back pass rule was rolled out – with the Olympic Games used as the guinea pig pilot. Naturally, a ruling that effectively changed the way football is played would take some getting used to and, in the very first game between Italy and the USA, the rule was broken and the Americans handed an indirect free kick, which they duly scored from.

What Is the Pass Back Rule in Football?

Quite simply, a goalkeeper cannot pick up the ball when it is passed to them by a teammate. There is one exception, which is when a defender heads the ball back to the keeper – in this instance, they are able to handle the ball. However, any ‘trickery’ that achieves this, such as when Brian Laws got on his hands and knees to head a ball off the ground back to Mark Crossley in the early days of the back pass rule, has also now been prohibited.

Other tweaks have been implemented in the three decades since. Originally, goalkeepers could pick up the ball directly from a throw in – in 1997, this too was outlawed so that they would instead only be able to use their feet to control the ball. A common misconception that can confuse some new football fans, the back pass rule is not limited to just instances where the ball is passed backwards – in theory, a defender could kick the ball forward and a goalkeeper would not be allowed to pick it up unless there’s another contact in-between.

If the goalkeeper is adjudged to have infringed the back pass rule, an indirect free kick is given where they have handled the ball – which includes instances inside their own penalty area. That gave rise to a number of chaotic moments in the history of football, but more on those shortly.

Can a Goalkeeper Save a Back Pass?

Goalkeeper holding ball

There is a misconception too that the back pass rule is only instigated when the goalkeeper picks the ball up. However, the official rules of the beautiful game – as prescribed by IFAB – confirm that the offence is committed even if the goalkeeper merely handles the ball, be it literally with their hand or any part of the arm below the t-shirt line, as per the definition of handball.

What Is an Indirect Free Kick in Football?

Some offences in football lead to a direct free kick, which is a set piece from which the attacking team can score without the ball necessarily touching any other player. However, other crimes on the grass will lead to an indirect free kick. Here, the ball cannot enter the net without first making contact with another player. That is why, when teams get an indirect free kick that is within shooting distance, the taker will often tap the ball to a colleague, who can then shoot now that the indirect kick has been taken.

Just some of the offences that lead to an indirect free kick include:

  • A goalkeeper handling a back pass
  • Offside
  • Obstruction
  • Dissent
  • Offensive, abusive or insulting language to a match official or opponent
  • A penalty kick that goes backwards
  • Impeding a throw-in taker

Chaos & Confusion: Indirect Free Kicks Inside the Penalty Area

Because the back pass rule is so ingrained within football nowadays, it is very rare that a goalkeeper will handle the ball when played to them by a teammate – they know that kicking the ball away is the only course of action, which has been aided by the fact that so many keepers are adept at playing out from the back now. But there have been many instances in days gone by where the keeper has breached the pass back rule, which – as we know – hands the opposition an indirect free kick where the ball was handled….even if that’s inside the penalty area.

The resulting scene is one of the most chaotic in football: the defensive team will line up in their goal alongside their keeper, and as soon as the free kick taker has tapped the ball, they charge out in an attempt to block the shot – quite literally putting their bodies on the line. As you would expect, there’s plenty of YouTube montages if schadenfreude is your bag – watch the defenders fearing for their lives as Alan Shearer and co line up their shot.