What Rules Do Goalkeepers Have to Follow in Football?

Playing in goal is without doubt the most misunderstood position on the pitch. As the last line of defence, the goalkeeper is rarely part of goal-scoring moves, while they are invariably blamed for their part in conceding a goal. Footballers, pundits and fans really show how little they truly know about the position when their go-to sound bite is ‘they shouldn’t be beaten at their near post’ even when that had little to do with conceding the goal itself.

If you are one of those people that knows little about the position, but wants to understand more, then fear not. In this guide, we will take a look at the rules that all goalkeepers in football must follow along with some common misconceptions and some of the greatest to ever tend goal.

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What Is a Goalkeeper?

First of all, let’s go over what a goalkeeper is. The goalkeeper, goalie or ‘keeper, is the player that tends to stand between the goalposts, using any part of their body they see fit to stop the ball from hitting the back of the net.

Often immediately recognisable by their flashy goalkeeper gloves and shirt that is different to any other player on the pitch, a goalkeeper will usually be the tallest player on the field, with incredibly good hand-eye coordination. They are often called upon to ‘save the ball’, which is where they use a part of their body to stop the ball from going into the goal. Most goalkeepers use their hands to stop the ball when diving, while other goalkeepers prefer to use their feet to stop the ball for certain shots.

Manuel Neuer

Manuel Neuer (Danilo Borges / Wikipedia.org)

Perhaps the most important player to have donned the gloves since the inception of the game is Germany’s Manuel Neuer. Neuer becomes a great exponent of the sweeper-keeper role during stints with Germany, Schalke and Bayern Munich. This role saw Neuer playing as an auxiliary defender, often standing closer to the halfway line than to his own goal. This means he is able to sweep up behind the defence when the ball is played long, snuffing out attacks, while he can also set his team off on their own moves too. His ability with the ball at his feet is something that has made him one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time.

Before this, the goalkeeper was seen as a player that stopped goals, and that was it. However, due to Neuer’s exploits, the likes of Ederson and Alisson have come into the game, with the trio helping the role of the goalkeeper to evolve further. A goalkeeper has all of the same abilities as a normal player. For example, if they want to run with the ball at their feet, they can. They can score goals like any other player, while they can take a penalty if they are deemed good enough to do so, but what makes the goalkeeper stand out from the other outfield players?

What Rules Do Goalkeepers Have to Follow?

Man City goalie
jpellgen (@1179_jp) / Flickr.com

The position of the goalkeeper stands out from the rest of the players on the pitch. The main way a goalkeeper is different from an outfield player is through the fact that they are allowed to use their hands to handle the ball. However, while they can hold the ball, they must do so under a number of parameters.

Handling the Ball

A goalkeeper can pick up the ball as long as the ball is within the confines of their own box. If the ball is outside of their box and they are caught still handling the ball, then they will be penalised. A goalkeeper can come out of the box with the ball still in their hands as long as the ball remains in the box. Therefore, if a goalkeeper slid out to smother the ball away from an attacker and their whole body leaves the box with the exception of their hands which are holding the ball, then they will not be penalised as the ball and their hands are still in the box.

Once a goalkeeper has taken control of the ball in both hands, the opposition are not permitted to challenge them. This is very different from a normal outfield played. When an outfield player has the ball at their feet, any player can challenge them for it in open play.

Change of Goalies

One of the most important rules that the team must adhere to is the fact that there must be a designated goalkeeper on the pitch for each side at all times. This means that if a goalkeeper is sent off or injured and can no longer play, then they must be replaced. The Laws of the Game say that the designated goalkeeper can be switched at any stoppage in play. However, this feels far more akin to playing football in the park and screaming ‘switch goalie’ when a player gets bored of standing between the sticks. In practice, switching the goalkeeper does not happen unless there is an injury, red card or general substitution.

Stopping Penalty Kicks

A goalkeeper is the only player that is able to try to stop an opponent’s penalty kick. The goalkeeper must stay on their own goal line as the striker steps up to take the penalty. While they can move back and forth, and side to side, this must all happen with the goalkeeper still behind their own line. Much like with a penalty in the game itself, a goalkeeper will also face each of the opposition’s penalties in a penalty shootout. They are the only player to have an active role in all of the opposition’s kicks.

Free Kick Defence

When it comes to free kicks, it is not a strict law, but goalkeepers will generally organise their defence. This will see them deciding how many players to put in a defensive wall and where they should stand. Generally, a goalkeeper will set their wall on one side of the goal and then stand on the side of the goal that the wall does not cover. The challenge to the player striking the ball is that they can either try to get the ball up and over, around or under the wall, or they can try to get it beyond the goalkeeper on their side.

Location on the Pitch

There is no specific law in the game of football that dictates whether a goalkeeper can leave their penalty area or not. This means that they could technically play anywhere on the pitch, although they will usually spend most of their time in their box near to the goal.

Different Kit

Goalkeepers are usually required to wear a different coloured kit to the rest of the team. This is to help them stand out from the outfield players as they are given different entitlements such as using their hands in the box. This will help a referee discern between whether or not a player should be penalised for an action on the pitch or whether it is in the rules of the game, such as whether a player can catch the ball.

Have the Rules Changed for Goalkeepers over the Years?

Spurs vs Chelsea
sarflondondunc / Flickr.com

Yes, the rules of the game have changed massively since football was created, and the role of the goalkeeper has changed markedly too.

Late 1800s

1871 saw laws amended when it came to the goalkeeper, allowing them to handle the ball only when trying to protect their goal. Two years later, a rule stopping the goalkeeper from carrying the ball came into play. A decade after that, this was changed very slightly, with ‘keepers now restricted to two steps with the ball in hand. In 1887, rules stopping the goalkeeper from handling the ball in the opposition’s half were brought in, but one of the biggest changes came 14 years later, as a goalie was now able to handle the ball for any reason. This meant that they were not restricted to handling the ball when making a save.

Early 1900s

1912 continued to refine the role of the goalkeeper as they were restricted to only handling the ball in the penalty area. 1931 saw a goalkeeper able to take four steps with the ball in hand, rather than just two, although this seemed like a very small step forward in the evolution of the goalkeeper.

One major rule change came as a result of the tragic death of Sunderland’s Jimmy Thorpe back in the 1935/36 season. Thorpe was kicked in the head and chest after picking the ball up from a backpass against Chelsea. He managed to finish the game but ultimately collapsed and died after the match. Due to this horrifying turn of events, the rules were changed so that players could no longer raise their feet to a goalkeeper when they had control of the ball in their arms.

The 1990s

In 1991, the rules were changed so that goalkeepers were not allowed to handle the ball after it was passed back to them. So, came into being the rule of the ‘passback’. 1997 saw the final major change when it came to goalkeeping. This has seen the goalkeeper restricted to handling the ball for no longer than six seconds each time they have the ball. This means that if they were to catch a shot from the opposition, then the goalkeeper should have released the ball no more than six seconds later.

This final rule is one that has come under a lot of fire in recent years. Goalkeepers are seen to take far too much time on the ball. Referees seem unwilling to give a countdown for a ‘keeper, instead preferring to allow them to release the ball at their own pace and within reason.

However, this has frustrated many, especially when a team is looking to time waste, with the goalkeeper pushing the amount of time they are permitted to the limit. While this has become an incredibly frustrating time-wasting technique from goalkeepers, it used to be even more infuriating. Goalkeepers were guilty of bouncing the ball or throwing it up in the air and catching it to waste time, while it used to be in the rules that they could drop the ball, dribble with it and then pick it back up when an opponent came near to them.

The passback rule was extended in 1997 to include stopping goalkeepers from picking the ball up from a throw-in from a teammate.

What Happens If a Goalkeeper Handles a Backpass?

This is a question that a lot of people ask because it does not happen all too often. A backpass is a purposeful pass from a player back to their own goalkeeper, who then picks the ball up. The pass must come from the foot of a player for it to be seen as a backpass. If a player were to head the ball back to their goalkeeper, then this would not be deemed a backpass.

If a player passes the ball back to their goalkeeper and they pick it up, then an indirect free kick will be awarded. An indirect free kick is like a direct free kick, but a player cannot score directly from it. It means that it must be touched by one player before another can try to score. The indirect free kick will be awarded where the goalkeeper picked the ball up.

This sort of free kick situation is one of the most comical sights in football. The attacking side will usually have a number of players near the ball ready to strike it once it has been touched. Most if not all of the defending team will be standing on the line, ready to rush towards the ball as soon as it is touched. The goalkeeper will be with them on the line, and they will also rush off their line to defend the goal. While indirect free kicks do not always mean a goal will definitely be scored, it is a fantastic attacking situation.

Can a Goalkeeper Score a Goal?

Goalie kicking ball
Chris Turner / Flickr.com

As mentioned previously, a goalkeeper has most of the same entitlements as a regular outfield player, and they then have abilities on top of these. One such entitlement is the ability to score goals. Rogerio Ceni of Brazil is lauded as the greatest goal scoring goalkeeper of all time. He managed to net a ridiculous 131 goals from free kicks and penalties.

Just behind him are the likes of Jose Luis Chilavert of Paraguay (67 goals), Jorge Campos of Mexico (46) and Johnny Vegas Fernandez of Peru (45). While there are a number of goalkeepers that have scored a glut of goals, it is unlikely that anyone will get close to Ceni anytime soon. When it comes to the Premier League, perhaps the most famous example of a goalkeeper scoring came as Liverpool’s Alisson netted a late winner from a corner to hand the Reds a huge 2-1 win in 2021.