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The Backpass Rule in Football

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Once upon a time, not very long ago, football teams defending a narrow advantage in a game would often waste time by repeatedly passing the ball back to their goalkeeper.

The 'keeper would then often pick up the ball, bounce it a couple of times, roll it along the ground, and generally do as much as possible to waste more time before finally kicking it upfield. So effective was this ploy as a time-wasting measure that it wasn't uncommon to see backpasses to the goalkeeper being made from somewhere around the half-way line.

The trouble was that endless backpasses hardly made great entertainment for the spectators, and the tactic's effectiveness encouraged negative, cynical football.

It was this that led football's world governing body FIFA to make the biggest change to the laws of the game for many years, when they introduced the backpass rule in 1992.

What the Backpass Rule Says

The FIFA football rule book states that the goalkeeper may not handle the ball '...if it has been deliberately kicked to him1 by a team-mate'.

If the goalkeeper does handle the ball in those circumstances, then an indirect free-kick2 is awarded to the attacking team, to be taken from the place where the 'keeper handled the ball'.

The 'deliberately kicked' part is crucial. The backpass rule does not apply if the ball is headed to the goalkeeper by a team-mate. It's also perfectly OK for the 'keeper to pick up the ball if it merely deflects off a team-mate's boot during play - if, for instance, an opponent's shot is deflected by a defender's boot and the goalkeeper then saves the shot.

It's this last aspect of the rule that leads to disputed decisions, since the referee will often have to decide whether a defender actually intended to guide the ball to the goalkeeper. Referees usually give the benefit of any doubt to the defence.

The Effect of the Backpass Rule

The introduction of the backpass rule certainly succeeded in making negative, defensive football more difficult. A goalkeeper receiving a backpass must now control the ball and clear it upfield without using his hands and arms.

Naturally, the opposition will usually try to pressurise the goalkeeper into disposing of the ball as quickly as possible. This has led to some classic comedy goals, when hasty attempted clearances have struck players and rebounded into the net, or even when a harassed 'keeper has hurriedly swung a boot at the ball and ended up missing it altogether.

Defenders and goalkeepers are generally careful not to break the backpass rule, because being caught doing so often means a free-kick being awarded to the attacking team very close to goal. When this happens, it usually leads to a tense situation in which one player from the attacking team will tap the indirect free-kick to a team-mate, who will then try to blast the ball past a wall of defenders lined up either on or near the goal-line.

The backpass rule was controversial when it was first introduced, but most football fans would probably now agree that the rule makes the game more exciting. It has also had the happy side-effect of improving the average goalkeeper's ball-control skills, since the modern 'keeper has to control the ball with his feet far more often than did 'keepers of earlier generations.

1Or her. A note in the FIFA rule book explains that it uses masculine pronouns to apply to both male and female footballers. For simplicity's sake, this Guide Entry does the same.2 An indirect free-kick is one from which a goal cannot be scored directly. In other words, following the taking of an indirect free-kick, the ball must touch another player before a goal can be scored.

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