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There is a lot of confusion surrounding this topic, both from media and from fans.

For example, in the 2014 World Cup, Gonzalo Higuain was hit pretty hard by Manuel Neuer (with his knee), but no foul was given because Neuer touched the ball first.

Higuain foul

However, just as an example, in this last Copa America, Jorge Fucile was given a second yellow after hitting Alexis Sanchez, despite getting to the ball first. Most commentators seemed to agree this was a foul.

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In some of the video replays of the aftermath of this foul you can actually hear Fucile's teammates scolding the referee for the call because Fucile "got the ball!!"

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There's a lot of cases like this. What does the rulebook say about these fouls? Were these two calls good?

4 Answers 4

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Getting the ball first has minimal relevance as to whether a foul has occurred. There is no reference to making contact with the ball in the section relating to Fouls and Misconduct in the Laws of the Game, but it may be considered by the referee in deciding whether contact was careless, reckless or excessively forceful.

There are six offences in which contact is made with an opponent that cause a direct free kick to be awarded:

  • kicks an opponent carelessly, recklessly or with excessive force
  • trips an opponent carelessly, recklessly or with excessive force
  • charges an opponent carelessly, recklessly or with excessive force
  • strikes an opponent carelessly, recklessly or with excessive force
  • pushes an opponent carelessly, recklessly or with excessive force
  • holds an opponent

There are five offences in which contact may or may not be made with an opponent that cause a direct free kick to be awarded:

  • attempts to kick an opponent carelessly, recklessly or with excessive force
  • attempts to trip an opponent carelessly, recklessly or with excessive force
  • jumps at an opponent carelessly, recklessly or with excessive force
  • attempts to strike an opponent carelessly, recklessly or with excessive force
  • tackles an opponent carelessly, recklessly or with excessive force

There are two offences in which contact is not made with an opponent that cause an indirect free kick to be awarded:

  • plays in a dangerous manner
  • impedes the progress of an opponent

The full text of these offences is found on pages 37-38 of the 2015/2016 FIFA Laws of the Game, which is too long to quote in full here.

As seen, contact does not necessarily mean there is a foul - for some offences it must be either careless, reckless or excessively forceful. These are defined on page 119 of the 2015/2016 FIFA Laws of the Game:

"Careless" means that the player has shown a lack of attention or consideration when making a challenge or that he acted without precaution.

  • No further disciplinary sanction is needed if a foul is judged to be careless

"Reckless" means that the player has acted with complete disregard to the danger to, or consequences for, his opponent.

  • A player who plays in a reckless manner must be cautioned

"Using excessive force" means that the player has far exceeded the necessary use of force and is in danger of injuring his opponent.

  • A player who uses excessive force must be sent off

In a lot of challenges, contact is made with an opponent both before and after the ball is won. Whether it rises to the level of careless (or worse) usually depends on a number of things (and can depend on how/when the ball was won) - eg.

  • was the tackle inherently unsafe?
  • was the contact reasonably unavoidable as part of the challenge?
  • was the challenge made to win the ball or did it just have the effect of holding up the player?

These are some of the questions the referee decides answers to in an instant as part of their foul recognition process.

In the Neuer / Higuain incident, the referee decided that the collision after the challenge was caused by Higuain, awarding a direct free kick to Germany. I tend to disagree here, as the majority of the force in this challenge was caused by Neuer, due to the pace he was moving at and due to his knee being raised high. Higuain had a right to be where he was on the field without being cleaned up. The collision was unavoidable as part of the challenge, but the challenge was made with complete disregard for the consequences of the opponent. There was no way to make a safe challenge here at that pace.

I believe Neuer should have been cautioned and a penalty kick should have been awarded to Argentina. As you see on the following links, here, here and here a number of experienced match officials tend to agree with my view that the referee made an incorrect decision here.

In the Fucile / Sanchez incident, the referee decided that in spite of winning the ball, Fucile acted with complete disregard for his opponent and that the challenge was reckless and hence cautionable. I tend to agree with the referee here - the challenge is fast and catches a large amount of Sanchez with a decent amount of force.

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  • in the Higuain / Neuer case, I don't think the ref's call is that bad. Neuer just plays the ball and Higuain makes too small effort to really get the ball, thus he puts himself in a dangerous situation. If my memory is good, I think Rizzoli awarded Germany an indirect free kick.
    – LeReferee
    Jul 27, 2015 at 8:23
  • I find the claim that he put himself in a dangerous position a bit strange, considering HIguain kept both feet on the ground and ran into space he was entitled to run into and Neuer completely cleaned him up with his knee into his face. The fact he got the ball first is completely irrelevant when this sort of contact occurs after the ball has been won. I rewatched the clip (youtube.com/watch?v=14WDjvsxCQk) and Rizzoli awards a direct free kick - an indirect free kick is impossible since contact occurred. Jul 28, 2015 at 14:36
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    Giving Argentina a penalty is too harsh. If GKs are to be punished for rushing out to clear the ball and actually getting to the ball first then the game would be hard to play. At most you would caution Neuer for dangerous action, but in terms of gameplay it should be advantage of Germany. Basically a penalty is almost never given for an act where the defender gets to the ball first, not to mention a goalkeeper. This is irrelevant to whether his action is dangerous and should be cautioned separately.
    – xji
    Jul 29, 2015 at 3:19
  • Actually I think for a "dangerous play" the punishment is an indirect free kick. So no penalty would have been given whatsoever.
    – xji
    Jul 29, 2015 at 3:21
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    "Basically a penalty is almost never given for an act where the defender gets to the ball first, not to mention a goalkeeper." As a referee, this is one of the most frustrating, long-enduring myths that I have to deal with in every game. If the action is careless, reckless, or excessively forceful, getting the ball first is absolutely irrelevant. Some contact is obviously allowed, but an elbow into the head of the player who has done nothing but run into empty space would always be called. Jul 29, 2015 at 3:28
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Short answer: Yes. Getting the ball first has no relation (in the rules) to whether it's a foul or not.

In the Law of the Game there is actually no mention about getting to the ball first when in reference to a foul.

Law 12, regarding Fouls and Misconduct, can be found starting on Page 36 of the document linked below. I won't recap the full text of it (it's about 4 pages long), but the highlights are basically that a foul (in the run of play) consists of any of the following, if the referee considers it to be careless, reckless or using excessive force:

  • Kicking, attempting to kick, tripping, attempting to trip, pushing, tackling, jumping at, charges, striking, attempting to strike, holding, or spitting at an opponent
  • Handling the ball deliberately
  • Playing in a dangerous manner
  • Impeding the progress of an opponent
  • Interfering with a goalkeeper releasing the ball from his hands
  • Unsporting behavior (yellow card)

I've left out fouls that are not in relation to the run of play, but you can see the whole list on the document.

As you can see, none of the fouls have anything to do with the ball. Many fans will claim that if a player gets the ball they can do no wrong, but that is not part of the rules.

With regard to the first example you cited, the reason behind why the foul was not given was not because Neuer got to the ball first. Rather, it was likely because the referee did not think a foul had been committed (in fact, I think he called a foul against Higuain). There is an argument to be made that Neuer's jump towards the ball was reckless, but both players had eyes on the ballso if that was reckless, then Higuain running into the goalkeeper could also be deemed reckless. Goalkeepers do tend to be protected a bit because they are often in vulnerable positions - jumping up high to get to the ball with their hands.

For the Fucile-Sanchez foul, that was called a foul because the referee deemed it a reckless challenge. It's hard to see on the replays I've seen, but it looks like Fucile comes in and lifts his trailing leg up, thus catching Sanchez's feet between his two legs. This can be very dangerous for the player's ankles. That's my guess as to why the card was given.

The answer to whether these calls were "good" or not will likely be different depending on which team you're rooting for! Being impartial, I think the second call is a very good one. The first I think would be a good no-call (though, as I said, I think a foul was called against Neuer, which I would disagree with).

http://www.fifa.com/mm/document/footballdevelopment/refereeing/81/42/36/log2013en_neutral.pdf

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  • Your Neuer-Higuain foul comment is unclear because you seem to have used the wrong player name. Do you mean that "Higuain running straight into the goalkeeper... could also be deemed reckless"?
    – farid99
    Jul 23, 2015 at 0:34
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    Good catch! Correcting. Also, studro's answer is using the most recent copy of the Laws of the Game (I was inadvertently linking to last year's). I'd recommend his answer over mine.
    – Duncan
    Jul 23, 2015 at 0:56
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    This is also a good answer. I didn't even see yours until after I posted mine - it looks like you got in just before me! I agree with everything here except your judgement on Neuer's foul - but the careless/reckless/excessive force judgement is opinion-based, and your reasoning is correct, therefore your decision would be correct if you were the referee in the match - in spite of others potentially disagreeing. Jul 23, 2015 at 1:10
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    That was a reasoned and well expressed comment.... are you sure you're a soccer fan? ;)
    – Duncan
    Jul 23, 2015 at 15:46
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    This wasn't clear cut decision for me, hence why I'm agreeing to disagree, but if I was on the field and I was the attacker, no I definitely wouldn't be this calm. :P Jul 25, 2015 at 6:52
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Yes, it can

Unlike the legal system, in football, players are punished by their intent rather than the consequences of their actions. Referees look for objective observations to deduce the intent of the players. For example, you can still get cautioned even if the opponent breaks your leg. Therefore, touching the ball has no impact on the decision of the referees whatsoever, except for situational offenses, like denying a goal scoring opportunity. Hence, rather than touching the ball, the question should be "can it be a foul even if the player had a very realistic attempt to play with the ball?"

Laws of the Game are treated more like a holy book. FIFA and UEFA officials, acting like scholars, train the Referee Committees about the interpretations of these laws. These interpretations sometimes include touching the ball.

A realistic attempt to play with the ball may have an effect on the overall decision, i.e., if there is no realistic intent, a reckless offense can be considered violent conduct and a caution might turn into a red card.

Touching the ball can be used to differentiate between violent conduct and serious foul play. Both are send-off offenses but federations usually punish violent conduct with a longer suspension. This has no impact for the particular game, but still an example where touching the ball might have an impact in the overall decision. For the sake of completeness, I have to add that you can still get a violent conduct ban even if you touched the ball.

For situational fouls, like denying a goal scoring opportunity, touching the ball may have a huge impact on the decision of the referee. For promising attacks and goal scoring opportunities, a contact which would not even be considered foul in another situation results in a caution or send-off if the player does not touch the ball. Still, touching the ball does not magically exonerate you from caution or send-off, it is just the beginning of the "if-else" routine of the referee decision making process.

For the specific question, Neuer-Higuain position is a hard position, but the referee probably interpreted as Higuain impeded Neuer, i.e., run into Neuer's path without attempting to play the ball. Whether Neuer touches the ball or not does not change the interpretation. As I explained above, referee tried to deduce the intentions of both players and believed that Higuain did not consider playing with the ball.

However, the FIFA and UEFA scholars of today, consider jumps with one knee raised up as reckless. It would result in a penalty and depending on the positions of rest of the players, it might be a yellow or a red card.

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    While I generally agree with this answer, the legal system (in the UK anyway) absolutely does take intent into account - at the highest end, it is the difference between murder and manslaughter.
    – Philip Kendall
    Jan 15 at 14:53
  • @PhilipKendall I am not a lawyer in any capacity, so I am absolutely sure you are right. Still, if I stalk you, shoot you on the head, leave you to die and you miraculously survive, my punishment is magically lowered, even though I did everythingin my power to kill you. In football the end results should have minimal impact on the referee decision.
    – C.Koca
    Jan 15 at 15:59
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One thing that seems to have been left out of this discussion is that the source of all the "ball first" talk is that a defender who tackles and makes contact with the ball is then entitled to that space. So if you slide tackle, get the ball, and as a result, your foot/leg is front of the attacker who then, because of his momentum, trips over it; not careless, reckless, or excessive because the defender is entitled to that space after getting the ball. Anything else you do, (e.g, studs showing, two foot slides, scissoring motions, etc.) can all move the tackle into the realm of careless, reckless, or excessive, regardless of whether you got the ball first. On the otherhand, if you slide tackle, don't get the ball, and then attacker trips over your foot/leg, it's a trip and a foul; you didn't get the ball and therefore you are not entitled to that space.

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    Being entitled to space has no relevance to whether a tackle was careless or reckless or involved excessive force. Your response ignores large portions of law and high-level advice.
    – Nij
    Aug 26, 2017 at 4:17
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    This comment is 100% wrong. Being entitled to space is absolutely relevant. It is what defines whether it's a trip or not. If a defender has his foot somewhere, and attacker runs into it and falls over, it's not a trip. If the attacker is running and the defender sticks his foot into the path of the run, it's a trip. When the defender tackles, gets the ball, and commits no further movement, he's entitled to that space, no trip, no foul. If there's further movement that trips the attacker, foul. That's the source of the "ball first" misunderstanding. It actually is all about entitled space.
    – user13908
    May 5, 2019 at 17:06
  • From what I understand of your answer, touching the ball can be used as a litmus test to check if the actions of the players are too irrelevant. Touching the ball does not exonerate the player from discipline but not touching the ball can be a good start for a referee to decide what type of discipline is required. I can give you countless examples where an action involving touching the ball is still penalised.
    – C.Koca
    Jan 15 at 17:34
  • A good example is sticking your leg between ball and another player when the opponent is in clear control of the ball. Clear control is determined by speed of the ball and your and the opponent's position. If you stuck your leg between ball and another opponent, touch the ball and get your leg broken by the opponent who only wanted to shoot, you get a caution because reckless behaviour in football cuts both ways i.e., you can't disregard your own safety either.
    – C.Koca
    Jan 15 at 17:39
  • I agree with the first comment, I don't think I understand the 2nd. If you're talking about sticking your foot in front of a player who is in the act of shooting, yes you'll probably be cautioned as that's dangerous play. If you make a legitimate play for the ball, it becomes more of a grey area. Otherwise, yes, generally agree with all that.
    – user13908
    Jan 17 at 16:13

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