In many matches, defenders can be seen pulling the shirts of opppnents during corner kicks and free kicks. But referees never called a foul or award a free kick or penalty to the opposition.

Is pulling the opponent's shirt allowed? Why would it go unpenalised if it is not allowed?

An example of such an event is below.

enter image description here

  • The assertion in the title is wrong. One example of illegal shirt pulling not being penalised does not imply that it is never penalised. Jan 18, 2017 at 23:19

2 Answers 2


It depends.

If the shirt pull has the effect of holding up an opponent, it is punishable by a direct free kick.

In Law 12.1:

A direct free kick is awarded if a player commits any of the following offences:


  • holds an opponent

If the shirt pulling also breaks up or interferes with a promising attack, the player is cautioned for unsporting behaviour.

Law 12.4:

There are different circumstances when a player must be cautioned for unsporting behaviour including if a player:


  • commits a foul or handles the ball to interfere with or stop a promising attack

If the shirt pulling denies an obvious goalscoring opportunity, the player is sent-off, no matter where the offence occurs.

A player, substitute or substituted player who commits any of the following offences is sent off:


  • denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity to an opponent moving towards the opponents’ goal by an offence punishable by a free kick (unless as outlined below)


Where a player commits an offence against an opponent within their own penalty area which denies an opponent an obvious goal-scoring opportunity and the referee awards a penalty kick, the offending player is cautioned unless:

  • The offence is holding, pulling or pushing or
  • The offending player does not attempt to play the ball or there is no possibility for the player making the challenge to play the ball or
  • The offence is one which is punishable by a red card wherever it occurs on the field of play (e.g. serious foul play, violent conduct etc.)

In all the above circumstances the player is sent off.

In the photograph you've provided, any competent referee would consider that level of shirt pulling to be holding. It should have been punished with a penalty kick, since it occurred in the penalty area.

Like any other foul, even if shirt pulling does hold an opponent, if it's not seen by the referee or another member of the officiating team, it will go unpenalised.

Also, like any other foul, if stopping play for the free kick would harm the fouled team more than allowing play to continue, the referee will wait a few seconds to see if advantage can be played. If within that few seconds, the attacking team end up with a better opportunity than the free kick would have afforded, play continues. This does not preclude the referee from returning to warn or caution the offender when the ball is next out of play as shown here.


Law 12, part 1 states

A direct free kick is awarded if a player commits any of the following offences:


  • holds an opponent

in which pulling the shirt is included.

As for why any given instance of shirt-pulling or other apparent foul is not penalised, there are many possible reasons:

  • none of the officials saw the offence

  • an official saw the offence but determined it to not have affected play

  • an official saw the offence but an earlier offence was under advantage, and hence took precedence

  • an official saw the offence but played advantage for it, so play is not stopped

  • You answered one way and your notes suggest it is a different answer. This is not clear nor are there even examples to back it.
    – Coach-D
    Jan 18, 2017 at 17:04
  • Exactly which part of the answer is contradictory? No, it's not allowed, but there are several reasons why it wouldn't be penalised either.
    – Nij
    Jan 18, 2017 at 21:56
  • 1
    My comment was because you said it was a free kick then you said it wasn't if it didn't affect the play. A rule cannot be two different things.
    – Coach-D
    Jan 18, 2017 at 23:45
  • The referee decides it wasn't at the level of an offence, so a kick isn't awarded. The rule is not "this must happen if [condition]", it is "this penalty is applied when the offence is [type]".
    – Nij
    Jan 19, 2017 at 2:24
  • @Nij - I've retracted my downvote in accordance with the edit. Jan 20, 2017 at 5:19

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