While the introduction of Video Assistant Refereeing (VAR) into soccer has caused an explosion in the level of scrutiny applied to areas of refereeing such as the offside rule, there are certain rules within the game that go a little more under the radar.
From the precise mechanics behind a perfectly legal throw-in to impactful off-the-pitch policies such as the Bosman Ruling, there are a number of different laws that have been introduced over the course of football history that have caused major changes across the beautiful game.
One measure that deserves attention is the pass back rule. In this article, we'll be explaining what the rule is, why it was introduced, how long it has been around, and the long term consequences of the soccer pass back rule. We'll start with a simple explanation of what this law entails.
In association football or soccer, a pass back is when a goalkeeper picks up the ball in their own penalty box using their hands after it has been passed directly to them by a teammate. If a goalie picks up the ball in this situation, it is illegal and a foul is called.
The pass back rule doesn't apply to passes made using the head or chest, only to those made using the feet. For example, if the opposing team plays a long ball over the back four, a defender is allowed to chase onto it before nodding it back to the goalkeeper, who can then pick it up. However, if in the same situation the defender kicked the ball back to the keeper, they would not be permitted to control it using their hands.
It's also important to note that the back pass rule doesn't apply if the ball is deflected or the pass to the goalkeeper is unintentional. For instance, a defender might accidentally shank a clearance, and if it bobbles and bounces a few yards before the keeper pounces on it, it's clearly not an intentional pass to the goalie and it would be allowed.
This rule was brought in to favour attacking players and get rid of perceived unfair advantages for defending teams. In fact, there was a specific moment at which it became obvious that the rules needed to be changed here.
Picture the scene: it's June 1992, and legendary Manchester United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel has led his nation Denmark to a shock tournament win at the European Championships in Sweden. It's a huge achievement, and to this day one of the biggest underdog triumphs to have occurred within the Euros. However, there's a controversial undertone to this historic victory.
An important factor behind Denmark's success in the competition was their — to put it kindly — "gamesmanship". The team, which alongside Schmeichel featured players such as Lars Olsen and Brian Laudrup and was managed by Richard Møller Nielsen, were known for their crafty, underhanded tactics and excessive timewasting. At the centre of their efforts to run the clock down in order to secure victories was an inventive use of the back-pass rule.
Throughout the tournament, Schmeichel would regularly pass the ball out to a defender, before receiving it back, waiting for pressure from an attacker, and picking up the ball again. After this, he'd often repeat the process again, allowing Denmark to waste a lot of time and kill off games that risked getting more dramatic and threatening. In what is perhaps the most obvious example of "anti-football" and blatant time-wasting ever, this video displays multiple occasions in which Denmark took advantage of this loophole during the tournament final against Germany.
It was no surprise that the footballing authorities were forced to change the rules after this tournament, with the Danes' behaviour pushing the nail in the coffin for the previous regulation. After ongoing discussions amongst FIFA (football's world governing body) following the 1990 World Cup, in which this problem was also noted, the laws of the game were finally changed so that it was no longer possible to pass the ball back to the goalkeeper and watch them pick it straight up.
According to Section 2 of Law 12 within the official Laws of the Game:
"An indirect free kick is awarded if a goalkeeper, inside their penalty area, commits any of the following offences:
The Laws also state that a goalkeeper is considered to be in control of the ball with the hand(s) when it is "between the hands or between the hand and any surface (e.g. ground, own body)" and moments in which a goalie is bouncing the ball or holding it in an outstretched also count as time in which they have it under their control.
These days, it's pretty rare that you see a back pass at the top level of the game; if you do, it's usually just an accidental error on the part of the goalkeeper rather than any attempt to deceive the match officials. However, the consequences are still serious.
When a back pass offence is judged to have occurred, the punishment is an indirect free kick awarded to the other team. The kick is taken from the position where the handling of the ball took place, unless this was within the six-yard goal area. If the offence took place this close to the goal line, the free kick is instead taken from the point on the six-yard line closest to the point of the offence.
As the name suggests, with an indirect free kick a player is not allowed to shoot directly at goal. Instead, they must pass it to an opposition player, and following the awarding of an indirect kick in the penalty box, this can create some dramatic situations. Defending players will wait for the kick to be taken before launching themselves at the expected shot, which can be taken far closer to the goal than a typical free kick would be. This isn't a regular event in professional soccer, so it can be very exciting when it does happen.
The introduction of the soccer back-pass rule has had a wide range of effects beyond just cutting out the type of time-wasting we discussed earlier on. Most importantly, it has created a greater need for goalkeepers to be able to control and pass the ball using their feet.
Gone are the days when they can simply pick up it up with their hands whenever they like; increasingly, goalies have to be able to demonstrate solid technical ability with the ball at their feet, handling pressure from opposition attackers and passing it accurately into defensive and midfield players.
The emergence of extremely technical, ball-playing goalkeepers such as Ederson, Alisson Becker, and Andre Onana, as well as the rise of the sweeper keeper, partly has the pass back rule in soccer to thank. Three decades on from its first implementation, the consequences of the rule continue to be felt.
An additional consequence is that players have devised alternative methods to be able to pass the ball back to their goalkeeper. Below, we'll wrap things up by quickly running through them.
We mentioned earlier that goalkeepers are permitted to handle the ball if it is played to them using an action other than a kick (we should also mention here that goalkeepers aren't allowed to use their hands after receiving the ball from a throw-in).
This means that to replace the old methods, in the modern day defenders will often use their chest or head to pass the ball back to their goalkeeper, who is then allowed to use their hands to receive the ball.
This is the only way it's possible for players to get around the back pass rule, as the law also states that outfield players are not allowed to use a deliberate trick to pass the ball to the goalkeeper with a part of the body other than the foot in order to circumvent the rule.
For example, they might think about flicking the ball up with the foot before heading it to the keeper, but that would not be permitted. It's no surprise that the upshot is that goalkeepers have simply had to become better with their feet, and many people would argue that football has improved as a result.
If you'd like to find out more about some of the most fundamental rules within soccer, you're in the right place. Why not carry on the education by reading our article on the offside rule for corners, free-kicks, and throw-ins?