Soccer IS a Contact Sport



Let there be no misunderstanding: Based on the rules, soccer is a contact sport.  There is some measure of concern associated with parents new to soccer who may state that they are pleased that their child is playing a sport with “little contact,” or worse, “no contact.”  One can only guess that this really means that they are pleased that, subconsciously or otherwise, their child is not playing a “collision sport” like American football. With up to 22 players running around competing for space and the ball in the full-sides outdoor game, the chance for either intentional or unintentional bodily or other physical contact in soccer is extremely high.  Essentially, there are three types of contact in soccer:  1.) Legal Contact, 2.) Illegal Contact, and 3.) Accidental Contact.

Legal Contact

Legal contact in soccer is nominally described as being “shoulder to shoulder” between two opponents, as one player comes into the other, or challenges for the ball.  The most common instance of this is two players running side-by-side, usually as they both pursue a moving ball in front of them.  Shoulder-to-shoulder contact may also occur with opponents facing one another, such as in a front block tackle, or from behind, such as when one player screens the ball from an opponent.  Each of these examples, when performed properly, represents a “fair charge” or a “fair challenge” in soccer.  Former wording of the FIFA Interpretations stated that, “the act of charging is a challenge for space using physical contact [emphasis added] within playing distance of the ball without using arms or elbows.”

The expectation during the performance of a fair charge is that both players will have at least one foot on the ground and that excessive force will not be used.   In other words, the player making the challenge cannot just slam into an opponent who is in mid-air or barrel into him at high speed, even if the contact is shoulder to shoulder.  A fair charge can result in a player being put to the ground, however, if one player loses his balance, timing catches an opponent on the “wrong foot” at the moment contact is made, or if another player is simply bigger or stronger.  The mere fact that contact has occurred and a player winds up on the ground does not make the contact illegal.  A fair challenge or fair tackle generally involves a defender cleanly contacting the ball first and not the opponent, when trying to take the ball away.  A fair challenge or tackle may also result in the offensive player going to the ground, essentially tripping over the stopped ball.

Illegal Contact

Illegal contact in soccer starts with the fouls identified in Law 12 of the Laws of the Game, “Fouls and Misconduct,” and escalates from poor challenges during the common run of play to truly inappropriate behavior.  The illegal contact in Law 12 includes [improper] charges, jumps, kicks or attempts to kick, pushes, strikes or attempts to strike (including head-butt), [improper] tackles or challenges, and trips or attempts to trip [an opponent].”  The Law states that, “A direct free kick is [to be] awarded [to the opposing team] if a player commits… [one of these] offenses against an opponent in a manner considered by the referee to be careless, reckless or using excessive force.”   It is also illegal to charge or challenge properly, but with the ball not within playing distance.  Referees must use their judgment to determine the severity of the penalties to be applied.  Law 12 also addresses holding, impeding, biting or spitting, and throwing an object.

In Law 12, “Careless is when a player shows a lack of attention or consideration when making a challenge or acts without precaution.”  (This results in the simple award of the free kick.)  “Reckless is when a player acts with disregard to the danger to, or consequences for, an opponent…”  (This is supposed to bring a yellow-card caution in addition to the free kick.)  “Using excessive force is when a player exceeds the necessary use of force and endangers the safety of an opponent…”  (This is supposed to bring a red-card ejection in addition to the free kick.)

Illegal contact can run the gamut from a mistimed slide tackle, one that misses the ball and happens to take down the opponent, all the way to assault.  All of this verbiage is well and good unless you are on the receiving end of the illegal contact and run the risk of being severely hurt.  As such, coaches must teach their players three major concepts:  1.) Legal and illegal contact; 2.) Respect for the opponent; and, 3.) How to try to avoid injury at the time of contact.

Accidental Contact

Sometimes, there is player contact in soccer that does not fall neatly into the categories of being legal or illegal.  This type of contact can be characterized as just plain bad luck or misfortune.  This can occur in any sport with multiple players, moving at speed in the same space, and it is no different in soccer.  Unfortunate collisions can happen:  Two players go up together for a head ball and one winds up heading the other player.  A player running at full speed is concentrating on the ball and never sees the opponent.  Two opponents equidistant from each other, both going for a “50-50 ball,” collide.   A player lands awkwardly after legs get entangled.    A player jumps over another player on the ground who unexpectedly stands up.   A player gets stepped on or “cleated.” Two players on the same team run into each other.

There is other accidental contact that does not involve another person:  A goalkeeper puts his wrist into the goalpost trying to make a save.  A player gets hit with the ball when there is insufficient time to react.  A player steps in a hole or trips on a rock.  All of these examples are most unfortunate, but they are real instances of another aspect of the game.

All forms of contact in soccer must be recognized, understood, mitigated when possible, and the risks ultimately accepted if one wants to play or coach the sport.

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© Copyright, John C. Harves