Soccer Back-Pass Rule

The back-pass rule is one that still brings a lot of confusion to players at all levels. The question is “When can you pass the ball back to your goalkeeper in soccer?” 

I’ve played defense most of my life and it has often happened that even referees don’t fully understand what the modern rule is, or how to interpret it. 

I remember when I was playing in a coed league over the summer. I passed the ball back to my goalie out of the air off my shin. He picked it up. The referee awarded a free-kick for the back pass! Of course, we were upset and protested. In the end, we were right. This should be allowed!

Before we get to the current rule, and why we were right, it is helpful to understand the history of the rules of soccer and the back and forth with goalies abusing the privilege of using their hands and the governing body of international football making the rules.

The History Of Goalkeeper Rules In Soccer.

FIFA is the governing body of international football and the organization that makes the rules of the game. Way back in the 1950s and 1960s, a goalie was allowed to keep the ball in their hands pretty much as long as they wanted to. They just had to bounce the soccer ball or throw it in the air and catch it. 

soccer goalie waiting for pass back

This became very detrimental to the pace of the game because they could simply waste time by holding the ball and no one could fairly take it from them. 

Plus, the game is called “football” in most countries for a reason; The ball should be at a player’s feet not in their hands.

The first step that FIFA took to stop this time-wasting was to introduce the four-step rule. This meant that a goalie could only move for four steps while holding the ball, bouncing, or throwing it in the air and catching it again. After the four steps, they were required to get the ball back into play.

Goalkeeper Games

Of course, goalies then found ways to get around the new rule. They would take a step then set the ball at their feet and dribble with their feet, then pick it up and still have a few steps left. So, still wasting time. 

FIFA then enacted the rule that goalkeepers could not pick the ball up again once they set it down. Another player would have to touch the ball before they could use their hands again.

Goalie what do you mean I can not pick the ball

Goalies are a smart bunch. Or maybe it was their coaches, but at any rate, they then started passing it to the closest defender. The defender might only be a few feet away.

Then the defender would pass the ball back to the keeper, and their steps would start all over again. This could go on for a while and still, it was very difficult for the other team to take the ball. 

The Back And Forth Continued 

The football rule-makers decided this was also detracting from the beautiful game and they made a rule that the ball had to go outside the penalty box before the goalie could touch it again. This made it a bit more difficult because they now had to worry about an alert striker that might cut off a pass to the goalie’s defender. 

Of course, there was a way around this. Goalies started parrying or knocking the ball down instead of catching the ball. This meant they could knock it down and quickly dribble the ball to the edge of the penalty box before picking it up. 

This led to the ani-parrying rule. This blocked this tactic for wasting time. 

The Pass-Back Rule Is Born

As the game of cat and mouse between soccer rule makers and keepers continued. The rest of the team also got in on the act. Field players would often pass the ball back to their goalie just so they could pick up the ball and slow the play of the game. 

Both FIFA and the U.S. Soccer Federation, or USSF laws of the game instituted the back pass rule. The rule stated that a goalie may not handle the ball after an intentional pass from a teammate (using the foot). Because it could be construed as wasting time. In this case, a keeper may use their feet, just not their hands.

This later was also expanded to throw-ins. Meaning a keep may not handle the ball when received directly from a throw-in from a teammate.

The penalty is an indirect free kick for the opposing team. At the spot where the goalie touched the ball. An indirect kick is a free kick is where two players must touch the ball before it goes in the goal. You can’t just shoot the ball in the net. This could be disastrous if it happened inside the goal box!


trickery soccer rainbow

Of course, all types of “trickery” ensued after the new rules were enacted. Players look freekicks from their knees, or juggled the ball, just so they could head the ball back to the keeper. 

The tricks led to more rules. First, “trickery” was defined as any attempt to avoid penalties for the back-pass rule, and would result in an indirect free kick for the other team at the point ball was last played.

The Modern Back-Pass Rule In Soccer

As I mentioned already the rule states that the goalie can not handle the ball when it is received from a teammate as an intentional pass back to the goalie by kicking the ball or via a throw-in. The offense is punished with an indirect kick. 

This also includes any kind of “trickery” to get around this rule. For example; a player flicking the ball up to play it off their head or other body parts. Also, punished with an indirect free kick. 

Is There a Way I Can Pass the Ball To My Goalie?

Yes! And this is where most of the confusion is. You can pass back to the goalie with any part of your body except your foot

Back the example I used at the beginning of this post. Thankfully the ref’s decision to penalize me for passing didn’t affect the outcome of the game. The next week the ref approached my team and said he was so taken by how sure we were that he was wrong, he checked the rule again. He admitted that he was wrong.

It turned out that we were right because I hit the ball with my shin and without an attempt at trickery. I intentionally didn’t play it with my foot, but I was not using “trickery” to get around being punished for passing back to the goalie.

To answer the initial question: When can you pass the ball back to your goalkeeper in soccer? Basically, you can pass the ball back to the goalkeeper using anything above the ankle, as long as you are not attempting “trickery.”  Of course with the exception of a handball (using your hands or arms). 

Bryan Coe

Bryan Coe

Bryan is the founder of The Soccer Handbook. He has been playing soccer since he was 8 years old, continues to play, and has also done his share of volunteer coaching over the years. Bryan’s mission is to help coaches coach better and help people enjoy the beautiful game throughout their lives.


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