An attacker crosses the ball in the air and into the penalty area in a soccer match. The first player we expect to make a fair play for the ball is the goalkeeper. But when the goalkeeper launches into the air with their knee locked for “protection” (more on this in a minute), where do referees draw the line for misconduct?
In tonight’s Copa America Centenario semifinal between Colombia and Chile, the commentators reviewed the save by the Chile goalkeeper and remarked about this flying knee move. For decades, coaches have instructed goalkeepers to deploy the locked knee to protect themselves in the air. When they jump with their hands, some are convinced that they gain height with the knee up. However, physics does not prove this. Physical trainers focus on muscle exercises to increase vertical jump, locked knees have nothing to do with it. Do you ever see basketball players locking their knee to gain height? What goalkeepers are actually gaining is an unfair advantage through intimidation, often resulting in great bodily injury with a limb locked as a weapon.
Referees already tend to give goalkeepers too much freedom in the penalty area. Some referees argue a single finger on the ball amounts to control and no attackers have a fair claim. Assistant referees relax enforcement when goalkeepers place the ball outside the goal area for a goal kick, or release the ball for a punt by stepping over the penalty area boundary. How many times have you shouted a warning versus making the call on the first observation?
So what is a referee to do?
First, judge the tempo in the match. In a 50/50 situation, players can be aggressive. You need to quickly evaluate if both players have an equal shot at receiving the ball. If a player does something careless, reckless, or excessive, they have changed the equilibrium.
Second, consider the fouls so far in the match. Is a player being targeted unfairly? Is the same player committing all the fouls? Is a message trying to be sent in order to intimidate an opponent? If the lead goal scorer has a knee driven through their back by the goalkeeper, how does this influence your decision?
Third, you’re likely going to have to call the foul when the goalkeeper’s locked knee strikes an opponent. This leads to a direct free kick, or a penalty kick when committed inside the penalty area. Follow the guidelines for misconduct if the event was careless, reckless, or excessive; you may be dismissing the goalkeeper at a moment everyone thinks they made an incredible save.
How do you handle the locked knee on a goalkeeper? Do you think it still makes sense to issue warnings when you see it, or are you more inclined to make the call?