Understanding what a back pass is in soccer can be confusing. But I assure you it doesn’t have to be. I want to explain the back pass rule to you in a way that will be clear and easy to understand.
A back pass in soccer is when a player passes the ball back to their own team’s goalkeeper. The back pass rule in soccer restricts the goalie from handling the ball in most circumstances when another player on their team has passed the ball back to them.
Although the goalie cannot pick up the ball in most situations where another player on their team has passed the ball to them, there are a few scenarios where it is ok for the goalie to handle the ball after receiving the ball from a team-mate.
Before we look at these, let me explain why the back pass rule exists at all.
Introduction of the Back Pass Rule
The history of modern-day soccer goes back well over 150 years. (Check out my article on the invention of soccer to find out more.)
And for most of the history of soccer, a player has been able to pass the ball back to their goalkeeper and expect the goalie to pick up the ball.
But that all changed in 1992.
In 1992 FIFA (the governing body of world soccer) introduced the back pass rule that prevented the goalie from picking up the ball when a player on their team had passed it to them.
FIFA introduced this rule in response to the perception of the 1990 FIFA World Cup being one of the most tedious and boring World Cups on record. The stats show that there was only an average of 2.2 goals scored per game. That makes it the lowest-scoring World Cup in history! [source]
One of the main reasons that made the games slow and dull was defenders constantly passing the ball back to their goalkeeper who would then pick up the ball, hold up the play, and slow the game down.
FIFA decided they had to do something about this.
So in 1992, starting at the 1992 Summer Olympic games, soccer rules were changed to include the back pass rule.
The rules have been adapted slightly since then, but remain one of soccer’s most popular rule changes up until the present day.
Definition of the Back Pass Rule
The rules of soccer are extensive.
You can find the full official Laws of the Game document here if you wish, or have a look at my easy-to-understand guide to the rules of soccer.
However, for all of soccer’s rules, the back pass rule only takes up a few lines in Law 12, section 2.
The rules of soccer state that :
“An indirect free-kick will be awarded if a goalkeeper, inside their penalty area, touches the ball with the hand/arm, unless the goalkeeper has clearly kicked or attempted to kick the ball to release it into play after it has been deliberately kicked to the goalkeeper by a team-mate or they received it directly from a throw-in taken by a team-mate“IFAB Laws of the Game
Let’s break that down.
There are four parts to the back pass rule.
For the goalie to commit a back pass offense:
- The goalie must be in their penalty area
- The goalie must have touched the ball with their hand or arm
- The goalie can’t have kicked or attempted to kick the ball
- Another player on the team must have deliberately kicked the ball to the goalie, or the goalie must have received the ball directly from a throw-in taken by a player on their own team.
Each of these four aspects of the rule must have taken place for the referee to stop the game.
Key Parts of the Back Pass Rule
There are a few things that are worth noticing about this rule here.
Nowhere in the rule does it say that the ball has to go backward. A player can pass forward to their goalie and still be guilty of a back pass. The rule is only known as a “back pass” because for most of the time, during a soccer game, the goalie is further back on the field than any other player. A pass to the goalie will almost always travel backward.
The ball has to be kicked to the goalie by a player for it to be a back pass. If a player uses any other part of their body to pass the ball, then that is acceptable and not a back pass.
The only thing to be aware of with this is that a player cannot use a trick, such as flicking the ball up with their foot and then using their head to pass the ball to the goalie. This is considered unsporting behavior, and the player responsible will be cautioned and shown a yellow card.
The player must have deliberately kicked the ball back to the goalie. An accidental pass or a deflection doesn’t count. The goalie may handle the ball if this happens.
The goalkeeper cannot pick up the ball directly from a throw-in from someone on their team. A player can still throw the ball to the goalie at a throw-in, but the goalie cannot use their arms or hands to touch the ball. (If you want more info about this, check out this article I wrote going into more depth about a goalie picking up the ball from a throw-in.)
If the goalie has “clearly kicked or attempted to kick the ball to release it into play” and then handles the ball, that is acceptable. This is because, at this point, the goalie has made a clear attempt to avoid handling the ball directly from a pass. The referee will allow play to continue if the goalie uses their hands after this.
The Consequence of a Back Pass
Now we understand what a back pass is and what is and isn’t permitted in the rules of soccer, let’s look at what the consequences are of a back pass.
At the beginning of the back pass rule that I quoted above, you will have seen that it states:
“An indirect free-kick will be awarded if…”IFAB Laws of the Game
If a back pass offense takes place during a soccer game, then the referee will award an indirect free-kick to the opposing team.
For anyone unsure of what I mean by an indirect free-kick: An indirect free-kick is simply a free-kick where the player taking the kick cannot score a goal directly from their kick. The ball must touch another player first before a goal is allowed. (I’ve put together a comprehensive list of all the terms used in soccer and their meanings that you can check out if you’re interested.)
The player must take the indirect free-kick from the exact spot where the offense took place. In this case, the offense took place the moment the goalie touched the ball with their hand or arm.
The only exception to this is when the offense takes place inside the goal area, or 6-yard box, of the defending team. In this case, the rules state that the player must take the indirect free-kick:
“…from the nearest point on the goal area line which runs parallel to the goal line”IFAB Laws of the Game
The rules of soccer are clear. If a goalie picks up or catches a back pass, the referee will award an indirect free-kick to the opposing team at the point on the field where the offense took place.
Is a back pass a caution-able offense?
A goalie will not receive a caution or yellow card for handling a back pass. Neither would they be shown a red card or be sent off.
The only time a goalie may be shown a yellow card for a back pass is if they are persistently handling passes from their own players. This is because persistent offenses of any kind can result in a caution from the referee. Persistent back passes are no different.
Check out my guide to yellow cards or red cards here if you’re interested in more info.
The Benefit of the Back Pass Rule
Hopefully, you will now see that there are multiple benefits to the back pass rule in soccer.
- It keeps the play moving
- It’s a popular and successful rule with the fans
- and forces goalies to become better with the ball at their feet
Check out my recent article about where and when goalies can use their hands if you want to understand more about this area of the game.
And if you want to understand other terms in soccer have a look at one of these other articles I’ve written: