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April 8, 2005

No harm, no foul: England goal should have counted

It's the last minute and England is drawing with Portugal. David Beckham's cross strikes the crossbar via Frank Lampard's head. Portuguese custodian Ricardo scrambles across his goal-line, jumping for the ball with John Terry and Sol Campbell, but the Arsenal stopper rises highest to score. England wins and dumps the hosts out of Euro 2004.

Unfortunately for England fans, the last part isn't true: Swiss referee Urs Meier claimed that Ricardo was fouled. According to Meier, a player cannot impede the goalkeeper in any way as he attempts to get to a loose ball. Since Terry made the mistake of trying to jump for a header that he might have actually won, his refusal to roll out the red carpet for Ricardo was a flagrant violation of the rules. Justice was done.

Maybe not. For years, English football fans have accused their continental counterparts of overprotecting goalkeepers. This incident was the perfect illustration of the divide, but a quick glance at the FIFA Official Laws of The Game is conclusive in its support for the English version.

There is only one scenario where goalkeepers are given "preferential treatment" over normal players: when releasing the ball. Otherwise, we are to treat goalkeepers as outfield players when deciding whether or not a foul has been committed. So the first question we should ask ourselves is: would the referee have called a foul on Terry if it was defender Ricardo Carvalho rather than goalkeeper Ricardo jumping to get the ball? Absolutely not, since Terry was much closer to the ball than his Portuguese opponent, and neither was even close to beating Campbell.

What about precedent? The fact that referees have been offering "protection" to goalkeepers for many years must be considered, even if the referees are adhering to imaginary rules.

But, at least in England, the referees haven't been making rules up. A goalkeeper's ability to legally use his hands has led to spectators mistaking their physical advantage for extra protection from the rulebook. To see why, consider the following fact: Most fouls occur when the goalie comes out to catch a cross and is impeded by an opposing player. Generally, this is a foul because your average goalie is 6-foot-4, so when he jumps with outstretched arms to catch a cross, for reasons of simple physics, it cannot be the case that a player who is trying to header the ball can be standing in the same place.

If Italian goalie Gianluca Buffon jumps straight up, his hands are at least a clear foot above the head of, say, a jumping Alan Shearer. Crosses are not dipping at any large rate, therefore if Shearer is standing in the same place as Buffon, Shearer is just trying to impede Buffon—after all, if Shearer is really going for the ball, he would stand elsewhere. That is why the foul is called. It doesn't often happen between outfield players because both would want to head the ball from the same place. Players know that goalies trying to catch a cross unchallenged will almost always succeed. It is more effective to pretend to be after the ball and hope that the referee can't see the foul.

By this argument, Campbell's goal was correctly disallowed, right? No, because of the situation's peculiar physics. Firstly, the ball looped up off the bar, and was falling almost vertically, which means that the optimal position for heading was the same as that for catching. Both Terry and Campbell could legitimately claim to be going for the ball despite making contact with the goalie. Secondly, Ricardo was completely wrong-footed by Lampard's header and was staggering across his goal line like a drunk juggler as compared to a balanced and stationary Campbell, who headed the ball at the zenith of his jump. Ricardo's half-hearted leap was never going to allow him to beat Campbell. Would he have gotten closer if Terry wasn't in the way? Certainly, but Terry was legally going for the ball. He jumped with his arms up, but without applying significant downward pressure on Ricardo; even in Terry's absence, Campbell would still have scored.

At this point, it is worth dispelling a bizarre rumour that has seeped into Latin American football's rulebook. The notion that a goalie is in any way "untouchable" in his 6-yard area is totally false, since there is no mention of such a rule in the game's official laws. Presenting Portugal's great escape as a just refereeing decision based on this fictitious rule is indicative of zero footballing knowledge.

Essentially, goalkeepers are fouled in the same way as everyone else: a player impedes them either recklessly or when that player is not making a genuine attempt to get the ball. Goalies are often fouled under the latter guise because they have such an advantage at getting the ball. This should not be interpreted as preferential treatment. Since we now know, that there is no basis in the official laws of the game for protecting goalies, and why it may seem to be that way when it actually isn't, it follows that Campbell's goal should have stood. Mistakes are inevitable; what is inexcusable is the fundamental lack of comprehension of the rules that has prevented the UEFA officials and Portuguese fans alike from admitting that England was robbed. Perhaps there was some justice in Greece's victory after all.

Those interested in reading FIFA's Official Laws of the Game should refer to http://www.fifa.com.