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Red card offences in soccer: Denying a goal or obvious goalscoring opportunity

Updated on June 29, 2011

In FIFA’s Laws of the Game, there are two sending-off offences that involve denying an opponent a goal or an obvious goalscoring opportunity. These are:

1. “Denies the opposing team agoal or an obvious goalscoring opportunity by deliberately handling the ball (this does not apply to a goalkeeper within his own penalty area)

2. “Denies an obvious goalscoring opportunity to an opponent moving towards the player’s goal by an offence punishable by a free kick or penalty kick.”

The first important point to consider is that the offence only applies to opponents. So, if a spiteful teammate denies you a goal or goalscoring opportunity, he would not be sent off. However, such action would be unsporting behaviour – a cautionable offence.

The second point might be the most important – what is an obvious goalscoring opportunity? This is largely at the discretion of the referee, but there are certain criteria that a good referee uses. Sometimes, one factor can be the difference between breaking up a promising attack (cautionable offence) and denying an opponent an obvious goalscoring opportunity (sending-off offence).

He should have been a keeper! Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez denies Ghana a goal by deliberately handling the ball in extra time. His action helped Uruguay reach the World Cup semis.
He should have been a keeper! Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez denies Ghana a goal by deliberately handling the ball in extra time. His action helped Uruguay reach the World Cup semis.

Given the major differences in outcomes, criteria are crucial in evaluating whether a player has committed the sending-off offence.

  • Distance – how far is the offence from the goal? Generally, the offence should not take place more than a couple of yards from the penalty area, but that is just a guide.
  • Control of the ball – is the opponent in control of the ball, or is the opponent likely to gain control? If there is no real possibility of gaining control, then unsporting behaviour may be the likely offence.
  • Direction of play – Was the opponent moving towards the goal or away from it? What was the direction of play in relation to the goal? Usually, referees are told to use an imaginary “V” from to decide this. If play is in the general direction of the V, this might be denying an obvious goalscoring opportunity.
  • Defenders – How many defenders were around the locus of play? Where were they located? This has nothing to do with whether the player is the “last man.”
  • Is the offence punishable by a free kick/penalty kick? This includes indirect free kicks as well.

Official Soccer Rules Illustrated
Official Soccer Rules Illustrated

Simplicity, clarity, authority: these are the three main ingredients that have made Soccer Rules Illustrated the most sought-after reference book for all levels of soccer throughout the world. Stanley Lover, with a lifetime's experience in soccer as a player, coach, referee, instructor of international referees, administrator, and writer, explains logically, clearly, and most importantly, with illustrations, the often mysterious rules of soccer.


Clearing up a myth

One notorious falsehood about this offence is that once the “last defender” or “last man” commits this offence, he must be sent off. To clarify this, a player does not have to be the “last defender” to be sent off. The referee must consider the position and number of defenders. However, if the other defenders are about two metres closer to their goal line, but closer to the touchlines, then the player can still conceivably be sent off.

By the same token, just because a player who committed this offence is the second-last opponent does not automatically suggest a sending off offence. For example, if the last defender commits a foul punishable by a free kick just a yard over the halfway line, the sheer distance towards goal rules this out as an obvious goalscoring opportunity. The offence would more likely be breaking up a promising attack – unless serious foul play was involved.

Playing the advantage and this offence

In some cases, a player may deny the opponent an obvious goal scoring opportunity, but the referee decides to play the advantage. If a goal results from the advantage, the player who attempted to deny the opportunity should not be sent off, but may still be cautioned and shown the yellow card. If a goal does not result immediately, the referee has the option to award the free kick or penalty and send off the offending player.


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