What Happens if a Soccer Ball Hits the Referee?

Referees usually run up and down the pitch just like the players, all whilst being in close proximity with the action so that they’re able to make the most accurate officiating decisions possible.

With professional soccer pitch dimensions as large as they are, it’s not easy for them to obstruct play.

But in a few rare cases, a referee may accidentally disrupt the flow of the game if a soccer ball mistakenly hits them.

So, today I decided to write an insightful article that thoroughly explains what happens in the event a soccer ball hits a match referee.

I’ll start with a succinct answer which details the exact procedure that referees are required to follow after such an event occurs.

If a soccer ball hits the referee during a soccer game, match play will be halted in the vast majority of cases, with the team last in possession awarded what is called a drop ball. However, if a referee mistakenly touches the soccer ball whilst situated inside one of the penalty areas, then play simply restarts with an uncontested drop ball given to the goalkeeper of the defending team.

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I’m sure that the second occurrence above seems quite unfair to the attacking team that’s on the front foot – having pinned the opposition inside their own penalty box.

However, the rules are the rules and they must be adhered to, or else we’d have games descend into chaos!

Now let’s learn a bit more about these official contingencies which are put in place for the aforementioned circumstances.


Official ruling on the soccer ball being out of play

The International Football Association Board (IFAB) updated its Laws of the Game in 2019, which included a whole raft of changes for the regulations that govern the sport.

According to the fresh Law 9 ruleset, if a soccer ball touches a referee during a match, then that ball is considered out of play.

soccer ball hits referee - drop ball situation

In addition, this law dictates that the game should be restarted with a dropped ball if that soccer ball remains on the field of play and:

  • A team commences a promising attack
  • The ball goes directly into the goal
  • Ball possession changes hands from one team to the other

Essentially, if a referee directly affects the flow of the game and any of the eventualities mentioned above happen to unravel, then he or she should immediately stop play and award a drop ball for match resumption to the team that was last in possession.

soccer ball hits referee - play carries on

On the flip side, if a soccer ball only takes a slight touch off of a referee on the way to its intended target and any of the three actions mentioned above don’t come to pass, then the game will continue without interruption.


Understanding the drop ball procedure

If you’re new to the sport then you’re quite likely to be confused about what a dropped ball situation actually constitutes.

But worry not, as I’m going to take the time to explain exactly what it is!

In simple terms, a drop ball is when a referee holds the soccer ball with the palm of their hand and drops it onto the ground for a player representing the team that was last in possession, right at the spot where the last touch of the ball had happened.

It’s an action that signifies a fair resumption in play, as the referee is allowing the team that last had the ball to pick things up again right from where the point where they left off.

More so, when a drop ball is about to happen, all of the remaining players have to keep a distance of at least 4 metres (4.5 yards) away from the soccer ball until it is back in play.

Here’s what a modern drop ball scenario looks like:

what happens if soccer ball hits the referee - uncontested drop ball

In the past however, the drop ball sequence was quite different.

Before, one player from each team would make their way to the drop ball location and wait for the referee to resume play by dropping the soccer ball on the ground.

And as soon as the ball touched the grass surface, players could contest for possession.

So, you can see how changes to the rules have influenced different aspects of the game.

Have a read of this article, where the Premier League documents that contested drop balls were no longer going to be enforced from the start of the 2019-2020 campaign.


Course of action after a referee touches a soccer ball inside the penalty area

The dropped ball policy that I previously described only happens if the referee touches a soccer ball outside the penalty area.

But what’s the consequence of a referee making contact with a soccer ball whilst they are inside one team’s penalty area?

Well, there is a slight adjustment to the drop ball approach.

In such a case, the referee would award an uncontested drop ball to the goalkeeper of the defending team in their own penalty area where the contact occurred.


Visual examples of soccer balls hitting referees during games

What better way is there to explain what happens when a soccer ball hits a referee than by showing you real life examples?

I managed to source two clips that do a fairly good job of illustrating the steps that referees take to resume play after they’ve been hit by a soccer ball.


1. Cruz Azul vs Toluca – Liga MX

First off, we have the referee Oscar Macias – inadvertently preventing a goal being scored as he gets in the way of a shot attempt Jonathan Rodriguez.

Luckily for him, Rodriguez represents Cruz Azul who were already comfortably ahead with a two-goal lead.

Before that, his team mate Luis Romo had tried to score from an acute angle but the ball ended up striking the post prior to falling kindly for him.

Credit must be given to the referee, though.

After the ball hits him he correctly awards a drop ball to the defending team, which is why you can see the clip cutting to play resuming directly from the goalkeeper.


2. Brazil vs Columbia – 2021 Copa America

This video is a little different.

Here, the soccer ball hits referee Néstor Pitana in the 77th minute, but he makes no attempt to stop play and initiate the drop ball action.

The reason for this is because the touch was not deemed to have created a promising attack, which meant that play simply continued without interruption.

Now, the Columbian fans were left furious because the play concludes with the ball in the back of their goal net, as Roberto Firmino scored immediately after the referee’s touch.

Even though the referee’s decision to continue was ultimately correct, the outcome does appear harsh for the Columbian team and its fanbase.


What if the ball hits the referee and rolls into the net?

If a soccer ball hits a referee and goes into the goal, then the goal does not stand and the score line does not change.

In such instances, Law 8 stipulates that the referee will give a drop ball within the penalty area to the goalkeeper of the defending team.

What’s quite fascinating is that before the rule changes that took effect in 2019, a referee was considered as part of the field.

And if the old rules were still enforced, such a situation would have led to a valid goal being awarded for the attacking team.


What happens if a referee accidentally blocks a goal?

Again, the rule governing ball contact with a referee is flexible enough to apply to lots of different scenarios – this one being no different.

The outcome here would ultimately depend on where the referee was located when they were hit by the soccer ball (i.e. inside or outside the penalty area).

Either a drop ball would be awarded to the goalkeeper of the defending team – if they were inside the penalty area – or a drop ball would be handed to the team that was last in possession of the ball if the referee was standing outside the penalty area when the infringement took place.


Final thoughts

If a soccer ball hits the referee when he or she is situated outside the penalty area, a drop ball is typically given to the team that last touched the ball, in the position where it last touched the player before the action occurred. Conversely however, when a soccer ball hits a referee inside the penalty area, a drop ball is simply given to the defending team’s goalkeeper.

Samuel Waihenya
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