Why do Goalkeepers Bounce the Ball in Soccer?

Having watched and played football for a number of years, one of the most fascinating habits I’ve observed is the act of a goalkeeper bouncing the ball after they have reclaimed possession for the team that they represent.

Whenever I saw a goalkeeper perform this move, I always used to wonder why they would expose themselves to the risk of an attentive opposition striker stealing the ball from underneath them and slotting it into an empty net.

That was before I conducted some basic online research on the topic with the help of Google.

I discovered that…

Goalkeepers bounce the ball due to a holdover from the lax structure of the game’s rules back in the olden days – where they were allowed to keep the ball in their hands for an unlimited amount of time provided that the ball was bounced on the ground or thrown into the air whilst they moved inside their 18-yard area.

Now let me explain this further…


Goalkeepers and ball control

why do goalkeepers bounce the ball - overly protective rules

According to Law 12 of the International Football Association Board’s (IFAB) Laws of the Game, a goalkeeper is considered to be in control of the ball with his or her hands when they are in the act of bouncing it on the ground or throwing it in the air.

Even more so, from a legal standpoint they cannot be challenged by an opponent when they have the ball in their hands.

Before an opponent is allowed to make a challenge, the goalkeeper must have let it bounce on the ground multiple times – as referees will consider possession relinquished and the ball free to be contested by any player present on the field of play.

Another condition which permits an opposition player to go for a ball which was previously held by a goalkeeper is if the latter lets it bounce away and isn’t in a position to kick it or recollect it in their hands or arms before a second bounce.

The combination of the aforementioned rules being in place, and a time period where goalkeepers had free reign to keep the ball in their hands for as long as they liked provided it was occasionally bounced or tossed in the air as they moved, created a sneaky game exploit which the people between the posts were able to take full advantage of.

With opponents essentially handicapped by the rules which protected goalkeepers excessively, time wasting tactics grew rife within the sport.

Teams could essentially use a goalkeeper’s handling privileges to see out closely fought games which would have positive sporting and financial implications when it came to final league table standings and results in cup games.


Introducing the goalkeeper four-step rule

When the above strategy became commonplace, the lawmakers at FIFA decided to put an end to the resulting unsportsmanlike behaviour by bringing in new football legislation.

The four-step rule was devised as counteractive measure to curtail the amount of time that goalkeepers spent handling the ball whilst uncontested.

It basically permitted four steps in any direction whilst holding, bouncing or tossing the ball in the air and reclaiming it again without having to release it into general play.

However, after a goalkeeper had taken those allotted steps, they had to deliver the ball back into play, which could be done in a number of different ways including but not limited to hoofing it upfield or distributing it by way of a short pass to a nearby team mate.


If you’ve read this far you can now understand why goalkeepers bounced the ball many years ago.

And it’s a sporting tradition that has naturally carried over by way of habit into the modern game, as Law 12 – which as a reminder prohibits opponents from challenging when the goalkeeper bounces the ball – is still in effect.


Frequently asked questions

Before I conclude, I’d like to answer a few questions that people may have concerning the rules that effectively govern goalkeeper handling.


Can you kick the ball out of a goalkeeper’s hands?

The answer to this is no, as the attacking player would be committing a foul by attempting to kick the ball when the goalkeeper is about to release it from their gloves.

In such an event, an indirect free kick would subsequently be awarded to the opposition.


How long are goalkeepers allowed to hold the ball for?

Goalkeepers are only legally permitted to hold onto a ball for a maximum duration of 6 seconds before releasing it into play, in accordance with Law 12 of the International Football Association Board Laws of the Game which covers fouls and misconduct on the pitch.


What happens when the goalkeeper holds the ball for longer than 6 seconds?

If a situation arises where a goalkeeper has held onto a ball for longer than the designated 6 seconds, the team which the goalkeeper plays for will be punished with the awarding of an indirect free-kick opportunity to the opposition.

This was the case in 2015, when former Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet held onto the ball for 22 seconds in a Europa League clash with Bordeaux.


Closing thoughts

Ball bouncing by goalkeepers is a habit brought about by overly protective rules that existed in the distant past, with the act being able to withstand the test of time and carry over to the modern game by way of sporting tradition.

This is because back in the day, goalkeepers were able to benefit from having as much time they wanted with the ball whilst uncontested, on the condition that it was periodically bounced or tossed into the air whilst they moved around the area.

Samuel Waihenya
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