Monday, 4 September 2017

Big news: there's no Law-endorsed right to organise a wall

Game 15, 2017-18

The home team is leading 1-0, and there are two minutes to go in this boys’ U15 game. After a six-player stramash in the arc outside the penalty area, I award a free-kick against the home team directly in front of their goal. They’ve been in the mood to moan all through the second half, encouraged by their collectively vociferous coaches and parents, but then they quickly realise that they’d better set about organising their wall.

Wall organised - but be quick about it
One of their players has already placed himself right in front of the ball, effectively neutralising the chance of a quick free-kick. There’s no punishment for this (if the kick is taken and he moves to block the ball, then I can I give a yellow card and award a re-take), and the only thing I can do is ask the away team if they would like me to mark out a wall. They duly say, “Yes”, and so I tell them to wait for the whistle.

Before we go any further, let me just say this is one of the least known rules of the game, even among men’s teams, but especially among youth teams. Every week I’m confronted with players whose side has just conceded a free-kick telling me that they would like the time and leisure to form a wall. And I tell them it’s not their decision, it’s up to the team which has the free-kick. And if the other team is smart
enough to take a quick free-kick (very rare), then there’s nothing the defending team can do about it. [Note to coaches: for Christ’s sake, teach your players this simple rule. You can probably get five goals a season from sharply executed free-kicks.]

So in this particular case I ask the attacking team if they would like me to mark out a wall. Usually I have to ask two or three times, because they also don’t know the procedure – they think they have to wait for the whistle. When they finally say they would indeed like me to push the wall back the required 10 yards (as happens here), I tell them to wait until I blow before they take the free-kick.

I mark out 10 yards and ask the defending team to retreat to where my arm is. They do so. Job done, I walk away from the wall and take up my position (this takes a few seconds). I blow the whistle, a player from the attacking team shoots hard along the ground, to the right of the wall, but straight at the keeper. The keeper, though, makes a complete hash of his save and lets the ball through his hands and under his body. 1-1. The away team goes mental, as do all of their so touchingly invested parents.

Not as mental as the home team, though. I’m just noting down the time and scorer of the equaliser when I find myself surrounded by hysterical home defenders. At first I don’t even realise what they're honking about. Did I miss something? “I’m sorry, but what’s the problem here?” I ask. The home team’s number 2 yells, “We weren’t ready!”

Wall over the place - probably the ref's fault
Ha ha ha ha. This is a mock football game, set up with hidden cameras to test me and see my reaction, right? No, it turns out they’re perfectly serious. They think (or they’ve been coached to think) that they have as much time as they want to set up their precious wall. Only when the butler employed by the little princes has officially given notice that the royal gentlemen are now ready to face the free-kick can the underling referee blow the whistle for the game to continue.

I’m so bemused that I forget to book the bawling number 2 for dissent (or for ignorance). I could wave over to his three (count ‘em) coaches and mouth, “Hey lads, teachable moment here!” But I forget to do that too. In truth, it’s hard not to start laughing. Dudes, after a quite disgraceful half of football, you committed a deliberate and dirty fucking foul right in front of your own goal, 20 yards out. Just whose fault do you think that goal was? The filthy-footed defender for his  pre-meditated tackle? The goalkeeper who didn’t know how to set a wall? The defenders who didn’t know where to stand? The goalkeeper (again) for his ghost-like attempt to stop the ball?

Nah, none of those. It was the referee’s fault. The stupid fucking referee. Again.

"One would like to inform the referee
that the young sires have finished
forming their wall and the free-kick
 may now be taken."
Because the home team has been wasting so much time, in the sporting way that some 14-year-olds are apparently taught, I add on three minutes. With 10 seconds of injury time to go they win a corner. Directly from the cross, their number 8 volleys in at the far post, the last kick of the game. So they win after all. The scale of celebrations can only mean that there was something else at stake here. Maybe Kim Jong-Un had agreed that, in the event of a home victory, he wouldn’t conduct any more long-distance nuclear missile tests. Or that Bono and Sting had both promised never to sing or even speak again in public.

The plus side to the home team scoring the winner is that they are all so busy ululating about their wee victory that they have no further bad thoughts for the referee who almost spoilt their day. The away team trudges off to be consoled by their disappointed parents and coach. Only half an hour later, as I’m coming out of my changing room, do I meet one of the young home coaches - the third in command.

“Thanks, ref,” he says, shaking my hand. “Good game.”

“Thank you,” I reply. “You’re the first person from either team to offer me a handshake.”

“Really?” he says. He seems momentarily taken aback, and a little ashamed. He really doesn’t need to be. It’s not just simple laws at free kicks that many coaches don’t bother to teach their teenage players. It’s basic sporting values too.

Final score: 2-1 (4 x yellow).

Ian Plenderleith's next book, 'The Quiet Fan', will be published by Unbound in 2018. Click here to pre-order an e-book or paperback copy.


  1. You state:

    One of their players has already placed himself right in front of the ball, effectively neutralising the chance of a quick free-kick. There’s no punishment for this [...]

    This was addressed by IFAB in the 2016-17 Laws rewrite. Under the new direction, if someone denies the ability to take the free kick (whether by walking away with the ball, kicking it away, or standing on top of it), it's "delaying the restart of play". If they give enough space to take the kick, but then step forward to block, intercept, etc, that becomes "failing to respect the distance".

    Of course, the second a card comes out, it all becomes ceremonial anyhow...

  2. What I mean here is - a player standing in front of the ball, but neither touching it nor even being close enough to block it unless he/she moves in to its path in the event of a quick free-kick (which is yellow, as you say). So the team in possession could make a short pass to one side to take the free-kick quickly, but rarely does - if an opponent is standing right there then they almost always ask for the wall, and at this point you mark it out and tell them to wait for the whistle. In effect, the chance of the quick kick is neutralised, but you can't yellow card a player for just standing 'passively' in front of the ball.

    IFAB this summer discussed the possibility of 'self-passing' at free kicks and corners to try and give an advantage to the attacking side (see July 7 blog), and I think that's something really worth looking at. It might speed up the game, give a better advantage to the team just fouled, and make for better football.