Should a 'soft' foul in the penalty area go unpunished?

In a Bundesliga game last Saturday, Borussia Dortmund's Emre Can committed a foul against TSG Hoffenheim's Kevin Akpoguma on the edge of the Dortmund penalty area. The defender clipped Akpoguma's foot from behind. Referee Martin Petersen  correctly blew his whistle, and — despite Can's obligatory protests of innocence — the two teams lined up for the free kick.

Petersen then prevented the free kick from being taken, because our good friend the Video Assistant Referee was calling through his ear-piece. The VAR had subjected the foul to a closer examination. As Petersen galloped off the field to take a look at the screen for himself, most Dortmund fans would have been fearing the outcome — that Petersen would rescind the free kick and award a penalty kick instead.

The official indeed revoked the free kick, but re-started the game with a drop ball instead. Wait, had the replays shown that there had in fact been no contact between Can and Akpoguma? Not at all. The contact took place, and it was clearly in the penalty area. But Petersen had decided, to quote him after the game, that the foul "was not enough for a penalty."

If you're now reaching for your well-thumbed copy of FIFA's "Laws of the Game 2022-23," and hoping to find a section under the title 'Fouls that are not enough for a penalty,' then I can save you the bother. There's no such section. There is no soccer rule that states a foul in the penalty area has to have reached a certain degree of foulness to qualify for a spot-kick. That's because foulness is not quantifiable. A challenge is either a foul, or it isn't.

The German bi-weekly soccer bible kicker advised Mr. Petersen that he would have been better off saying that, upon viewing the slow-motion replay, the contact had not been "enough for a foul."

But that would have been equally absurd. Can's foot contacted Akpoguma's leg and he went to ground. There was no dive or simulation. It was a clumsy, unnecessary challenge, and it deserved the sound of Petersen's whistle.

Talk to any referee, however, and they will admit that they are stricter on judging fouls in the penalty area. Perhaps they have read the opening blurb in the "Laws of the Game" where FIFA pontificates vaguely on "what football expects." In this case, I'd say Hoffenheim fans expected a penalty, and given the harsh spot kicks now awarded for some apparent handball offenses, they were certainly entitled to that expectation.

A few years ago, I wrote on my refereeing blog about a game where the coach had complained about two 'soft' penalties I'd awarded against his team. I explained to him that instead of talking to me, he should talk to his defenders about committing careless, innocuous fouls in that particular zone of the field.

There's a general acceptance in the game nowadays, at all levels, that defenders are allowed to clamp their arms around forwards and even throw them to the ground. I had a similar case in a game I was reffing a couple of weekends ago when a huge defender not only wrapped his arms around a forward, but flung him to the ground as the ball was crossed into the penalty area from a free kick. He couldn't believe that I called the penalty against him, probably because he gets away with it week after week. After the match, he came to harass me outside my locker room, and refused to accept my explanation why I'd called him out for his foul play. Eventually, his coach pulled him away.

I understand a referee's tendency to use stricter criteria when calling a foul in the penalty area, because penalty kicks result in likely goals. Penalties call forth heightened emotions in the players who've committed the fouls. Penalties raise the general temperature and are often, in terms of the foul committed, apparently unjust. But then, so is soccer. It's a game, not a judicial system.

There's a reason, however, why penalty kicks exist, and that reason really is connected to justice. They are there to prevent exactly what Emre Can committed — a foul, close to your own goal. The penalty area is a dangerous area. It's an area where the defender should be extra careful, and that reflects a reward for the attacking team for having moved the ball that far forward in the first place. Penalties may often seem a harsh punishment for a 'soft' foul, but the answer is simple — coach your defenders to win the ball fairly, or to challenge in the air without embracing or holding an opponent. If they're unable to do so, suggest they take up rugby or gridiron instead.

(Ian Plenderleith’s latest book, Reffing Hell, documents six years of soaking up dissent and abuse as a referee in Frankfurt’s amateur leagues. It’s also very funny and entertaining, too. You can buy an e-copy at, or order a real world copy direct from its UK publisher, Halcyon.)

15 comments about "Should a 'soft' foul in the penalty area go unpunished?".
  1. R2 Dad, March 2, 2023 at 3:10 p.m.

    "A challenge is either a foul, or it isn't." C'mon, Ian, you know with all the contact inside the 18, it's difficult to determine which fouls are worth punishment and which aren't. All the more challenging are those free kicks into the box, with simulataneous flopping, elbowing and wrestling at different parts of the 18. With kids it's so much easier as that dynamic/those hormones have not yet been established. I'm of the opinion that mere contact in the box is not enough to give a pen, and am surprised at how much flopping occurs in the box to get that whistle. There are always a bunch of factors involved, as I have read through your often-thankless exploits on the pitch. Those lower-tier late teen boys matches that you specialize in take a special kind of masochist!

  2. Perry McIntyre, March 3, 2023 at 10:29 a.m.

    The ongoing problem of referees thinking they ARE the game. When covering the 2006 WC in Germany, I got a photo of Brian McBride (then one of the best aerial forwards in the world), being pulled back from a finishing header by a Ghana defender. Action was out in the open, very obvious, with two dark hands on the shoulders of a white jersey, and McBride's momentum being inaurguably altered, yet the German referee deemed it "no foul." Anywhere else on the pitch, without question it's whistled, but in the six-yard box, on a decisive goal in the WC, 'not enough for a penalty.' The "Laws" are the laws, except when they aren't..... SMH.

  3. R2 Dad replied, March 3, 2023 at 11:47 a.m.

    VAR was introduced to rectify injustices in the game, some of which were unseen. But it can't blow the whistle for the center ref in the instance you reference, and that decision would be the same today.

  4. beautiful game, March 3, 2023 at 11:29 a.m.

    In the cited case contact was ruled by the referee as a foul...after the VAR review confirmed "contact" the referee reversed course with a later explanation there was not enough contact. IMHO, if its not viewed as a dive, let the call stand.  

  5. Kent James, March 3, 2023 at 1:50 p.m.

    "Contact" is not a foul.  A foul must be a push, trip or other foul delineated in the rules.  There are two issues here.  First, how much does a foul being inside the box change whether or not it is called.  Theoretically, a foul is a foul and should be called the same wherever it occurs.  But that crashes into the reality that a foul inside box is punished much more severely than one outside the box.  That being the case, and knowing referees make mistakes, which is worse, the ref missing a foul in the box or a ref awarding a penalty for something that was not a foul?  I think most referees would agree the latter is worse, so if there is any question about whether or not it is a foul, in the box, you let it go.  

    The second issue is at what point does something become a foul?  If I bump you slightly in the back, and you throw yourself to the ground, is that a foul? If my bump was enough to knock you down (a push from behind), yes it should be a foul.  I think referees should try not to interfere with a game where players are doing there best to follow the rules where ocassionally they transgress but it doesn't affect anything (so the ref ignores "trifling" fouls).  Sometimes, there is very slight contact but it has a significant impact (accidentally clipping someone's foot so they trip themselves, e.g.), which should be called (unfortunate for the transgressor, since they weren't trying to foul, but them's the breaks).  Some are easier to call; grabbing an arm (or a shirt) is a defender trying to benefit from playing illegally, so that should be called if it has any impact on the play (if they're both grabbig, it becomes more complex, and is often ignored until one gains the advantage).   The tough ones are when there may be a slight, accidental push (the player with the ball cuts into the path of the defender seeking the contact and a foul), but not enough to affect the play, but the player looking for the foul tries to make it appear that the foul was substantial enough to affect the play by exagerating the impact.  

    I am not a fan of "what the game expects" since that seems to justify existing practices, even if they're bad, but I do think "the spirit of the game" should be considered.  Looking at a foul in the context of the game allows referees to keep the game flowing and hopefully rewards players for doing their best to abide by the rules.  Not always easy, but that's why refs get paid the big bucks! (as a former ref, I'm joking about the last part...)

  6. stewart hayes replied, March 5, 2023 at 2:36 p.m.

    Agree Kent, contact is not a foul. 

    I was called once for touching a player's heel in the penalty area when he received the ball.  He cleverly jumped and fell in a heap.  But I had not followed through with my tackle.  But to the ref it certainly looked like I had wacked him. 

    No VAR was there to save me.  

  7. :: SilverRey ::, March 3, 2023 at 2:02 p.m.

    Why have indirect free kicks in the box disappeared?

    There are so many fouls like this that are not pk worthy that are still worth being called for something. If the foul is going to be called at half-field it should also be called in the box too.

  8. R2 Dad replied, March 5, 2023 at 4:04 a.m.

    Indirect free kicks are infrequent because they are infractions against the LOTG (keeper picks up back pass) vs fouls against a person (direct).  Most actions are player vs player. I'd like to see fouls in the box given where the contact occurs, just as it is outside the 18--way more interesting. Not all personal fouls should result in a PK.

  9. Craig Cummings, March 3, 2023 at 5:37 p.m.

    Spot on Ian.

  10. Bob Ashpole, March 4, 2023 at 2:57 a.m.

    I see this debate in a broader simpler context. Regardless of the written verbage and regardless of the exact circumstances there will always be an element of human judgement. An officials subjective opinion rather than a result of an objective test. We can pretend that the decisions are completely objective rather than subjective, but that isn't reality.

    We simply have to pick the best officials available and then trust their judgment. VAR doesn't make the process less subjective; it merely provides the referee a closer look at what happened. 

    What always amazed me most was how the good officials could be so often right, rather than being upset that they weren't perfect.

    It's a game. Stuff happens. Get over it. Or don't get over it if that makes you happier. I don't care about this issue.

  11. John Soares, March 4, 2023 at 5:48 a.m.

    That referees are more careful in the penalty zone... Yes
    But once you make the call... that's it.

  12. Bob Ashpole replied, March 4, 2023 at 4:37 p.m.

    Actually referees can change their mind before they allow play to restart. Once play restarts, that's it.

  13. John Soares, March 4, 2023 at 5:48 a.m.

    That referees are more careful in the penalty zone... Yes
    But once you make the call... that's it.

  14. Mike Lynch, March 6, 2023 at 7:42 p.m.

    All good points. What drives me crazy is a slight hold there, and there, and there, and .... Yes, in the first 10 minutes of the match, everyone know what this particular referee's calls are going to be or not be. The persistent holding, though, I think needs to be called tighter by all refs because holding is not the same as contact and it simply becomes a constant lesser version of a tactical foul, which, too is most often overlooked and they do change the outcome of the game (when enforced and when not enforced). 

  15. Bob Ashpole replied, March 10, 2023 at 9:46 a.m.

    I agree about the holding. When it is a defender from behind, they are trying to upset the attacker's balance, very hard to sell a dive when being held from behind. So it is very subtle. On corners they are trying to ruin a jump. All the more reason for coaches to have the set piece targets moving rather than standing.

    I remember the USWNT playing Brazil and a US midfielder was holding Marta's shirt so Marta was literally spinning her wheels. She was about a yard outside of the area and on her right wing while she had turned left and was cutting inside when her beaten marker grabbed her shirt. Marta's feet never slowed so the midfielder let go before it got called. It was like a cartoon. Marta's release slingshotted her forward, and after 2 touches she finished at the far post with her left foot. The unstoppable force was unstoppable.

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