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 amazon.com, or order a real world copy direct from its UK publisher, Halcyon.)