Chaos in the Box: Why the Penalty Area Is the Wild West of Association Football

Dan ManganContributor IOctober 29, 2011

Mikel Arteta converts a game winning penalty against Blackburn.
Mikel Arteta converts a game winning penalty against Blackburn.Chris Brunskill/Getty Images

A FIFA panel led by Franz Beckenbauer announced earlier this week that it would be pushing for changes in the FIFA rule book to cut down on the "Triple Punishment” of penalty, red card and suspension that often occurs as a result of “simple fouls” in the box.

Yet this injustice is just the tip of the iceberg for the chaos in the penalty area that seems to occur every weekend across the soccer-playing world.

We’ve all seen games turn because of penalty kicks awarded after “soft” or even non-existent fouls. In a heart beat a game can change and it just feels so unjust. Newspapers quickly become filled with angry columnists quoting angry fans ranting about how unfair the penalty was. Yet there is more injustice from what the Penalty Kick does to officiating in the 18-yard box. A place where defenders know only the worst of fouls will be punished.

Earlier this year Everton escaped with three points against Blackburn after a game at Ewood Park, where the penalty kicks piled up at an impressive rate. Blackburn controlled the game, creating chances and earning two penalty kicks against Everton, but the home side failed to put the ball in the back of the net.

Both penalties were given after simple fouls on the edge of the box, where neither player was an immediate and obvious threat to score. The Everton keeper, Tim Howard, saved the first kick and saw the second penalty strike the post. As time wound down it appeared that Everton would survive with an undeserved point in a game they had no business drawing, but the injustice of the penalty kick reappeared in stoppage time.

In the waning minutes of the game Chris Samba climbed up Marouane Fellaini’s back, drawing what was to all accounts a “soft” penalty. Yet the call was made and the spot kick was converted, allowing Everton to walk away with a win and leaving Blackburn wondering where they went wrong.


Chris Samba’s punishment was harsh, but he’d been treading a dangerous line.

He had embraced the odd protection that the penalty box provides defenders to commit “soft’” fouls without punishment. On the few times that Everton had found their way into the final third, Samba was often caught pushing the line between fair and foul.

I don’t believe that Samba’s foul on its own was deserving of a penalty, but he had consistently pushed the line. The referee was probably fed up and punished Samba in the same way a referee gives out a yellow card for consistent fouling.

It was a controversial call because referees are not given a way to punish defenders for “soft” fouls in the box. This is seen during practically every corner kick, where jerseys are pulled and players are held. If the attacking team is at fault they are punished by losing the corner, but defenders almost always get away with nothing more then a warning because it's agreed upon that a penalty kick is too great a penalty for a little holding in the box.

This weekend’s Everton-Manchester United game brought this problem back to the forefront.

On one occasion Johnny Evans had pushed Fellaini away from an oncoming ball, prompting ESPN’s commentary team to declare that the play would have been a foul anywhere outside the box. This seemed to be a pattern throughout the game as the bigger Fellaini was tugged and pushed by smaller Manchester United defenders on more then a few balls in the air causing Everton fans to cry foul.

Although I don’t believe the fouls deserved penalties, there needed to be some sort of punishment.


Defenders are consistently allowed to get away with small fouls that give them advantages over attacking players. Referees in turn refuse to enforce the letter of the law out of a desire to avoid giving out soft penalties. Beckenbauer and his commission would be well served to come up with a solution to the problem of fairly enforcing all infringements within the penalty box.

I personally believe that referees should be given a second option of awarding a free kick outside the 18-yard box for less serious infringements.

If the player is headed towards goal or the foul is egregious, a spot kick should be given, but fouls that are traditionally left uncalled could now be enforced in a fair and equitable manner.

If a team is tugging in the box, they can be called for it—and instead of a corner the attacking team would be given an opportunity to bend in a free kick. The punishment is less severe then a penalty, but still demands that teams obey the laws of the game no matter where they are on the field.

I believe this is a simple solution that is good for the officials, good for the players and good for the fans.