In [the USSF] Miscellaneous Questions and Answers section someone asked about the penalty area (Prior to the Law changes of 1997, the goal area was also used to define a region in which the goalkeeper could be charged fairly while holding the ball, but now referees must observe carefully any charge against the goalkeeper, regardless of the circumstances, location of the action, or presence of the ball, and penalize the action only if it is committed carelessly, recklessly, or with excessive force (direct free kick) or is performed in a dangerous manner (indirect free kick). My question is: if the goalkeeper comes out of the “box”/penalty area to dribble the ball back in so they can pick it up, when they are out of the “box” can an offensive player challenge them for the ball? The league we play in the goalie frequently comes out to dribble the ball back into their box so they can pick it up and our players don’t challenge because it is the goalie and they are afraid of receiving a penalty.
USSF answer (February 29, 2008):
First things first: You seem to be confusing the goal area with the penalty area. The goal area is the area immediately in front of the goal, within the penalty area. The goal area extends six yards along the goal line from each of the goal posts and six yards out from the goal line into the penalty area, making it a rectangle of 6 x 20 yards. That is the area addressed in the original question. The penalty area, another sort of “animal,” extends 18 yards along the goal line from each goal post and 18 yards into the field, making it 44 yards long and 18 yards deep.
Other than being able to handle the ball within the penalty area, nor to be interfered with when in possession of the ball if in the act of putting it back into general play, the goalkeeper has no more right to protection than any other player. If the goalkeeper leaves the penalty area, he or she may be charged fairly, just as he or she may be charged fairly within the penalty area (including the goal area). If your players tackle fairly, then no referee should punish them.
Just to phrase it so even the “touchline lawyers” understand it: The goalkeeper may be fairly charged or tackled inside or outside of his penalty area, just like any other player, provided he or she is not controlling the ball with his/her hands at the time. If s/he has the ball in the hands, the goalkeeper cannot be charged or tackled at all and any effort to do so could be punished with a direct free kick for the goalkeeper’s team.