Penalties. They can cause acute apprehension and bring about feelings of utter desolation or unbridled joy. They can alter the outcome of any football match, be it an ordinary league game or a cup game. National and global competitions can be decided on the outcome of a penalty kick or kicks, and often are.
For years, the English men’s national team were on the wrong end of penalty results. It seemed to have righted itself in recent times with the accuracy and ice-cool nerve of Harry Kane. Yet only a few months ago, Kane’s uncharacteristic penalty miss against France and his Tottenham teammate and captain Hugo Lloris was one of the key factors to England’s exit from the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
The reasons that penalties are awarded and the rules under which they must play out are many and various, and in this article, we will take a detailed look at the penalty and lay out the cold, hard facts.
Why Are Penalties Awarded?
A penalty kick is a specific type of free kick. Free kicks can be direct or indirect. In other words, the player taking the kick can either score directly from the kick if a direct free kick has been awarded or pass it to another player for someone else to score. Penalty kicks are always direct.
Free kicks are usually awarded in the location where the offence that warrants the free kick takes place. It is, however, quite usual for the player who is going to take the freekick to steal a few yards in the process, providing it’s not done too blatantly, the referee often turns a blind eye.
Penalty kicks, however, have to be taken from the penalty spot. If you check out the image below, you’ll see the penalty spots 12 yards directly in front of the middle of the goals.
A penalty is awarded for any one of the following reasons:
- Handball – If a player within their own penalty area, (the larger of the rectangular areas in front of the goals) other than the goalkeeper, is adjudged to have deliberately handled the ball.
- If a player in his own penalty area fouls a player from the opposing team.
- Dangerous play, whereby a player engages in a dangerous act, such as a high kick, endangering the safety of an opponent.
- If a player is judged to have committed a foul that denies an opponent a clear goal-scoring opportunity.
- If a player bites, headbutts or spits at either another player or one of the match officials.
Over the years, there have been some very dubious penalties awarded, which in some instances have not only altered the results of the game but have changed the course of football history, such as winning or being denied trophies.
VAR was introduced into the English Premier League at the start of the 2019/20 EPL campaign. It was hoped that it would banish dubious penalty decisions once and for all. However, that has not been found to be the case, and VAR itself is often the subject of hot debate.
Off-Field Offences for Which Penalties can be Awarded
Penalties can also be awarded for offences committed off the field. These offences include:
- Throwing or kicking an object (anything other than the match ball) at a player of the other team.
- Throwing or kicking an object (match ball included) at a player from the other team who is either a substitute, who has been substituted, or who has been sent off, or at a team or match official.
If the offence happens adjacent to the main playing area between the two penalty areas, a direct free kick is awarded on the boundary line adjacent to where the object would have struck the targeted person. If the intended potential strike position happens to be adjacent to one of the penalty areas, a penalty is awarded.
A penalty can also be awarded if a player is temporarily off the field, a substitute, a player who’s been substituted or sent off, or a team official, kicks or throws something onto the field that interferes with play or hits an opponent, a match official, or the match ball, in the region of the penalty area.
Rules for taking a penalty
As mentioned earlier, a penalty kick must be taken from the penalty spot, regardless of the exact location where the infringement took place inside the penalty area. The following rules must be observed:
Positioning and Movement of the Players
- All players other than the goalkeeper and the penalty taker must stand at least 10 yards away from the ball. They should be on the field of play, positioned behind the penalty spot and outside the penalty area.
- If any player from the team awarded the penalty encroaches the area before, or as the kick is taken and a goal is scored, the kick must be retaken.
- If a player on the defending team does encroach and a goal is scored, the goal stands. If no goal is scored, the kick is retaken.
- If players from both teams encroach, the kick must be retaken regardless of whether or not a goal was scored.
- At the time the ball is kicked, the goalkeeper has to have at least a part of one foot on, in line with, or behind the goal line.
- If the goalkeeper moves off the goal line and a goal is scored, the goal counts. If he or she moves off the goal line and saves the penalty, the kick is retaken.
- Once the ball has been positioned on the penalty spot, it must remain stationary until kicked.
- The ball can only be kicked forward – toward the goal.
- The penalty cannot be taken until the referee has blown their whistle.
- All of the ball must completely cross the goal line before a goal can be awarded.
- Once the penalty kick has been taken and the ball is in play, the penalty taker cannot touch the ball again unless it touches another player first.
- If the ball rebounds off the posts or bar of the goal, any player other than the penalty taker can take possession of the ball and score or put the ball out of play.
- If, directly after the penalty is taken, the ball touches another player, anyone, including the penalty taker, can take possession of the ball and score or put the ball out of play.
- It is possible to backheel a penalty as long as the ball travels in a forward direction (toward the goal).
Unlike ordinary free kicks, for a penalty kick, once awarded, time is added on by the referee. This applies to the end of either half or at the end of extra time.
As soon as the kick has been taken, and assuming that none of the offences previously mentioned that would result in a retake being taken have taken place, the referee will then blow the whistle to signify the end of the game whether or not a goal is scored.
The Rules are slightly different in a penalty shootout.
Additional Rules for Penalty Shootouts
While the basic rules for taking penalties during a penalty shootout are the same as when taking an “ordinary” penalty, there are some specific, additional rules and procedures:
- Five players are pre-nominated by each team, substitutes from the bench, included,
- The referee tosses a coin, and one of the team captains will call heads or tails and nominate which goal will be used for the shootout.
- A second toss of the coin will determine which team takes the first penalty.
- Each team takes turns in a predetermined order, with five penalty kicks per team initially.
- Alternating shots – The teams alternate taking penalties, starting with Team A, followed by Team B, then back to Team A and so forth.
- If the score is level after five kicks have been taken, the same players repeat the process in turn until the deadlock is broken.
- Whereas when taking an ordinary penalty, players from both sides can linger on the outside of the penalty area, not encroaching until the ball is kicked, in a penalty shootout situation, the players selected to take the penalties gather in the centre circle of the pitch. The player who is to take the penalty then walks into the penalty area. After the ball is kicked, the penalty taker is not permitted to touch the ball again unless the goalkeeper touches it first.
Penalty Shootout Records
Penalty shootouts are nail-biting events at the best of times, but when they become extended affairs, they can be unbearable – especially for the losing team and their supporters.
Until recently, the longest official penalty shootout in the world was at the end of extra time in the Namibian Cup Final in 2005. KK Palace ran out the winners over Civics after 48 spot kicks
Here in the UK, the longest shootouts worth of note include the second-round FA Cup fixture between Scunthorpe United and non-league Worcester City. It took 32 spot kicks before Scunthorpe ran out eventual winners.
Then there was the marathon between Old Wulfrunians (Wolverhampton), who beat Lane Head (Bloxwich) in a 44-penalty shootout.
But the Guinness World record (previously held by the Namibians) was superseded by the shootout between two North-East non-league sides, Washington and Bedlington, in March 2022 in an Ernest Armstrong Memorial Cup tie which needed 54 penalty kicks to be taken before Washington finally won.