Commentary

Is it time to replace the penalty kick?

Europe awoke this past Friday morning outraged once more at the latest news from the USA. You know what I'm talking about. The penalty that Baldomero Toledo  awarded for Cincinnati FC after D.C. United's Paul Arriola  was adjudged to have handled the ball seven minutes into the second half of Thursday night's MLS game at Nippert Stadium.

The heated discussions that took place over coffee and croissants in Paris and Vienna centered not just on the award itself, but on Emmanuel Ledesma's stuttered run-up on his way to converting, the encroachment by players from both teams, and the failure of the VAR to intervene at any point during the whole controversy.

In the end, the award was rendered irrelevant by DC's 4-1 victory. You can also argue that the discussions are all part of soccer's fertile landscape. Where would the game be without its talking points? Even though it seems to be FIFA's current dream to eliminate all refereeing errors via off-field robotics. Which, as the Cincinnati-D.C. United game and the entire France 2019 World Cup proved, isn't quite resulting in the perfect game they'd hoped for.

The hullaballoo around Toledo's penalty decision reminded me of an article I wrote some years ago for the print magazine When Saturday Comes. It was part of a series of columns aimed at provoking debate by looking at the game from a new angle. In short, I argued that the penalty kick should be abolished.

In the majority of cases, I maintained, the punishment doesn't fit the crime. Minor fouls or unintentional handballs are punished with an almost certain goal opportunity (and even more so now under the dissembling new handball rule 'clarification'). Replacing the penalty kick with a direct free-kick would benefit everyone on the field.

First, for obvious reasons, the defender, who would not carry the stigma of committing a minor but potentially decisive foul in some far-flung corner of the penalty area. Attackers would also benefit because they would no longer be so tempted to fling themselves to the ground, and also because referees would be more likely to whistle so-called borderline defensive infringements they were previously reluctant to call because of the high stakes.

Which brings us to the referee. "It’s the toughest decision to make for referees," I wrote at the time, "and one for which they will almost inevitably be criticized either way, sometimes to the point of receiving death threats. The result is that ludicrous, game-changing penalty kicks can be given for piffling offenses, or for dives the ref couldn’t be properly positioned to judge [note: this was pre-VAR, but as Werder Bremen will tell you, a dive can still get you knocked out of the German Cup semifinal]. At the same time, many minor fouls in the penalty area go unpunished because the ref is reluctant to give a penalty for, say, pushing or shirt-pulling at a corner kick. Take away the penalty kick, and suddenly those fouls are less critical and can be given."

Finally, the fan. As we saw from the Cincinnati incident, even neutral fans get upset about such calls. "Abolishing penalties might help ratchet down the vituperative tenor of modern soccer," was my take in 2011. "It needn’t mean less drama on the field. More direct free kicks awarded in any point of the penalty area will actually mean more excitement, and a greater test of a striker’s shooting accuracy than merely whacking the ball in from 12 yards against keepers pinned to their line."

I added a couple of qualifiers. For offenses committed in the six-yard box, free kicks would be moved back to the six-yard line. For handballs on or in front of the goal line, a 'penalty' goal would be awarded if, in the referee’s opinion, the ball would have crossed the line. Red card sanctions could broadly stay as they are now. The penalty area would still exist, of course, though it could be renamed the goalkeeper’s area.

I admit that when I wrote the piece, I was not totally convinced of the merits of my own argument. It was intended to start a discussion, which briefly took place in the magazine's letters page the following month (one reader in favor, another asking if the article was a joke). Yet while I'm worried that abolishing the penalty kick might see an overall increase in foul play close to the goalmouth, I still think this is a topic ripe for discussion.

The penalty kick has become too central and too decisive in soccer. With the introduction of VAR, it's also causing massive delays to the flow of the game, while placing undue pressure on referees. I don't see overall what soccer gains from having penalty kicks, while I see a net gain of benefits from its abolition. It's an unjust sanction against foul play that is due a serious rethink.

Updated: 7/23/19 edit at the writer's request to alter the erroneous “indirect free-kick” to “direct free-kick” in fifth paragraph.

18 comments about "Is it time to replace the penalty kick?".
  1. frank mascaro, July 20, 2019 at 1:07 p.m.

    Hi Ian,

    glad to see questioning of FIFA Laws. How about this; as you said, call it the goalkeeper ‘s area. But have a smaller penalty area where PK’s would still be called. The penalty area would be 20 yards wide and 12 yards deep.

  2. Randy Vogt, July 20, 2019 at 4:01 p.m.

    Yes, awarding a penalty kick is an important and sometimes game-changing decision as the great majority of penalty kicks are converted and there are roughly an average of three goals scored per game. Yet awarding an indirect kick for the offense inside the penalty area is often problematic as the ref must get the defense to concede 10 yards as this delays the game even more so than conceding 10 yards outside the penalty area as often the defenders are forced to the goal line (if the indirect kick is less than 10 yards from the goal) plus the ref must get defenders to concede 10 yards behind and to the side of the ball as they know the attacker will look to tap the ball to a teammate who shoots. If we experiment with this, let's go with a direct kick instead and I would like to take something from the beach soccer and futsal rules as the attacker shoots on goal from where the foul took place inside the penalty area and all other players besides the GK and shooter must be behind the ball. Hence, no time-wasting with the defense setting up a wall.

  3. R2 Dad, July 20, 2019 at 4:03 p.m.

    I like your ideas, as they would also make amateur match officiating better and easier to implement. The lining of the areas/zones would be the most difficult change to get right. If FIFA really reconsiders this, would they preclude a rounded area vs square/rectangular?

  4. Kent James, July 21, 2019 at 12:03 a.m.

    Good column Ian; I generally agree with this idea for the reasons you've articulated.  It would take some working out (I'd prefer a direct kick, so conceptually it would be the same as fouls anywhere else).  One option might be to allow the attacking team to move the ball farther away from goal if they prefer (if they are too close, i.e. at the six, it may be difficult to score with a wall there).  Not sure if the defense should be allowed to have a wall or not (I could see either way).  But worth trying.  Even the best can improve!

  5. Bob Ashpole, July 21, 2019 at 12:38 a.m.

    Seems to me this would just encourage professional fouls and make it more difficult to score goals.

  6. Michael Saunders, July 21, 2019 at 8:21 a.m.

    Wonderful article.  Terrific rationale.  And yes the VAR will cause more to occur as we have seen in recent tournaments & games.    The problem is the "fix".   Calling for an indirect or even a direct kick rather than a PK will cause delays, encroachment issues, etc.   Some have suggested to utilize the ice hockey type penalty shot as an alternative.    Believe van Basten sought a change along those lines.   


    As a retired referee, I concur with Randy with the problems he articulated regarding an indirect kick.    Also, the idea of adopting the futsal or beach soccer approach will result in additional issues.    My sense is that the fundamental problem lies  with the size and shape of the penalty area.   The questions then becomes how big and what shape?   Certainly there is enough data available to ascertain where a PK call was made.  Analyze which ones were marginal based on the probability of a goal occurring, and define a new penalty area accordingly.   


     


     


     

  7. Ian Plenderleith, July 22, 2019 at 2:37 a.m.

    Many thanks for the comments. Apologies that I didn't make it clear in the article, but I would indeed advocate for a direct free-kick for fouls inside the penalty area. My hope would be that as many quick free-kicks as possible could be taken (given the proximity to goal and the likelihood of scoring before the defense has had time to set up), before all the time-wasting with setting up a wall etc. (during the Women's World Cup I timed how long this took - on several occasions it was more than a minute, and I doubt this was added on at the end of the half). This would also require swift punishment (yellow card) of players encroaching to prevent a quick FK.

    Randy's 'futsal' idea of all players behind the ball is definitely worth further discussion/experimentation, as is Kent's option to move the ball further away from the goal if desired. A smaller, re-calibrated goalkeeper's area is also a very interesting add to the debate.

    I know this is a law change unlikely to be implemented for several years, if ever, but I'm glad we've kick-started the dialogue.

  8. Kent James replied, July 22, 2019 at 9:53 a.m.

    You are right about the need to issue yellow cards for delaying the restart, since in order to prevent the kind of quick strike you are envistioning where the fouled team shoots before the defense is ready most teams would accept a yellow card to prevent a goal scoring opportunity.  That may create a problem.  I am all for refs actually enforcing the univerasally (at the professional level) ignored yellow card for delaying the restart, but I'm not sure I'd like to see teams score because they were shooting from close in and the defense wasn't ready (in fact, I'm pretty sure I would not like to see that).  One possible solution to that is for all fouls inside the box to be taken as a "ceremonial" free kick, where the ref has to blow the whistle a 2nd time before it can be taken.


    I think the bottom line is that it is impossible to know how these potential changes will work until we actually try them, and since few leagues want to be known as "the experimental league, leagues to adopt them might be a big ask.  Youth tournaments have the problem of not being at the professional level (so the results may not be replicable at the professional level), and the closer they get to the professional level (U18 WC, e.g.), the less you want to "experiment" with them since they have a lot of meaning.  I think the best place to give these things a try would be in pre-season games, or even better, the current pre-season tournament being played in the US (the "international cup"?).  The teams are playing hard at a reasonably high level, but the results don't really matter.  If they seem to work there, then maybe try them at the lower domestic leagues and then move up.  But I'd love to see some of these in real life.

  9. Randy Vogt, July 22, 2019 at 6:18 a.m.

    Ian, it's okay if any change would take a few years as we refs have enough rule changes to deal with this year. :) Thanks for your follow-up! 

  10. matthias Erne, July 22, 2019 at 9:57 a.m.

    I hate to burst your bubble, but nobody in Europe looses sleep about anything that happens in the MLS...except about Ibra...

  11. Wooden Ships replied, July 22, 2019 at 2:41 p.m.

    Haha, agreed. But, we are the US and we like to tinker and after all we’ve won multiple World Cups, albeit on the women’s side. 

  12. Paul Berry, July 22, 2019 at 10:26 a.m.

    It's a good idea. Rugby has the concept of a penalty try, which is given when a player is illegally stopped from scoring a certain try and it works quite well. Field hockey of course has the penalty, or short corner, for offences committed within the defensive 23 meter area.

  13. Richard Broad, July 22, 2019 at 11:26 a.m.

    The PK definitely needs to be replaced as a means of settling ties. It's like deciding a basketball game on the basis of midcourt shots if the game is tied after 4 quarters.

  14. Wooden Ships replied, July 22, 2019 at 6:42 p.m.

    No. It’s an entirely different gut check. PK’s are suspenseful.

  15. beautiful game, July 22, 2019 at 1:56 p.m.

    Terrible decision by the referee. Hand moved and was struck against defender's body. Now, more finger-pointing at the game...when LOTG are not enforced equally inside and outside of the box, this type of hysteria arises out of the woodwork. When FIFA demands of its referees to officiate the game on 'selective calls', what else can anyone expect. Hands struck in an un-natural are PKs, no matter what the argument. I take every soccer blogger's opinion on merit; but when people start talking about changes to the dimensional dna of the game, banning PKs, etc. it's nonsense. The game is vibrant and exciting as it is until dereliction of officiating becomes the center of gravity. Rugby & Field Hockey comments? Get real amigo. I find this article lacking merit and a call for a ridiculous quick fix. For example, lack of enforcing a balance between the kickers approach/movement and keepers movements on a PK would make more sense. PKs are an integral part of the game, so let it rest and concentrate on the inconsistent and sometimes hubris officiating. As for VAR, IMHO, VAR is a benefit.  But especially in the MLS,  it is a time-consuming dead-weight. Put a fifth official in the VAR-room and make him/her make a quick and logical decision. Make that fourth official on the pitch be more responsive to violations on the pitch; so far #4 is a dead-weight. Officials engaged in warning players when they should be carded need better counseling from the Director of officials; it's a waste of time and enabling the perp. The game speaks for itself; so does officiating. FIFA has been a miserable failure in addressing the shortcomings of the human factor in the game. It's transparency and logic is nowhere to be found. BTW, Mr. Erne made the most salient observation in this fuselage of hysteria calling for re-invention of the game; so get real people, and focus on complaining about the bouncing ping-pong TV coverage of soccer and all other TV sport or the winded nonsense from the TV commentators which are a dead-weight and an insult to the viewer's enjoyment.

  16. beautiful game, July 22, 2019 at 1:56 p.m.

    Terrible decision by the referee. Hand moved and was struck against defender's body. Now, more finger-pointing at the game...when LOTG are not enforced equally inside and outside of the box, this type of hysteria arises out of the woodwork. When FIFA demands of its referees to officiate the game on 'selective calls', what else can anyone expect. Hands struck in an un-natural are PKs, no matter what the argument. I take every soccer blogger's opinion on merit; but when people start talking about changes to the dimensional dna of the game, banning PKs, etc. it's nonsense. The game is vibrant and exciting as it is until dereliction of officiating becomes the center of gravity. Rugby & Field Hockey comments? Get real amigo. I find this article lacking merit and a call for a ridiculous quick fix. For example, lack of enforcing a balance between the kickers approach/movement and keepers movements on a PK would make more sense. PKs are an integral part of the game, so let it rest and concentrate on the inconsistent and sometimes hubris officiating. As for VAR, IMHO, VAR is a benefit.  But especially in the MLS,  it is a time-consuming dead-weight. Put a fifth official in the VAR-room and make him/her make a quick and logical decision. Make that fourth official on the pitch be more responsive to violations on the pitch; so far #4 is a dead-weight. Officials engaged in warning players when they should be carded need better counseling from the Director of officials; it's a waste of time and enabling the perp. The game speaks for itself; so does officiating. FIFA has been a miserable failure in addressing the shortcomings of the human factor in the game. It's transparency and logic is nowhere to be found. BTW, Mr. Erne made the most salient observation in this fuselage of hysteria calling for re-invention of the game; so get real people, and focus on complaining about the bouncing ping-pong TV coverage of soccer and all other TV sport or the winded nonsense from the TV commentators which are a dead-weight and an insult to the viewer's enjoyment.

  17. Chance Hall, July 23, 2019 at 10:43 a.m.

    Thank you.  What a great topic for discussion.  Long overdue.  Recent changes have made the box a minefield for defenders.  Arms behind your back?  Ridiculas!  Anyway back to PKs.  Doing away with them is certainly an option.  But here's my thoughts on why PKs are unfair to the players and a possible solution.  I think that picking another player other than the one fouled is highly unfair.  Or if a player other than the one fouled is taking the PK it should only be half a point.  The other half a point going to the player who was fouled. That rewards the player actually trying to score.  It also helps prevent teams from chosing one player to be awarded points even though they often weren't even involved in the play.  Most goals scored awards should go to the players who have worked the hardest to score, not because they are the coaches pets.  Fans would certainly cheer for that change. My two cents.    

  18. beautiful game replied, July 23, 2019 at 11:46 a.m.

    In this scenario why not use Rugby players and replace soccer players...There are very simple solutions that FIFA can implement and get rid of the current officiating mentality which it has created. The game needs simple solutions, not an overhaul. Your 2-cents amigo, are worhtless IMHO. 

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