28 March 2023



Sports Business



Penalty kicks are the greatest duality in soccer: physically it is simple, score from 12 yards out. However, mentally, the act of scoring a spot kick is one of the most challenging feats, plaguing even the game’s biggest stars (except, perhaps, Matt Le Tissier).


Mexican film director Carlos Cuarón poetically described penalties as “The only moment football really stops is with a penalty kick - and that is a moment that is really dramatic. A penalty kick becomes a Western duel. It's two guys facing each other. Destiny and potential death, whether metaphorical or literal.”


Generally speaking, a penalty kick is awarded by a referee when a player commits a foul in their own penalty box. Different types of fouls include a handball, a trip, a push, pulling the oppositions player’s jersey, a kick, a high-foot, and other serious fouls.


There are many techniques used for penalties, ranging from a classic low and hard drive to the audaciously cheeky “Panenka” made famous by Antonín Panenka, with the most famous kick of his career. Who could forget seeing the first Panenka in the 1976 European Championship between Czechoslovakia and West Germany to allow Czechoslovakia to seal the title.


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While everyone may know the basic details around how a penalty is taken, there are some finer nuances to this aspect of the beautiful games. Subtleties hidden deep within the rules. Subtleties which, if not properly recognized and applied, can potentially end seasons in an instant.


This past weekend’s CAF competitions were a timely reminder of that.


Penalties and African Soccer in 2022


African soccer is no stranger to the drama inherent in a penalty kick. The image of Luis Suárez wildly celebrating Asamoah Gyan’s miss at 2010 FIFA World Cup, a miss which ensured Ghana would not be the first African team to reach the semi-finals of the tournament, will live long in the memory.


This year alone, Senegal won the African Cup of Nations by defeating Egypt in a penalty shootout. A few months later they promptly repeated that feat against Egypt, this time to qualify for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.


All of South Africa’s representatives in CAF competitions experienced some form of penalty drama this past weekend.


Themba Zwane’s miss for Mamelodi Sundowns ensured they suffered a third successive quarter-final elimination in the CAF Champions League.


Orlando Pirates won a dramatic penalty shootout against Simba in the CAF Confederations Cup.


Pitso Mosimane’s two-time defending champions Al Ahly could have had their title-defense scuppered by a missed penalty.  Tunisian left-back Ali Maâloul had his penalty saved and the rebound was knocked away before he could get a chance at the follow up. This was a second consecutive penalty miss in the tie for the reigning African champions. However, the penalty procedure itself raises a few eyebrows, as this image shows:


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The Raja Casablanca player (in white) is clearly in the box and almost in line with the referee. This was the same player who denied the rebound, something which the positional head start clearly helped with. Yet the referee did not blow the whistle for an encroachment. He can be forgiven for not calling such a foul against the home team, inside a boisterous and 65,000-packed Stade Mohammed V stadium. Al Ahly would go on to score and progress to the semi-finals, so no harm no foul, right? However, these split-second decisions are the kind on which entire seasons can turn. It therefore raises the question of what exactly is a "proper" penalty kick, and how should they be enforced?


Penalties under the Laws of the Game


The International Football Association Board is the body that determines the Laws of the Game (the “Laws”) of association football. The Laws are “a crucial foundation of the ‘beautiful game’ and a vital feature of the ‘spirit’ of the game.”


Law 14 is titled ‘The Penalty Kick’ and deals with the procedure of a spot kick, and the various offences and sanctions for failure to observe that procedure.


The ball must be stationary on the penalty mark and the defending goalkeeper must remain on the goal line, facing the kicker. A player may kick or backheel the ball, provided that the ball moves forward. When the ball is kicked, the defending goalkeeper must have at least part of one foot touching, or in line with, the goal line.


Crucially, the players other than the kicker and goalkeeper must be:

  • at least 9.15 m (10 yds) from the penalty mark;
  • behind the penalty mark
  • inside the field of play; and
  • outside the penalty area.


Encroachment is thus an offense because it allows for the defending team a greater chance of defending would-be rebounds. However, encroachment is not the only offense, as this table illustrates:


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There is thus a multitude of variables which a referee is forced to consider on each and every penalty kick, let alone dealing with the outside noise of the home fans. In the era of VAR, one would hope that any missteps are identified.




Penalties are beautiful in their simplicity, yet ugly in their complex enforcement. A single stationary moment is punctuated by infinite possibilities as to what can go right, and what can go wrong. The canvas is a mere 12 yards, but for many who step up to take a spot kick, it can seem much, much, further. The players who are true artists, like Karim Benzema, will merely relish such a challenge.

- By Shane Wafer And Nick Flowers