What is a Penalty Kick in Soccer? Thrilling Twist

Penalty kicks, also known as penalties or PKs, provide some of the most exciting and dramatic moments in soccer. The teams are tied with minutes to go in the game.

The attacking team surges into the opposition penalty box, and one of their players is brought to the ground. The crowd roars, demanding a penalty. The referee blows his whistle and points to the spot. The crowd goes crazy!

What is a penalty kick in soccer?

Penalties are awarded when a player commits a foul in their own penalty box. The team awarded the penalty has a chance to take a shot on goal from 12 yards, striker vs goalkeeper, with all other players having to stay outside the box until the ball is struck. Penalty shoot-outs are often used in competitions to decide games that are tied. 

At this point, a goal hasn’t even been scored and the crowd is as excited as if one has. Ecstacy turns to nail-biting anticipation as the player places the ball on the penalty spot. It’s now 1 v 1, striker vs goalkeeper. 

No matter the outcome, the striker is glorified for snatching an all-important goal, or the goalkeeper is lauded as a hero for rescuing his team at the death. There is nothing quite like a penalty in a close soccer game. 

The referee makes penalty calls in-game, often assisted by a linesman or VAR | Image courtesy of Wikipedia

History of the Penalty Kick

In 1882, a law was introduced whereby a team was awarded a goal if they were prevented from scoring by a handball. This was to punish egregious defensive tactics that were previously gotten away with. Although this rule only lasted a single season, it was the catalyst for the implementation of the original penalty rule. 

The invention of the PK is largely credited to the former goalkeeper, William McCrum, from Armagh, Ireland. In 1890, he, along with the Irish Football Association, brought forward the idea to the IFAB (International Football Association Board) at a meeting. However, they deferred deliberation on the rule for next year’s meeting. 

Two major incidents of handball occurred the following season in quarter-final stages of the English and Scottish cups. In either game, blatant handballs were carried out, preventing goals being scored.

These incidents further helped the Irish FA with their argument as to why penalties needed to be introduced for such infractions. 

Penalties had to be introduced in the late 1890s due to serious infringements denying goals during goals | Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Penalty Kick Old Rules

On June 2nd, 1891, the first penalty kick law was introduced. However, it was a far cry from the rule of today. In summary:

  • Infringements such as tripping, holding down, or deliberate handballs within 12 yards from the defending player’s goalline (there were no penalty boxes at this time), upon appeal, resulted in the referee awarding a penalty kick to the team whom the foul was committed against. 
  • The PK could be taken from any position 12 yards from the goal line. 
  • All players other than the PK taker and the goalkeeper had to stand at least 6 yards behind the ball. 
  • The player could dribble the ball, rather than simply striking it.
  • A kick could be struck in any direction. 
  • The goalkeeper could stand up to 6 yards off his/her goal line. 
  • The ball was ruled in play as soon as the kick was taken.

Two significant adaptations were added to the rule shortly after its introduction, most notably:

  • The player could no longer dribble the ball to take the kick. As soon as the ball was touched, the taker could no longer kick the ball again until it was touched by another player.
  • The ball had to be kicked forward and the requirement for a penalty appeal was removed.

Over the following century, gradual changes were continually made, bringing PKs to where they are today.

PKs didn’t always exist, however. They were first introduced in 1890. Since then, we’ve seen many changes in what warrants a penalty, further repercussions, the rules surrounding the taking and saving of penalties, and of course, different techniques and methods of shooting them. Let’s take a look at all you need to know.

Penalty Kick New Rules

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

A backpass (where a goalkeeper handles a ball kicked or thrown to them intentionally by a teammate) is a foul in the penalty box but it doesn’t result in a freekick. Instead, an indirect freekick (a goal cannot be scored directly – it must touch another player or go out of play first) is awarded.

The Law

The ball must be in play for a penalty to be awarded and the following offenses can cause a penalty kick to be awarded, from the lawmakers at FIFA/IFAB;

To an opponent;

  • Pushing
  • Jumping/charging at
  • Kicks or attempting
  • Hitting or headbutting
  • Reckless play
  • Aggressive force
  • Holding/Impeding
  • Biting or spitting
  • Throwing an object

Hand Ball;

  • Deliberate – moving your arm towards the ball
  • Creating a goal-scoring chance
  • Arms are in an unnatural position
  • Arms above the shoulder

Not a Penalty;

  • You head the ball and hits your hand
  • From another player who is close to you
  • When the arm is close to the body
  • A player is on the ground and their arm is supporting them

Penalty Kick Strategy

  1. A penalty is taken from the penalty spot, no matter where in the penalty box the foul occurs. The penalty spot is located 12 yards from the center of the goal-line in the middle of the penalty box.  
  2. The designated taker must identify themselves to the referee.
  3. Only the goalkeeper and the taker are permitted to be in the penalty box before the penalty is taken.
  4. All other players must wait outside the box until the PK is taken.
  5. The GK may not step off the goal-line but they can move laterally along it.
  6. The referee blows the whistle to indicate that the kick can be taken.
  7. The kicker can feint during, but cannot stop their run-up once it’s begun.
  8. The ball must be kicked forward.
  9. Once the ball is touched, the penalty is officially taken and the other players can enter the penalty box.
  10. The kicker cannot touch the ball after taking the penalty until another player touches it or it goes out of play. Therefore, if the ball rebounds off the post or crossbar, the kicker may not score the rebound directly.
  11. It is legal to pass a penalty but all of the above rules still apply. The defending players have as much of a chance in getting to a passed penalty than the attacking team, so it is a risky maneuver. 
The legendary Johan Cruyff pulling off a perfectly executed penalty pass with Ajax in 1982.
Robert Pires and Arsenal making a mess of a penalty pass in the Premier League in 2005

How to Take a Penalty Kick: Technique

There are many techniques used for penalties, ranging from a classic low and hard drive to the audaciously cheeky “panenka”. From a defensive standpoint, there are also many techniques for saving penalties, although statistically, penalties are very difficult to save.

Some goalkeepers guess which side to dive before the penalty is taken, while others try to read the body language of the kicker. Some ‘keepers wait until the penalty is taken before moving, and some goalkeepers try to distract their opponents by waving their arms or pointing.

Have a look at some of the great, and not so great penalties throughout the years.

Some of the greatest penalties ever.
Penalty fails
Here’s one for the goalkeepers – the best penalty saves

Penalty Kick Shoot-Outs

Competitive soccer games are usually played in a league or knockout format. For league formats, if a game ends in a tie, each team is awarded 1 point. In a knockout format, where the game must have a winner, a penalty shootout is generally the decider if a game ends in a tie.

For the most part, when a game ends in a tie after 90 minutes, an extra 30 minutes (2 halves of 15 minutes) are played to determine a winner. If extra time cannot separate the teams, a penalty shootout takes place.

The earliest documented penalty shootout dates back to 1952 in the Yugoslav cup. Thousands more have taken place ever since. There are fewer more exciting and nerve-racking scenarios in soccer.

Penalty Kick Shootout Rules:

  • The shootout is the best of 5 penalty kicks.
  • A coin is flipped to decide which end the kicks will be taken.
  • A coin is then flipped to determine who takes the first kick.
  • All players other than the taker and the goalkeepers stand at the center circle of the pitch.
  • Each team takes 1 penalty each, then a second each, then a third, etc. up until a winner out of 5 is determined.
  • Each PK must be taken by a different player.
  • Only players who were on the field at the end of the game are eligible to take a PK. Subs or players who were sent off during the game are not permitted to take a PK.
  • The ball may only be kicked once – there are no rebounds.
  • If the scores are even after the pair of 5 penalties are taken, the shootout goes to sudden death.
  • If the scores are even and all players have taken a PK, the order resets and the shootout continues. 

Penalty shootouts are viewed as tiebreakers and so none of the penalties scored in a shootout are registered as official goals, and they are not added to the goal tally of the game. For example, a game that ends in a shootout may be recorded as:

penalties score Italy vs France 5-3
Screenshot of the 2006 World Cup Final, which ended in a penalty shootout

Although there is a huge element of skill involved in winning a penalty shootout, due to the “one-chance, one-shot” nature of each penalty, there is quite a bit of luck involved.

The weather, pitch conditions, a slip, a lucky guess from the goalkeeper, amongst other factors, can impact the outcome of a PK. That being said, few moments can match the thrill and drama of a shootout. It’s an enthralling way to end a game.

Many finals have been determined by penalty shootouts. Some of the most notable international competitions decided by PKs are:

Italy famously won the 2006 World Cup, defeating France in a penalty shootout | Image courtesy of Nazionale Calcio.
  • 1994 World Cup Final: Brazil 3-2 Italy
  • 1999 Women’s World Cup Final: USA 5-4 China
  • 2006 Wold Cup Final: Italy 5-3 France
  • 2011 Women’s World Cup Final: Japan 3-1 USA

Penalty Kicks – The Future

PKs are crucial to the game of soccer. Over the years, the rules and governing of the game have developed to the point where they are unlikely to change significantly in the future. In the last couple of years, the introduction of VAR (video assistant referee) has brought scrutiny onto referees and their decisions.

There have been several high profile penalty incidents that have caused controversy in the VAR era. However, the issues do not lie with penalties themselves, but with the reasons behind awarding them and the teething problems that the sport is enduring with the introduction of technology. 

Penalties, by their very nature, are dramatic and controversial. That is unlikely to ever change. Although luck plays a big part, penalty shootouts provide some of the most thrilling moments in every competition. The cruelty of a crushing shootout defeat can only be overcome by the relief and joy experienced by winning one. 

Here’s to many more moments of hysteria, nervous excitement, agony, thrills, and everything that comes with penalties and penalty shootouts.  For more useful guides, see the articles below or visit our home page.

What percentage of penalties are scored? The average scoring percentage of penalties is 75%.

Who is the best penalty taker ever? This question is up for debate. There have been many fantastic PK takers throughout the history of soccer. Statistically, penalties are being taken in every game so it’s not possible to pin-point the best taker. However, there are some noteworthy players: Matt Le Tissier, Andrea Pirlo, Zinedine Zidane, Cristiano Ronaldo, Alessandro Del Piero, Alan Shearer, Johan Cruyff, and Eric Cantona, to name a few.

What’re the most penalties ever awarded in a single game? The 1999 Copa America game between Colombia and Argentina holds this record. 5 penalties were awarded. That game also holds another record: Martin Palermo (Argentina) missed all three of his PKs, the most ever missed in a single game. Colombia won the game 3-0. 

What’s the longest PK shootout ever? 48 penalties were taken in a shootout between KK Palace and Civics in the 2005 Namibian cup. The final score was 17-16, with KK Palace winning. The highest scoring shootout took place in Argentina between Argentinos Juniors and Racing Club, where Argentinos Juniors won 20-19, after 44 penalties.

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