What Are Penalties In Soccer?

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Soccer isn’t for the faint at heart. Accidents happen, and games often take fast turns for the unknown.

I’d say, “that’s all part of the fun.” Right?

Still, there’s one thing that always seems to get players and spectators revved up – penalties.

Penalty kicks (PKs) are one of the most common events you’ll find in a match. But if you’re new to the game, you might feel a bit lost midway.

In this article, we’ll talk about the rules for penalty kicks and uncover the secrets to making the best shots on the pitch.

Check it out.

Penalty Kicks Explained

Whenever a player commits a foul within their team’s penalty box, the referee has the right to sanction a penalty kick. Yet, fouls only count if the ball is in play at the time of the incident.

Once the referee blows the whistle, the defending team gets the opportunity to score into their opponent’s area before the game can continue.

It may sound like an easy goal, but players often argue that point. Standing directly in front of the goal can make it challenging to take a good shot. Even penalties require some strategy from the kicker.

Penalty Kicks Law In Soccer

There are many conflicting opinions as to what causes a penalty kick. The final say, however, goes to the referee. They use the laws of the game to guide their judgment, so their decision is hardly ever biased.

Not all fouls render penalty kicks. Instead, referees can issue a yellow or red card for poor game etiquette, violent behavior, disrespect, and indecent language on the field.

Red cards are for extremely offensive actions. Team members could also earn them if they have repeated yellow-card incidents. In those cases, the player gets kicked out of the match.

“FIFA stands for discipline, respect, fair play, not just on the field of play, but in our society as well.” Sepp Blatter.

The rules give a clear indication of the kinds of incidents that could result in a penalty. Generally, they’ll involve some misdemeanor against a member of the attacking team. Referees will call out a player if he catches them,

  • Kicking;
  • Tripping;
  • Pushing;
  • Headbutting;
  • Hitting;
  • Biting;
  • Tackling;
  • Jumping;
  • Holding; or
  • Spitting at their opponent.

They may also call for a penalty kick if a player touches the ball with his hands – only goalkeepers have that right.

No doubt, these seem like regular offenses on the field. But your position in the match makes all the difference. Remember, any offenses within the penalty area will cause the referee to rule for a pk.

How to Take a Penalty Kick in Soccer

  1. A player within the penalty box commits a foul punishable by a pk.
  2. The referee will signal the identified kicker to take the penalty.
  3. The player taking the pk must position himself at the penalty spot (12 yards away from the center of the goal line).
  4. Only the shooter and the goalie will remain in the penalty box. All other players will stand outside the penalty area until the referee awards the kick. Anyone found beyond the bounds of the penalty arc is an encroacher.
  5. As usual, no outside agent can enter the field during the game.
  6. The referee blows the whistle to signal the start of the penalty play.
  7. The goalie can only move along the goal line during the pk.
  8. Goalkeepers use tactics to throw the kicker off focus. So aside from making a direct kick, the taker also has to ignore their dancing opponent.
  9. The kicker can choose to feint during the pk as a strategy, but they must continue their run-up to kick the ball.
  10. The referee awards the penalty once the ball touches. The rest of the team can now resume their positions beyond the penalty mark.
  11. The penalty shooter cannot touch the ball before another player starts making contact with it. If the ball rebounds, they won’t be able to make a direct kick again.

Penalty Rules: Old vs. New

The very first set of penalty rules surfaced in 1891 to deter the high incidence of fouls on the field. We’ve come a long way with the laws since then.

Over the years, the International Football Association Board made gradual pushes to create a more professional game. I can’t deny that the game is much stricter now, but the new laws brought fair plays to the field.

If you’ve been following soccer history, you’ll notice their changes to the following:

Goal Line

Penalty boxes are a more recent addition to the field marks. Before, any of the above offenses committed within 12 yards from the defender’s goal line would result in a penalty.

Penalty Spot

There was no penalty spot. The pk taker could kick the ball from any point, so long as they stood 12 yards from the goal line.

Player Restrictions

Other players on the field would stand at least 6 yards from the ball. New regulations forbid other members from being within the penalty box during the play. Therefore, only the goalkeeper and penalty taker should be within the penalty area.

Goalkeeper Positions

Initially, the goalie could remain up to 6 yards away from their goal line. But all modern soccer lovers know that our goalkeepers can’t leave that mark anymore. At least one foot has to remain on the goal line throughout the game.

Penalty Shots

Perhaps the penalties were much easier to score back then. The designated penalty taker could kick the ball in any direction. They could even dribble it before making the play.

Today, the rules are much tighter. For example, the ball can only be kicked forward, whether you’re trying to score directly or otherwise.

Penalty Award

The penalty kick is awarded once the ball makes contact. Although, initially, they’d call the penalty as soon as the player took the shot.

Techniques for Taking Penalties

It’s safe to say that most soccer players could be undercover psychologists. A successful match has more to do with the mind and deception than mere physical skills. The proof is in our most popular penalty techniques.

Here’s a rundown:

The Low Kick

Goalkeepers often try to gauge the direction of an incoming ball based on the shooter’s body language. Still, saving penalties isn’t an easy task.

Most players succeed by making a hard hit toward the lower sides of the net. Unfortunately for them, goalies can’t quickly stop low-lying balls at high velocities. 

If you’re planning to try this move, be sure to walk with a pair of lightweight, low traction shoes to improve the quality of your shot.

The Panenka

Typically, the goalie expects the shooter to either kick left or right into the goal. However, in a panenka, the penalty taker gives the ball a gentle kick on its underside, sending it up in the air and directly into the center of the goal.

Ballers first saw this technique in action during the finals of the 1976 UEFA Championship. Antonin Panenka scored official soccer history with his move.

Penalty Kick Shootouts

Let’s start by getting the facts straight:

There are two main kinds of competitive soccer games. Teams could either play by leagues or knockouts.

What’s the difference?

At the end of a league, each team gets awarded 1 point for a tie. On the other hand, knockouts don’t typically end in ties. Not to be dramatic, but we must have a winner.

Copa America and FIFA World Cup are all for the win! Why else would we feel the need to go shirtless in the bleachers?

The officials can weed out the champion by either:

  • Granting an extra 30 minutes to end the game.
  • Issuing a penalty shootout.

The penalty kick shootout isn’t the first resort. However, the referee will agree to it if the teams can’t fair out a winner after the extra time runs out.

Since the shootout serves as a tie-breaker, the scored penalties don’t contribute to the final tally.

Here’s how it works:

  1. The players flip a coin to determine into which goal the ball gets kicked.
  2. They flip another to decide who gets the first shot.
  3. Only the goalkeeper and shooter will remain in the penalty box. All other team members will stand outside the penalty area, at the center of the field.
  4. The teams alternate turns to shoot penalties. A different player makes each shot from the penalty mark. However, only active players at the end of the game can participate.
  5. Penalty shootouts don’t involve rebounds, so players can only kick the ball once.
  6. The best out of 5 will win. If the scores still have a tie at the end of the shootout, the teams will go into sudden death.
  7. If sudden death doesn’t resolve the tie, then the shootout will restart from ground zero.

Rules for Penalty Shootouts

Player Substitutions

Leagues usually prep for penalty shootouts long in advance. They may even select their best five shooters during training. But chances are, not all of those guys will be on the field at the end of the game.

Players could get kicked out, injured, or suspended in the middle of the match. And since the law only permits active teammates to partake in the shootout, your team may be out of luck.

Ergo, you can’t call on your best player if they already have substitutes on the field.

On the contrary, teams can substitute their goalies if they get hurt during the shootout. The goalkeeper can’t return to the game after that.

Sometimes, the leagues end up with an odd number of players for the penalty. When that happens, the larger team has to let go of one or more of their players to match the size of their opposing group.

All in the name of fairness.

Other Useful Soccer Articles

Shootout Offenses

Shootouts offer a clean slate to all members on the field. None of their offenses during the actual game will count during the penalty. But that doesn’t leave them off the hook.

The referee can still issue yellow and red cards during the shootout. The list of possible offenses is also the same.

Not all players suffer similar consequences, though. Here’s what to expect on the pitch:


Player Committing the Offense 



Warning on the first attempt; caution on second. Retake the penalty.


Caution from the referee. The penalty goes down as a missed kick.

Both Shooter and Goalkeeper

The shooter receives a caution, but the penalty goes down as a missed kick.

Famous Penalty Incidents

Soccer has a history of tight tie-breakers – the kind that makes you burst out in tears in front of the television. So here’s a list of our top 3 matches :

  • World Cup Finals (1994): Brazil defeats Italy; 3-2
  • World Cup Final (2006): Italy defeats France; 5-3
  • World Cup Quarterfinals (2006): Portugal beats England; 3-1

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Can a goalie take a penalty kick?

Yes. Though it’s not common, goalkeepers can end up taking the penalty for their team.

Can anyone take a penalty kick in soccer?

Only the designated shooter and the opposing goalie can be in the penalty area. But let’s not forget that as many as five active players can take turns in a shootout for their teams.

Is winning a penalty an assist?

An assist only counts when a pass results in a direct goal. A penalty does not award an assist, primarily since it doesn’t involve any passes.

What is the difference between a free-kick and a penalty kick in soccer?

Players get awarded a free-kick for offenses outside the penalty area. A penalty kick means that a direct free kick occurred within the penalty arc.

However, if an indirect free-kick offense happens within the penalty box, it will count as a free-kick instead of a penalty.

What is the difference between a direct free-kick and an indirect free-kick?

As the name suggests, a shooter makes a direct shot into the goal to qualify as a direct free-kick.

Another teammate needs to touch the ball for an indirect free-kick before it can count in the goal.

The Final Whistle

We’ll have to keep an open mind for the future of penalty kicks. There’s no telling what will come next with so many variations to the rules thus far.

Though one thing is sure: the games get more exhilarating with each new twist.

Ever taken a penalty kick or played during a shootout? Tell us about it in the comments.

James Cunningham
James Cunningham
James lives in Chicago with his wife and three daughters. Originally from the UK, soccer has allowed him to travel the world. Now a youth coach, he fully enjoys teaching others about the game that he loves so much. His favorite team is Manchester United.