Opinion: Spot on the Penalty

by Brett Irvine

There’s nothing in this world I hate to see more than a player diving. As has been said many times before me, it brings the game into disrepute; it’s ill mannered and is just plain cheating. Players do it in all forms, and whilst there is a supposed clamp down on simulation, it’s becoming more and more rampant in the high paying, high reward professional leagues around the world. I don’t think football will ever be rid of it, but I do think there are some rules that can be changed to reduce its frequency – one example being a complete overhaul of the penalty.

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These days, a penalty is almost a sure goal. Players celebrate having won a penalty, crowds go nuts having seen their team give away a penalty, and goalkeepers howl in glory having saved a penalty. All in all, they are game changers, and so often, so much hangs on their outcome. A quick look at a definition of a penalty puts things into perspective: a penalty is given when there is a foul in the box. Simple enough, except that when one looks at individual situations, it becomes clear that the ruling is far too simple and non-specific to be of much practical use.

Take the example of a handball: a player takes a shot, and it strikes a defending player on the arm. A penalty is given, and with it an almost certain goal. Now, had the player’s arm not been there, there is a good chance the shot would have struck another part of the defender’s body, missed the goal, hit another defender, been saved by the keeper, or maybe have gone in the back of the net. With the penalty, all of these variables are removed, and it is reduced to keeper versus striker.

Example number two has the striker running onto a long ball, trying to round the keeper, the keeper coming out and diving at the striker’s feet, the striker knocking the ball ahead and taking a tumble over the keeper’s outstretched arms. More often than not in this scenario, the striker has absolutely no chance of retaining possession and being in a scoring position immediately prior to being taken down by the keeper. The penalty, however, gives him more than ample chance at grabbing a goal.

Example number three has the striker bearing down on goal with no-one in front of him but the goalkeeper. A defender is hot on his tail, and being too slow to catch him, simply kicks his legs out from under him, a metre or two from the edge of the box. In this scenario, the defender is sent off, but a free kick is given just outside of the box. A definite, almost certain, scoring chance is turned into a much less dangerous free kick with a wall of defenders to help the keeper out.

http://www.football-pictures.net/data/media/267/Grosso-Penalty_Position.jpgThere are various other scenarios, but I think all of these highlight the fact that the simple law regarding the penalty has too many applications to stretch evenly and fairly in a competitive football match, where potentially millions of dollars rest on the result. I am not necessarily pro technology when it comes to application of the law, but I do think video replays would help in scenarios where contact is uncertain and where the player is not necessarily bearing down on goal (a particular image of Steven Gerrard flinging himself away from goal whilst in the air at the merest of brushes from an opponent comes to mind) and where a penalty would give a certain scoring chance where there previously was none.

I think, perhaps, that changing the law to give an indirect free kick or a corner in the case of example number two, where the player has rounded the keeper but lost the ball, would better suit a free flowing game, and perhaps result in less players going down in those situations, and staying on their feet to find a supporting team mate. Respectively, limiting the number of players in the wall in example three would make the situation fairer. The obvious route, in my mind, is to change the penalty ruling; to lay down guidelines regarding whether the situation would have warranted a goal or definite scoring chance. If a certain goal or definite scoring chance was taken away by an opposing player, then a penalty is the right decision. If, however, there is no scoring chance, then an indirect free kick is the better option.

All in all, it’s not an easy change to make and no matter the direction in which the laws are taken, there will be controversy and dispute. However, I have no doubt that removing the certainty of a penalty in some ridiculous situations would reduce the need for players to fling themselves to the ground, rolling around and screaming as if they had ruptured muscles and shattered bones along every inch of their legs. Removing that would certainly make the game more fair, and it would give the game back some of that reputation it has been losing by the decade: that of The Gentleman’s Game.

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