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The penalty kick in soccer: An overview of criteria

Updated on July 15, 2011
A dramatic moment in football: The penalty kick
A dramatic moment in football: The penalty kick

There is, arguably, no moment in an association football (soccer) match than the penalty kick. When the referee blows the whistle and points to the penalty mark, the other team would get a free shot at goal. Only the goalkeeper stands in the kicker’s way.

The award of a penalty kick gives a significant advantage to the attacking team. However, there are certain criteria that must be satisfied altogether before a referee can award it. In FIFA’s Laws of the Game, “a penalty kick is awarded against a team that commits one of ten offences for which a direct free kick is awarded, inside its own penalty area and while the ball is in play."

Law 14 (The Penalty Kick) therefore outlines three basic stipulations for a PK:

The offence committed results in a direct free kick (as opposed to indirect free kick)

The opponent’s penalty area is where the offence must occur

The ball must be in play when the offence occurred

The direct free kick

Although it is a rare occurrence in football, an indirect free kick can be awarded within the penalty area. This can occur if the goalkeeper handles a back-pass or if dangerous play (not serious foul play) is committed within the penalty area. There are ten offences that can result in a direct free kick. Nine of the offences involve an opponent; the exception is deliberately handling the ball (by a player other than the goalkeeper in his own penalty area).

According to Law 12 of FIFA’s Laws of the Game, the ten offences that result in a direct free kick are as follows:

1. Trips or attempts to trip an opponent

2. Strikes or attempts to strike an opponent

3. Pushes an opponent

4. Tackles an opponent in an unfair manner

5. Charges an opponent

6. Jumps at an opponent

7. Kicks or attempts to kick an opponent

8. Spits at an opponent

9. Holds an opponent

10. Handling the ball deliberately (excluding the goalkeeper in his own penalty area)

It may seem redundant that the law specifies ‘an opponent,’ but strange things happen in football. For instance, a player might spit at his teammate in his own penalty area and while the ball is in play. The referee should send off the player. However, it would be unfair to penalize the team with a penalty kick for an offence between its players. In that case, a referee should award an indirect free kick to the opponent to restart play.


The penalty area is one of the most important areas of a football field. It is a rectangular box that is 792 yards (18 x 44) squared in area, extending 18 yards from each upright and 18 yards forward from the goal line. Once a foul punishable by a direct free kick occurs in this box while the ball is in play, a penalty kick should be awarded.

The boundary lines of the penalty area are included as part of the area as well. In some circumstances, a foul may occur outside the penalty area and continue inside of it. A classic case is that of holding an opponent. If a player continues holding an opponent inside the penalty area, his team should be penalized with a PK.

Ball in play

The ball is in play when the ball is on the field of play and play has not been stopped by the referee. At all other times, the ball is in play. Suppose a goalkeeper strikes an opponent in the goalkeeper’s penalty area, but the ball is in play one the other side of the field; it’s a penalty. However, if the ball was not in play, that would be misconduct. In such cases, the restart of play is determined by the prior decision of the referee (dropped ball, corner kick, goal kick, throw-in or penalty kick).

Once all three criteria are satisfied, then a penalty kick should be awarded and the drama will begin.


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