What is a Penalty in Soccer?

Soccer (association football) is a fluid game with few interruptions. But, referees can blow their whistle and stop everyone in their tracks. Most of the time, a penalty is being called or a player is injured. Today, we will focus on penalties. I plan to explain the reasons for the general types of penalties and what happens after a foul is called. 

A penalty in soccer is when a player commits a foul that a referee deems as unfair or unsafe play. There are many types of penalties that can occur including minor offenses (indirect kick), major offenses (direct or penalty kick), cautionary (yellow card), and send off offenses (red card). Penalties are the sole discretion of the referee on the field. 

To learn more about penalties and how to avoid them, continue reading along!

What Causes a Penalty? 

The Laws of the Game spell out the rules for soccer (association football). This is the handbook for referees. Here you will find the answers to many questions! Throughout this article, I copied and paraphrased a few lists of offenses from the Laws of the Game. This is to give you the most accurate information. 

A stoppage of play can be called if the referee feels the player committed any of the following offenses:

  • Kicks or attempts to kick an opponent
  • Trips or attempts to trip an opponent
  • Jumps at an opponent
  • Charges an opponent
  • Strikes or attempts to strike an opponent
  • Pushes an opponent
  • Tackles an opponent
  • Holds an opponent
  • Spits at an opponent
  • Handles the ball deliberately (except for the goalkeeper within his/her own penalty area)

As you can see, there are many offenses a player can make. If caught, a referee blows the whistle to stop play and a penalty is called. Depending on the severity, a referee can award the opposing team with a direct, indirect, or penalty kick. So, what is that you might ask? Well, let’s dig a bit deeper.

Direct Kick

The official definition is a direct kick is awarded to any opposing team if a player performs any of the following actions against their opponent in a way that a referee would consider careless, reckless or using excessive force. In simple terms, direct kicks come from a contact foul or a handball. One example of this a defending player attempts to slide tackle and makes contact with the attacking player

So now that you know what a direct kick is, what does it look like? A direct kick means that the team who received the foul can score by kicking the ball directly into the goal. Therefore, if the foul happens close to goal outside of the penalty box, this means the attacking team can have a shot on goal. This is a big advantage for older teams as they gain power and lift the ball off the ground. 

From a coach or parent perspective, look to the referee’s hand signals to understand what is going on. After a direct kick penalty is called, the referee will lift his or her arm towards the goal. 

Penalty Kick

The penalty kick is a type of direct kick that creates a whole lot of excitement. A penalty kick is when contact is made within the penalty box. In this situation, the affected team or the one who benefited from the foul is allowed to take a single shot on goal with the goalkeeper as the only defender. 

Indirect Kick

In more minor fouls, an indirect kick is awarded. Here are a few instances where a penalty would be called and an indirect kick would take place. If a player:

  • plays in a dangerous manner 
  • impedes the progress of an opponent without any contact being made 
  • is guilty of dissent, using offensive, insulting or abusive language and/or gestures or other verbal offenses 
  • prevents the goalkeeper from releasing the ball from the hands or kicks or attempts to kick the ball when the goalkeeper is in the process of releasing it 
  • commits any other offense, not mentioned in the Laws, for which play is stopped to caution or send off a player

For an indirect kick, the kicking team can not score by kicking directly at the goal. The ball must be touched by another player before a goal is counted. This means the person kicking the indirect kick must touch by a second person. When an indirect kick is granted, the referee will raise his hand to the sky similar to the picture below.

Yellow and Red Cards

Direct and indirect kicks are the most commonly seen penalties and fouls during a soccer game. A referee has more tools available to them. Yellow and red cards are used to take disciplinary actions versus team officials or players. A yellow card is used to caution a player, while a red card is used to send off a player. Two yellow cards equal one red card. 

The reasons to receive a yellow card include: 

  • delaying the restart of play
  • dissent by word or action 
  • entering, re-entering or deliberately leaving the field of play without the referee’s permission 
  • failing to respect the required distance when play is restarted with a corner kick, free kick or throw-in
  • persistent offenses (no specific number or pattern of offenses constitutes “persistent”) 
  • unsporting behavior
  • entering the referee review area (RRA)

The red card is the final straw. No one wants to see the red card pulled from the referee’s pocket. It means someone is getting sent off the pitch. It usually takes a lot to receive a red card and most youth coaches never have to worry about it. 

However, it is good to know the reason why a referee would call a penalty. The reasons are as follows: 

  • denying the opposing team a goal or an obvious goal-scoring opportunity by deliberately handling the ball (except a goalkeeper within their penalty area)
  • denying a goal or an obvious goal-scoring opportunity to an opponent whose overall movement is towards the offender’s goal by an offense punishable by a free kick (unless as outlined below). 
  • serious foul play
  • biting or spitting at someone 
  • violent conduct
  • using offensive, insulting or abusive language and/or gestures
  • receiving a second caution (yellow card)  in the same match 
  • entering the video operation room (VOR)

One caveat to these rules is the goalkeeper has their own set of rules. Since they are the only player on the field to use their hands, they abide by a different rulebook. Check out this article about goalkeepers if you want to learn the ins and outs of goalkeeper specific rules.

How Can Your Team Avoid Penalties?

Now that we know what types of penalties there are. Let’s chat a bit about how we can prevent them. The best way to avoid penalties is to setup great practices. Once your players know the rules and what to expect, you can reduce a lot of silly fouls against your team. Leadership starts at the top so you can get ahead of it before it gets out of control. There are several steps to take to keep your players out of trouble during game time. 

  • Players shouldn’t argue with the referees. Decisions are to be respected by players, coaches, and fans. Refs have a job to do. Show by example for players to model your behavior. 
  • Teach proper defending drills to avoid reckless, careless, and excessive force. Players are allowed to be physical. Soccer is a contact sport, just in the correct way. Players can bump, lean or go rub shoulders while battling for the ball. This isn’t a foul unless their hands or elbows get involved. 
    • Make sure you teach proper technique on slide tackles. This is a common source of direct kicks and yellow cards. 
  • The use of hands shouldn’t be permitted. You practice how you play. During practice, let players know of fouls they committed. 

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