The penalty kick has been a strange, unchallenged norm in football for over 100 years. It often rewards cheating, it encourages diving and it can decide a game when a player mistimes a challenge by a fraction of a second. The punishment is frequently far greater than the crime if, indeed, there has been a crime.
The introduction of VAR at the 2018 World Cup has generally been considered a success despite the long and very loud protests of some. The boys in the VAR room have come under the spotlight, most often when there has been a penalty claim, and the outcomes have not always met with universal agreement.
The first time a decision was made based on a VAR review, there were some furious reactions from Australia fans, as even repeated replays didn’t quite convince everyone that the referee had made the right call when Josh Risdon challenged Antoine Griezmann in their game against France. Since then, record numbers of penalties have been awarded, many after VAR consultations and rather innocuous handball offences. Australia benefited in their second match as Yussuf Poulsen was penalised when it certainly wasn’t a clear case of hand to ball.
One of the most questionable handball decisions following a VAR review came when Iran earned a late penalty against Portugal. The ball certainly hit Cedric Soares’ arm but he couldn’t even see the ball. This award pushed Portugal into second place in the group, earning them a tough Round of 16 clash with Uruguay, which they went on to lose.
Nigeria were furious when they were not awarded a penalty against Argentina after a VAR review ruled that Marcos Rojo had not deliberately handled the ball. And then there was Gerald Pique’s bizarre intervention against Russia. The Barcelona defender certainly had his hand in an unnatural position but blocked the ball with his back to the play. It seemed the correct decision but it was again argued that it couldn’t be hand to ball when the ball was not in his line of vision.
Wrestling in the penalty area
In addition to the handball controversies, VAR reviews have also been used to penalise wrestling in the penalty area, long a bug bear of many fans who feel that defenders are far too used to getting things their own way, while referees don’t hesitate to blow the whistle against the attacking team.
But calls for these kinds of fouls have been even more inconsistent. Javier Mascherano conceded a penalty against Nigeria after the referee consulted VAR, but Harry Kane got no reward when he was hauled down against Tunisia. And, most absurdly of all, the VAR control room apparently remained silent when two Swiss defenders dragged Serbia’s Aleksandar Mitrovic to the ground.
Penalty awards have been a guessing game for far too long and, while VAR has helped ensure that more correct decisions have been made, too many still leave much room for debate when the stakes are at their highest. It is time to reconsider the need to award a penalty for every foul that is committed in the penalty area. Does a team really deserve to concede a goal because the ball strikes a defender’s arm and the intention is impossible to ascertain?
When there is a wrestling match in the penalty area, it is often impossible for the referee to see who is pulling at who, and replays do not always help to clarify. This World Cup has seen so many matches and points decided on soft penalty kicks for handballs and fouls that could not be considered particularly cynical.
Two penalty kicks perhaps point the way towards the future. When Colombia’s Carlos Sanchez handled the ball against Japan, he was clearly trying to prevent a goal. Shinji Kagawa converted the resulting penalty and sent the Samurai Blue on their way to the victory that would lead to a place in the knockout stages.
Ante Rebic skillfully rounded Kasper Schmeichel in the dying minutes of extra time when he was brought down by Martin Jorgensen in Croatia’s last-16 clash with Denmark. Given Rebic looked certain to score before the foul, a penalty was clearly the right decision. The fact that Luka Modric then proceeded to miss the spot-kick seemed a slight injustice, just like Ghana striker Asamoah Gyan’s miss in the 2010 World Cup after Luis Suarez’s goal-line save had denied Dominic Adiyiah what would have been the winning goal.
These are offences which prevent a goal and favour the defending team because there remains a chance to save the penalty. However, it is the defenders who often suffer as the position of their arms can result in serious punishment or attacking players do their best to con the referee.
Cristiano Ronaldo clearly played for a penalty in Portugal’s clash with Spain, throwing himself to the ground before the defender Nacho Fernandez even had a chance to trip him. Ronaldo was rewarded and Spain went a goal down.
Imagine such a contribution had taken place in the dying moments of the World Cup Final.
A “right” to go down
It is now common for players to go down at the slightest contact and when the likes of Harry Kane and Gareth Bale insist it is their right to go down when contact is made, it is time the rules changed.
Imagine an end to players throwing themselves to the ground in the dying minutes when they need a goal. Imagine an end to players racing away from goal and then slamming on the brakes to force the defender in pursuit to collide with them causing ‘contact’ that gives the attacker ‘the right’ to go down. Imagine a dramatic reduction in the number of games decided on a referee’s error with or without VAR.
It is time for penalties to be awarded only for offences that seem to prevent a certain goal or a clear goalscoring opportunity. The rest should be free kicks, which will still mean a decent chance but not the 75-80 per cent opportunity that penalties seem to offer.
It is unlikely that FIFA will look at such a change to the rules any time soon as they congratulate themselves about the generally positive reaction to the use of VAR.
However, it would be a refreshing change to the game if the rules minimised the risk that games could be decided on some relatively innocuous and non-existent fouls. Even more refreshing would be seeing more attacking players stay on their feet in the penalty box and trying to score through honesty instead of deception.