Penalty kicks as retributive justice -

Penalty kicks as retributive justice


In a former life I was a soccer goalkeeper. I was pretty good – strong shotstopping skills and good distribution, bit weak on positioning – but one thing I was never any good at was penalty kicks. I think I saved two pks in gameplay in my entire career. It wasn’t a big deal though, since you’re not really expected to.

The bulk of my activity took place before the rule change in 1997 that allowed keepers to move back and forth across the goal line before the shot is taken. That changed the equation a bit and allowed smart keepers to play a bit of head-games with the kicker (a tactic Craig Forrest used brilliantly in his career highlight, the 2000 Gold Cup). But things have evolved (as they always do in sport), and the heavy overbalance in favour of kickers never really went away. In international soccer, around 85% of penalty shots result in a goal. That contrasts with the success rate of the penalty shot in the NHL, which is much lower (the consensus stat seems to be around 30% success).

Which raises the question of what the point is of a penalty shot: Is it to attempt to restore something like the game’s status quo ante, i.e. put the fouled player back in the position he or she was in before being fouled? Or is to go further, and actually punish the offending team for breaking a fundamental rule of the game? The answer appears to depend on the sport in question. And it also reveals some interesting contrasts in the way different professional sports address the question of intramural justice.

The wsj reported last week about the growing controversy over the ‘paradinha’,  ­ the soccer penalty-shot tactic of doing a stutter-step or pause before striking the ball. The point is to freeze in mid-shot while the keeper takes a guess and dives left or right, and then casually dink the ball into the wide open net. It’s been around for ages (Pele did it a few times), but it has become increasingly popular since the 1997 rule change that allowed keepers to slide back and forth on the goal line before the penalty is taken. It is also most popular in Brazil, where this sort of trickery is considered an integral part of playing the game.

But not everyone agrees, and there are grumblings that the referees at the World Cup this summer should outlaw it on the grounds that it is ‘unsporting behaviour.’

I am of two minds on this. To begin with, I think it is interesting to see how the unwritten rules of sportsmanship, even in an age of globalized soccer, continue to vary from country to country, that what’s considered a creative maneuver in Brazil is seen as highly unsporting in Europe. I’m all for cultural differences in this regard, though it does seem that FIFA needs to decide once and for all whether this is something permitted or not in international play. Leaving up the referees discretion is a scandal looking for an occasion.

No, the real problem is that it is the penalty shot itself which is unsportsmanlike. With a success rate of 85% it is already such a gross mismatch in the striker¹s favour that I don’t see how much additional advantage is gained by permitting a bit of a fake-out; if anything, I suspect we’ll see the occasional embarrassment when a shot-taker pauses over the ball only to see the goalie standing calmly, waiting for a week one-legged kick from an out-faked faker.

But otherwise, I expect the penalty shot to continue to wreak havoc with the tactical nature of the game, for two reasons. First, because goals are so hard to come by in regular play, second, because a penalty shot has such a high success rate, and third, because one must be awarded for any direct foul inside the 18-yard box ­ the referee has no discretion here ­ it makes diving (or “simulation”) one of the most effective moves in the attacker’s arsenal. It doesn’t matter if you were hauled down from behind at the 8 yard line while on a breakway, or tripped by accident in the far corner of the box with your back to the goal, both get you a trip to the twelve-yard line for a pk, and what is pretty close to a free goal.

I can think of fewer rules in sport that have such an overwhelming impact on how the game is played, and play such a decisive role in determining the outcome of so many games. As such, I find the penalty kick in soccer one of the most unsportsmanlike elements in any sport. But maybe this is because I misunderstand the intent of the rule.

As in the law, penalties in sport can be either retributive or restorative. A restorative penalty is one that tries, as best it is able, to return the gameplay to the rough state it was in before the foul occurred. In contrast, a retributive penalty is one that actively punishes a player or a team for a breach of the rules, regardless of how it affects gameplay. An example of the first is the indirect kick in soccer awarded when one player impedes the progress of an opponent. In contrast, most penalties in hockey are retributive, in that every minor penalty, regardless of how it affected gameplay, results in a two-minute power play for the offended team.

I think that both types of penalty have their place in sports, but what is interesting is that while the penalty kick in soccer is clearly retributive, the penalty shot in hockey is restorative. It is awarded when, at the referees discretion, the player was fouled on a clear scoring opportunity, and it basically gives the player the open route to the ice that he or she had before the foul. The success rate of the penalty shot in hockey is about 30%, which is significantly (but not outrageously) higher than the 20% average success rate for the power play.

My feeling is that hockey has struck a better balance here than soccer has. Imagine if hockey were to change the rule, so that any minor penalty that occurs inside the blue line results in a penalty shot. Attackers would gain the zone at speed, race towards the defencemen, and promptly go down like they’d been poleaxed at the slightest contact, looking for a penalty.

I think that one of the single best rule changes that FIFA could make would be to eliminate the rule that a direct foul inside the 18 yard box is an automatic penalty kick. The awarding of a pk should be left to the referee’s discretion as it is in hockey; perhaps it could be tweaked so that only direct fouls inside the six yard box are pks, while outside it is discretionary, depending on whether the ref judges that it was a clear scoring opportunity or not.

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