How and why to end penalty kicks as we know it

Good lord soccer drives me crazy.  Such a great game with abysmal organizations in charge and some really, really dumb rules.  Lots of appropriate controversy with the Women’s World Cup about the insane new handball rule.  The new rule say it’s a handball if the defender’s arms are out of the silhouette of the torso, unless preventing a fall.  This is insane!  Short version: defenders are apparently supposed to run at all times with hands behind their back.  Try running in a meaningfully athletic way and see where your arms are.  That’s right– out from your body.  I hate that soccer’s rulemakers see that as something to penalize.

But, even worse, is the gigantically outsized role of the penalty kick in a game with so little scoring.  I’ve long been making family and friends listen to my rant on this.  How nice to discover that a Yahoo sportswriter, Henry Bushnell, has basically the same take and proposed solution.  I love this:

The real problem here isn’t specific to handballs. It’s that when they occur in the area, the punishment doesn’t fit the crime.

That cross that Kirby hit on Sunday? Had it not been blocked, its expected value was still a tiny fraction of a goal. Because it happened to strike a Scottish arm, its worth multiplied exponentially, to roughly 0.75 goals – or whatever Nikita Parris’ penalty conversion rate is.

That, when you think about it, is completely absurd. It’s mind-bogglingly stupid. Illogical. Backwards.

The incentives are so perverse that players in Kirby’s position, or Sadio Mane’s eight days earlier, will soon come to realize: Aiming for an opponent’s arm is a more effective strategy than trying to pick out a teammate at the back post. Mane probably didn’t do that last Saturday, but he might as well have.

Is this how we want the beautiful game to be played?

A similar incentive already compels forwards to hurl themselves to the ground under minimal contact rather than have an off-balance shot at goal. It’s an awful trend – but, from a player’s perspective, a rational one.

The onus, therefore, isn’t on them to reform their ways. It’s on soccer’s lawmakers to rethink a rule that is only in place because, well, it has been since the 1890s. And because this sport is so senselessly resistant to change.

How the penalty rule should be overhauled

The penalty box is an extremely arbitrary thing. Why, for example, should a foul occurring here be a free kick from this exact position …

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… but a foul occurring here be an unobstructed one, 12 yards out from the center of the goal?

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The 18-yard box itself can remain for goalkeeper handling purposes. But any foul, handball or otherwise, that does not deny a clear goalscoring opportunity should simply be a direct free kick from the spot of the foul.

The only other tweak required would be an expansion of the definition of “denying a clear goalscoring opportunity,” enough to discourage pervasive tactical fouling. This would make punishments proportional to crimes.

Yes!!!  I couldn’t agree more.  In a game where one team scoring 3 goals is a lot, the idea that you give a .75-.8 chance at a goal for any foul in the penalty box, regardless of it’s likelihood of impacting a goal-scoring opportunity is beyond preposterous.  Just because something has been around since 1890 is soooo not a good reason to keep it.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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