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On VAR, Penalties at the World Cup, and the Future of Football

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While largely successful, VAR has also highlighted frustrating inconsistencies and the subjective nature of awarding penalties.

Sweden v Switzerland: Round of 16 - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

We’ve all heard the cliches surrounding the awarding of a controversial penalty, often spouted on Match of the Day from former players and refs.

“I’ve seen it given.”

“It’s a bit soft.”

“There’s contact, but it’s not a pen for me.”

That’s all fine, but what does the law actually say? According to the Laws of the Game (p. 117):

A penalty kick is awarded if a player commits a direct free kick offense inside their penalty area or off the field as part of play as outlined in Laws 12 and 13.

O...K... And a “Direct free kick offense is? (p. 101-102)

A direct free kick is awarded if a player commits any of the following offences against an opponent in a manner considered by the referee to be careless, reckless or using excessive force:

• charges

• jumps at

• kicks or attempts to kick

• pushes

• strikes or attempts to strike (including head-butt)

• tackles or challenges

• trips or attempts to trip

If an offence involves contact it is penalised by a direct free kick or penalty kick.

• Careless is when a player shows a lack of attention or consideration when making a challenge or acts without precaution. No disciplinary sanction is needed

• Reckless is when a player acts with disregard to the danger to, or consequences for, an opponent and must be cautioned

• Using excessive force is when a player exceeds the necessary use of force and/or endangers the safety of an opponent and must be sent off

A direct free kick is awarded if a player commits any of the following offences:

• handles the ball deliberately (except for the goalkeeper within their penalty area)

• holds an opponent

• impedes an opponent with contact

• bites or spits at someone

• throws an object at the ball, opponent or match official, or makes contact with the ball with a held object

As for the dreaded “was it a handball or ball-to-hand?” question (looking at you Jonas Eriksson):

See also offences in Law 3 Handling the ball Handling the ball involves a deliberate act of a player making contact with the ball with the hand or arm. The following must be considered:

• the movement of the hand towards the ball (not the ball towards the hand)

• the distance between the opponent and the ball (unexpected ball)

• the position of the hand does not necessarily mean that there is an offence

This is all to say that while the laws of the game give a lot of leeway to the match official, the laws do not give nearly as much leeway as is often given.

Simply, if it is a foul outside the box, it should be a penalty inside the box. But anyone who has watched more than a half of football knows that this is not how the game is actually called. Hence the idiocy, usually spouted by the likes of Alan Shearer, “there’s contact, but it’s not a pen for me.”

Of course part of the problem with awarding a penalty is how the punishment often doesn’t seem to fit the crime. A careless foul inside the box during a situation which may have had a slim chance of eventually becoming a goal, suddenly has an excellent chance once the ref points to the spot. It instinctively feels harsh in many cases, and therefore human nature kicks in, counterbalancing this “harshness” with effectively different standards for fouls in and outside of the area. It is especially incumbent on a referee to get these decisions correct because of how important goals are in football in comparison to other sports. An incorrect decision in American football, basketball, baseball, etc, is rarely the reason for a particular result, but it often can be in football.

Whether consciously or subconsciously, no ref wants to be seen as making a decision that changes the game. In a snap decision, seeing (or in the case of most Premier League refs, not seeing) an incident at full speed live, this natural bias to not award a penalty, to not be “the reason” why X team won, often forces the ref (Jon Moss not withstanding) into inaction. This is a fallacy, of course. Not awarding a penalty is just as important of a decision as awarding one, even if it doesn’t “feel” that way.

The disparity between the letter of the law and the on-pitch application of it creates a lot of problems for the sport. When left to the whim of the referee, it creates the perception of unequal application of the law, and can lead to accusations of bias. Perhaps it is such a problem that the very notion of when a penalty needs to be awarded should be more fully fleshed out, with either a rule change or more precise language.

Regardless, VAR seems to be going a long way toward alleviating many of these inconsistencies. The 2018 World Cup already surpassed the record number of penalties awarded, with surely more on the way. It gives referee’s a “safety net” of sorts—allowing them to make controversial calls (or no calls!) with the knowledge that any egregious errors will likely be reviewed and overturned. This World Cup, while not immune from curious (and downright shitty) refereeing decisions, is at least closer to an even and fair application of the rules, especially pertaining to penalties and offside goals.

The rules for the awarding of a penalty still probably need to be clarified in some way. Handballs are a particularly wide grey zone of ambiguity, and you can argue for days whether a hand was in a “natural” position, and whether the player was too close to avoid contact.

If anything, VAR has helped highlight the above “laws of the game” and begs the question of how they can be improved. We’ve seen what the game can look like when the ref points to the spot at a rate that is higher than the historical average, and frankly, it’s not so bad (especially given the generally dull and defensive nature of the international game).

VAR is a tool. Like any tool, it is only as good as the people who use it, and they system in which it is used. It is on us to ensure that the game is better for its inclusion. So far, during this small sample of the past several weeks, I think it has.