Friday, July 06, 2012

Why are soccer penalties so harsh?

There are lots of things I don't like about soccer, but one in particular bothers me the most.  It's the way penalties are so harsh.

As I understand it, if you commit a foul while the opposing player is dangerously close to your goal -- that is, in the "box," or "area", an 18-yard by 44-yard rectangle in front of the goal -- he gets a penalty kick from 12 yards in front of the net.  On those penalty kicks, he's almost assured of scoring.  The conversion rate is over 80 percent.

That's the case for *any* foul in the box.  Touching the ball with your arm, even inadvertently, or stepping on the ball handler's heel while challenging, costs you 80 percent of a goal.  Even if it wasn't a serious scoring chance -- maybe the player was at the top of the box, with five defenders still to beat -- it's 80 percent of a goal.

I mentioned this to a friend of mine, a big soccer fan.  His response was: yes, it's true that the penalties are harsh.  But, *because* they're so harsh, players know they have to be extra careful when defending in the box.  Players know that they have to keep their arms fully touching their body (in which case a hand ball is not an offense), and they know that they have to take very, very good care not to make contact with the player they're shadowing. 

Effectively, my friend says, the harsh penalties act to keep the game clean and fair and beautiful.  And, if a defender steps on a foot by accident, it's still his own fault -- he should have been much more cautious.

Well, I don't buy it. 

To me, it's like the death penalty for speeding.  If you execute drivers for doing 66 in a 65 zone, you're going to get very, very careful drivers, and almost no violations.  But, sometimes, a driver will forget for a moment, and exceed the limit, and be executed. 

It seems like a high price to pay, in terms of justice.  Even if the new law actually saves lives, by preventing more fatal accidents than it creates capital offenses, it still doesn't seem right.

One of the most important things, in sports, is that the winner of the game should appear to be determined predominantly by which played better overall, rather than by which one got lucky.  The "80 percent of a goal" rule violates that principle.

For instance, suppose, in baseball, you painted a two-foot circle on the first deck in right field.  And you changed the rules to say, if a home run hits that target, that team instantly wins the game. 

That wouldn't be good, would it?  Yes, it takes skill to hit a home run, and, yes, it takes skill to aim towards the target in hopes of hitting it.  But ... it still feels like cheating if you win that way.  It's just too random.  Even though, in the long run, the better teams will hit the target more often than the worse teams, on any given occasion, it seems like it's arbitrary and fake.

The soccer penalties feel the same to me. 

Any time your opponent has the ball near your goal, it's a serious situation, and you have to defend.  You have to challenge for the ball as best you can, without actually committing a foul.  But, sometimes you're going to commit the foul anyway, despite your best efforts.  Nobody's perfect. 

It's a game theory situation.  Maybe, by challenging aggressively and carefully, 99 percent of the time, you save .01 goals.  But, 1 percent of the time, you wind up committing a foul and costing your team .80 goals.  It's still worth it: for every 100 challenges, you wind up .19 goals ahead, overall.

But ... that one time, where you wind up stepping on the guy's foot or putting your elbow on the ball by accident ... well, those come up randomly.  And they change the game.  Eight-tenths of a goal is a lot, especially in soccer, where a 2-2 game is an offensive explosion.

Here's a video from a Euro 2012 match, where an Italian defender had the ball contact his arm.  Yes, it's a foul, and, yes, it was right in front of the net, but ... it just doesn't seem worth an entire goal, which is what the Germans got out of it.  Fortunately, it didn't decide the game; Italy won 2-1 instead of 2-0.  But, it could have, and it just seems ridiculous to me.


In defense of the soccer death penalty, you could argue that, if these fouls are so random, and so important, how come the better team wins so often?  The home field advantage in soccer, which serves as a pretty good proxy for how much skill affects the outcome, is quite high -- between 60 percent (Asia/Africa) and 69.1 percent (USA) (according to "Scorecasting").  That's higher than all four major North American pro sports.  Only NCAA basketball (68.8 percent) and football (63 percent) are in the same league.

That suggests that even though the overharsh penalties are random, they aren't affecting the outcomes much.


There are, of course, other arguments, on both sides.

I might say, there is more to fairness than just that the better team win a certain proportion of the time.  Otherwise, we could eliminate a bunch of games, by taking the Vegas odds, choosing a random number, and not playing the game at all.  That wouldn't do.  We need to feel that the winning team *deserved* to win.  The random fouls upset that expectation. 

To which a critic might say: soccer isn't really that much different from other sports.  Bill Buckner's error, in 1986, was at least as important to that game as a single penalty kick -- and errors by first basemen are even rarer than hand balls.  Why am I ignoring that case, and so many others in other sports?

To which I respond, the problem isn't just the rareness and randomness.  It's the injustice of the rules.  In baseball, we didn't arbitrarily punish Buckner for missing the grounder, by declaring the Mets winners as a punishment.  It's just a natural consequence of the principle that if you don't make the out, a run might score.  Buckner's situation is not like the death penalty for speeding.  It's more like nature's death penalty for losing control of your car and driving off a cliff.


Or, I might argue, maybe many games *are* affected by the absurd punishments, despite the HFA appearing to be so high.  How do we know that the HFA wouldn't go up to 70 percent, or 75 percent, if the punishments were more suited to the crimes? 

A reasonable response might be: the more you're in the other team's box, the more penalties you're going to induce.  Therefore, the stronger team is going to wind up with more opportunities for penalty kicks than the weaker team, just because they have the ball so much more.  Since goals in soccer are so hard to score, the penalties actually provide an extra bonus reward for dominating the play, which might actually reduce randomness of outcome, not increase it.

And, actually, now that I think about it, I think that might be right.  But, still, it's not fair.  It's like drawing a playing card every time a team penetrates the box, and if it comes up the queen of spades, you give them 0.8 goals.  Statistically, it works to the benefit of the stronger team, but, morally, it's not in keeping with the ideals of sport, that the consequences of a foul should be proportionate to the act.


OK, one more counterargument.  It's possible that discouraging fouls so disproportionately is what makes the better team win so often -- not because of goals scored on penalties, but because it discourages aggressive challenges.  This allows the better team to dominate.  If physical contact were allowed, or, at least, accepted (like in hockey, say), it would be too easy to counter the better team's skill, and defend against goals.  If that dropped overall scoring in half -- when it's already very low compared to other sports -- the inferior team would have a much better chance of securing a draw, or a freak win.

I think that counterargument is true.  But is it worth sacrificing "justice" in a single game, in exchange for improving statistical "justice" over a season?  Is it worth killing an occasional speeder to keep the roads safer and more enjoyable?

Not to me.  



At Friday, July 06, 2012 12:13:00 PM, Blogger j holz said...

It's been awhile since I've read Scorecasting, but I do remember some terrible math in it (their calculation of the Cubs' chances of not winning the World Series in 100 years was particularly awful).

Does the book mention how they handle ties? Since such a high proportion of soccer games end up tied, it seems obvious to me that HFA should appear higher in soccer if we consider only wins and losses. (think about what would happen to HFA in hockey if ties were thrown out instead of being decided by a short 4-on-4 overtime or a shootout, which are nearly 50-50 propositions.)

At Friday, July 06, 2012 12:17:00 PM, Anonymous Woods said...

"How do we know that the HFA wouldn't go up to 70 percent, or 75 percent, if the punishments were more suited to the crimes?"

Bingo. Soccer has something as ridiculously random as PKs, yet it remains one of the least noisy games. It's attempting to disguise a flaw in the game. There's not enough noise.

At Friday, July 06, 2012 7:50:00 PM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

j holz - I'm not 100% certain, but I think the Scorecasting numbers scored a tie as half a win.

At Friday, July 06, 2012 11:36:00 PM, Anonymous Stefan Szymanski said...

Penalties may be harsh, but they don't appear to affect the expected outcome of a game. In Soccernomics we looked at the outcome of 1520 games, in which 19% had at least one penalty awarded (two or more in a game is very rare). We then compared the success rates of (a) home teams and (b) the favorite to win based on bookmaker odds. We were unable to reject the hypothesis that the proportion of wins were identical whether or not a penalty was awarded. There's a straightforward explanation - to win a penalty you have to be in possession of the ball in the opponent's penalty area. The more often you do that the more often you are likely to score a goal, whether or not you get a penalty.

Way back in the 50s a statistician called Charles Reep realized something similar to this and devised a strategy of always kicking the ball into the opponent's third of the pitch when you got possession. Sadly lots of English coaches were persuaded by this fallacy, which made for some terrible football.

Anyway, the data suggests you could abolish penalties without affecting the distribution of wins. But clearly defenders would become more aggressive inside the box. Tougher refereeing, I would speculate, has contributed significantly to a higher standard of play over the last two decades (anyone who can remember when the tackle from behind was legal should agree).

At Saturday, July 07, 2012 1:04:00 AM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

Thanks, Stefan! I actually read your book a couple of years ago ... I guess I forgot about that finding.

It's interesting ... I wouldn't have suspected that to be the case, that games with penalties had the same outcomes as games without. I'll have to think about that a bit.

At Saturday, July 07, 2012 7:42:00 AM, Anonymous Stefan Szymanski said...

I guess I expected goals scored in ordinary play and penalties awarded to be highly correlated since they are driven by the same cause (offense)- but the fact that the outcome was indistinguishable was an interesting surprise. Given the size of the sample I don't think there is a problem with the power of the test, but it's always possible that there was some omitted variable - but it's not a result that anyone has questioned so far...

At Monday, July 09, 2012 5:52:00 AM, Anonymous danb said...

I think the problem is that if you abolish penalties for anything other than denial of a clear goal scoring opportunity it would make the game worse. Once an attacking team gets into the box it would be very much in the interests of the defending team to commit an innocuous foul to stop play and allow themselves to reorganise.

This already happens in the game outside of the box and when a defender is caught forward of the play. In the latter case he jumps to the floor complaining that he is injured (until, that is, the application of the "magic sponge").

However, one problem that association football has is that the rules are very hard to change. Preventing experimentation with rule changes.

At Monday, July 09, 2012 10:47:00 AM, Blogger Zach said...

If a penalty kick awarded resulted in permanent death I'd be against it. If it results in an occasional unlucky loss I can accept it.

Soccer teams frequently sit on leads. They may not take a knee like in gridiron or bleed the shot-clock like in basketball, but they will avoid getting caught pressing. A better team that is behind because of a PK will probably press longer and end up evening the score.

Stefan, did you look at how when the penalty was awarded compared to its effect? If a penalty is given late in a scoreless tie it would have a greater WPA than one awarded when a team is already behind by 3. Maybe look at penalties awarded to cause or break a tie?

At Monday, July 09, 2012 10:55:00 AM, Blogger Zach said...

Oh, I forgot to mention that during the Euro final there was an obvious unintentional hand ball in the box. It went uncalled. I was watching with a German friend and he thought it was the right decision. I thought they should add an option for the Ref to award a corner.

So, if you get some more momentum maybe a corner should be the middle ground. I prefer corners to indirect kicks and the like because walls are pretty boring. Corners can be pretty exciting.

At Monday, July 09, 2012 11:15:00 AM, Anonymous aweb said...

You have to have some sort of penalty - free kick on the spot, sometimes indirect?

The main issue I see with the rule is that it encourages diving to a ridiculous degree. A penalty kick situation is a better scoring chance than almost anything else - there's almost no incentive to fight through a light foul in the box that might not be called. Flopping/diving then spreads outwards from there, to provide cover for the penalty area flopping.

Also, why is anyone on the field allowed to take the PK? You don't get to choose a free throw shooter (technicals excepted), a penalty shot taker, why does player B get to take a PK when player A was the one fouled

At Tuesday, July 10, 2012 6:34:00 AM, Anonymous danb said...

"there's almost no incentive to fight through a light foul in the box that might not be called"

A "light foul"? A foul is a foul and should be called as such. One of the problems with the game is that in order for a legitimate foul to be given a player has to jump to the floor. I can't think of another sport whether this happens. This leads to players "diving" if they think they have been fouled.

At Wednesday, July 11, 2012 7:16:00 AM, Blogger Mark Taylor said...

agree with Phil, a penalty kick is usually a harsh punishment. Average shot conversion rates in open play inside the area range from over 60% for close in headers to less than 1% for efforts from the extreme corners. So a penalty gives a team a 75%+ chance often for merely illegally depriving an opponent of possession.

Equivalent open play shots from the penalty spot are only converted about 25% of the time compared to the 75% success rate for penalties. So moving the spot kick further back may make the punishment more fit the crime. If you went to the 18 yardline (edge of the box) where open play chances are converted at around 15%, an uncontested, bar the keeper "penalty" from here would likely reduce the current conversion rate from 75% to below 50%.

Problem is you then start to become unfair to a team who has been deprived of a certain goal by a deliberate handball on the line, although the ref does have the option of sending off the offending player without replacement.

Playing with an extra man is worth almost 1.5 goals to a team of the full duration of a game, so they would be compensated for the increased difficulty of the penalty in these circumstances by having a numerical advantage, although time remaining then also becomes a factor.

It's impossible to make a penalty always fit the offence committed, but I agree, it could be made fairer overall.

At Wednesday, July 11, 2012 8:03:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At Wednesday, July 11, 2012 8:05:00 PM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

Thanks, Anonymous ... nice article! I'll post on it soon.

At Thursday, July 12, 2012 1:01:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you haven't seen it already, you may also find the following of interest:

At Saturday, July 14, 2012 10:49:00 PM, Anonymous Russ said...

Phil I'd add two points to the discussion below. One of the effects of such a law would be more low-level speeding. No law-officer will execute someone for driving 66, given the margin for error, so most people will drive 65-70, knowing the law only cares about real speeding. Soccer sees a lot of low-level fouling and holding-on, that isn't called for a penalty but does hurt the attacking side. It also causes more fouls near the penalty box, because both the defence and referee are happy to stop an attack there.

A lot of fouls are also poorly defined. The game could do with the more precise definitions afforded to basketball, with respect to blocks/charges, as well as less punitive fouls. Getting a foul call is something like playing roulette, so it is no surprise to see both offence and defence playing the odds.

On home advantage, I'd expect penalties to add to home advantage, if anything, because of referee bias in front of crowds.

At Saturday, July 14, 2012 10:57:00 PM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

Right, that's a good point. It occurred to me that the hand ball might not have been called if the score had been closer, for just that reason.

At Monday, July 16, 2012 6:44:00 PM, Blogger James said...

One other note - because the penalty for fouls in the box is so severe, referees actually do let a lot more contact go in the box than anywhere else in the field. In no way do penalties "clean up" contact in the box.

Watch what happens to the guys fighting for position on corner kicks, for instance. In the Spain-Croatia game, a Spanish defender, Busquets, took down, wrestling-style, a Croatian striker right in front of the goal late in the game, with the score tied 0-0 around the 85th minute. If a penalty had been called there, Croatia may well have won 1-0 and Spain, which went on to win the entire tournament, would have been eliminated in the group stages. Instead the officials swallowed their whistle, Croatia failed to score there, and Spain ended up scoring a last-minute goal to advance.

What *would* clean up action in the box would be some kind of two-pronged foul policy. The referee should be allowed to use his discretion between simple and flagrant fouls in the box. The latter would be ones that clearly prevented a scoring chance. The former would just be the nitpicking stuff that they usually let go right now. It could result in, say, a free kick from outside the box.

At Monday, July 16, 2012 6:54:00 PM, Blogger James said...

(To clarify, in the Spain-Croatia game, the Croatian player did not have the ball at the time - it was when he was fighting for position for the corner kick that he was taken down. Currently, officials tend to let that kind of stuff go - they tend to call fouls in the box only when the player fouled has the ball. But in the case of corner kicks, defenders frequently get away with fouling players who might otherwise be able to head the ball in off the kick.)

At Monday, July 16, 2012 9:13:00 PM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

I suggested to my soccer fan friend that there be several penalty spots, from the current one (80 percent chance of scoring) and back on (perhaps to a 10 percent chance of scoring). The referee would decide, based on the severity, where to spot the ball.

Too much discretion on the part of the referee? Perhaps. But, I think, still better than what we have now.

At Tuesday, July 17, 2012 3:49:00 AM, Anonymous NickD said...

Re: your comment above, I feel that having multiple penalty spots for different types of foul inside the area just creates too much extra work for the officials, and more chance for others to question their decisions.

I am sure we could look at the rules of many sports and find regulations that aren't 100% fair from a statistical viewpoint of the crime matching the punishment, but in this case everyone is aware of the regulations and if they fail to abide by them that is their problem. Sure, you get the occasional case where someone is hard done by, but as Stefan notes above, penalties, like goals, arise from offence. The team who shows the greater willingness to attack is likely to get themselves into far more penalty-winning positions than more defensive opponents. Therefore, I don't believe there is anything overly wrong with the regulations as they currently stand.

Your theoretical comparisons to matches in other sports being won outright by arbitrary regulations are ill-judged and, if anything, just dilute your argument.

Finally, I am intrigued by the notion that 'home field advantage... serves as a pretty good proxy for how much skill affects the outcome'. Surely home field advantage and the support arising from it often pushes teams less skilled than their opponents to victory or a draw?

At Tuesday, July 17, 2012 4:31:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually ... the referees do have a second option to the calling/not calling of a penalty ... they can give an indirect free kick in the box.
This happens very, very sporadically, maybe once a season (if that).

If one reads FIFA Law 12 Fouls and Misconduct it gives 10 points that would lead to a penalty (direct free kick, irrespective of position of foul in box) but it also lists 6 points for that would lead to an indirect free kick ... the problem lies in that the last 2 IFK points cover DFK points (if the ref chooses to interpret that foul in that way) ...

That last bit between brackets is exactly the problem ... fouls are open to interpretation by the refereeing corpse, one foul may be deemed a yellow card offense by a ref while the same foul may be red or nothing to the next ref.
This is where the frustration comes in when one sees a foul and deems it penalty worthy or not. Many players willfully try to exploit this "gray" area by exaggerating contact or by "sneakily" tugging a shirt lightly etc. With the benefit of multiple (slo-mo) replays we (the TV viewing public) can hone our opinion to one which comes closer to what the rule book stipulates.

I think the "penalty problem" has two be tackled from two angles:
- is a penalty a just outcome for a foul in a specific area of the field (as stated here in the article)?
- how can the Laws of the Game be used to better the game and to minimise impact of simulation etc. were there to be a penalty offence committed?

Just a final note ... one of the laws that state an IFK should be given is obstruction ... however, I have never seen a referee call for obstruction when a defender uses his body to shepard the ball out for a goal kick. It is this inconsistency by referees in applying the rules that is frustrating ... when the possibility of a near 80% goal is linked to a decision, this frustration is multiplied in players, fans and be detrimental to the atmosphere on and off the pitch.

ps - I agree, currently IFKs in the box are quite silly to see happening, but I think it is because most teams so not know what to do in such a situation.

At Wednesday, June 25, 2014 1:19:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, really late but as a referee I have to clear up some points:

1. There's no such thing as an unintentional handball. If it's unintentional, then it's no foul by definition in this case. So the ball touching a players a hand in the box, is NOT a foul and should not be called as such, per the laws of the game. So your example in your posting about living in fear if the ball touches your is not true if the referee is truly informed.

2. Someone talked about obstruction - but the laws also state it's acceptable for a player to prevent another player from getting to the ball, IF such player is within reasonable distance of the ball that they can play it. In other words, If the ball is 10 feet from me, I can't obstruct you. If it's at me feet and dribbling out, I sure as hell can as long as I run with it and keep myself close to the ball.


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