EDIT 19 May 2010: Fifa has legislated via IFAB on 18 May 2010 the specific feinting procedure allowed at penalty kicks. See end of article.

Penalty! The penalty kick, Law 14. Is the penalty kicker allowed to feint in the execution of the penalty kick? Well, it depends on what – admittedly artificial – type of feints you classify them into, or the Football Association you belong to, or the discretion of the referee if no guidance is forthcoming from his association. FIFA is apparently not 100% sure about where the line should be drawn either; the International Football Associations Board (IFAB) has reviewed the rule with regard to feinting at penalty kicks on 6 March 2010. They propose outlawing run-up feints to the ball altogether.

The issue of “feinting” underwent a significant change in 2000. Prior to that, the kicker was expected to make one continuous, uninterrupted move to the ball; in 2000 (based on the FIFA Questions & Answers), certain forms of feinting or deception were allowed. FIFA clarified in 2002 that the kicker may seek to deceive (or feint) at the taking of a penalty kick.

As a good starting point, the current Law:

Feinting to take a penalty kick to confuse opponents is permitted as part of football. However, if, in the opinion of the referee, the feinting is considered an act of unsporting behaviour, the player must be cautioned.

Simple, or is it? The rule makes it clear that feints, in principle, are part and parcel of football. It forms part of player’s repertoire of skill, to be able to feint and get your opponent off-guard. Reading the second sentence, the rule clearly implies that not all feint acts should be allowed. The Law puts an over rider in the second sentence, subjecting some feints to the discretion/opinion of the referee if it crosses the boundary into unsporting behaviour. Not all feints are equal in the eyes of the Law.

Buffon of Italy unable to save a penalty, World Cup 2006, Germany. Voted by Fifa as best GK during the World Cup 2006 Finals.

Which feints then are considered as being unsporting? Well, in the absence of examples, or criteria, we don’t really know. And Fifa doesn’t say. FIFA leaves the unsporting examples to the interpretation of the various football associations or to the referee’s opinion – a very broad discretion. It is up to referee and his common sense or sensibility. And this is the dilemma. What is actually considered legal? What actions cross the line from sporting to unsporting behaviour? Should we, in some form or not, take pity on the poor goalkeeper’s reduced chance of stopping a penalty kick? Or should it be a case of “Basta, tough luck dude, you wear gloves. Use them.”

The type of feints witnessed during my career are the following:

  1. Stop-start runs before getting to the ball on the penalty mark;
  2. Stop-start runs when getting within playing distance of the ball (1 metre);
  3. Stop-start kicking actions where the kicking foot feints behind the ball;
  4. Stop-start kicking actions where the kicking foot feints over the ball.
  5. A combination of any of the above 4  (see video 2 – first kick – at end of this post)

It can be argued that making a distinction on the type of feints are all artificial. Some argue that if (1) and (2) above are allowed, but not actions (3) and (4), that it comes down to not being consistent with the definition of a “feint” and with Fifa’s general statement that feints are in principle allowed. The argument further goes that all 5 of the above feinting actions are allowed during dynamic play on the field, so why should it be any different during a penalty kick versus the goalkeeper and thus not allowed? [I don’t subscribe to this view. I sympathize with goalkeepers and their slight chances to save penalty kicks.]

A  possible problematic situation arises for the referee’s decision-making process: the penalty kicker, due to his feint, induces the goalkeeper do move off his goal line before the ball is kicked. If the goalkeeper saves the penalty kick, do the referee now recall the penalty kick due to the goalkeeper’s Law 14 infringement in those instances where the referee rule the feinting actions to be sporting behaviour?  Should the referee here apply the reasoning the penalty kicker cannot avail himself to a penalty kick recall if the kicker’s antics were the very reason for the goalkeeper’s infringement? Moreover, should this reasoning  be applied to the analogous scenario where the attackers take a quick free-kick while some defenders have not fallen the required 10-yard distance back and thus intercepts the ball? As an upcoming referee on the Ask the Ref forum posted:

“My head hurts!”

BIG SIDENOTE: Statistically, penalty-taking success is heavily loaded in favour of the penalty kicker. In World Cup finals dating back to 1982, the penalty success rate ranges from 73% to 80% in 1998, the year after FIFA changed the law to allow goalkeepers to move on their goal line.

When it comes to the World Cup Final, it is a passion, and when it goes to extra time it is a drama. But when it comes to penalty kicks, it is a tragedy. — S. Blatter, Fifa President, 2006

“Hit your penalties as hard as possible,” is still a good option according to researchers at the University of Greenwich. Research there indicates that a penalty struck at more than 20 metres per second (73 km/h+) stands a greater chance of hitting the back of the net than a slower one, as a goalkeeper has less time to analyse visual clues and react.

Exhaustive analysis in competitive international football during the World Cup, European Championships and the Copa America show some fascinating results regarding kicks from the penalty mark (penalty shoot-outs). [Jordet et al, 2006, Journal of Sports Sciences]

The average % success rate converting penalty kicks in World Cups are 71.2% compared to 82.7% in Copa America versus 84.6% in European Championships, possibly reflecting the greater importance and consequent pressure being on a bigger world stage for kick outcomes. The success rate of each penalty kick changes throughout the competition:

  • 1st kick 86.6%
  • 2nd kick 81.7%
  • 3rd kick 79.3%
  • 4th kick 72.5%
  • 5th kick 80%
  • ‘Sudden death’ kicks 64.3%

For the most part a penalty kick is a zero-sum game according to empirical and statistical evidence. (For an interesting take on the game theories behind penalty kicks, read this article.)

Once the penalty-taker kicks the ball, it takes roughly 0.3 seconds to hit the back of the net—unless the goalkeeper can somehow prevent it from going in. That is simply not enough time for the goalkeeper to pick out the trajectory of the ball and intercept it. He must guess where the striker will kick and move just as the ball is being struck. Therefore, a goalkeeper who does not guess correctly where the ball is going to go has no chance.

Game theory, applied to the problem of penalties, says that if the striker and the keeper are behaving optimally, neither will have a predictable strategy. The striker might favor his stronger side, of course, but that does not mean that there will be a pattern to the bias.

… each choice of [penalty shot] should be equally likely to succeed, weighing up the advantage of shooting to the stronger side against the disadvantage of being too predictable. If shots to the right score three-quarters of the time and shots to the left score half the time, you should be shooting to the right more often. But as you do, the goalkeeper will respond: Shots to the right will become less successful and those to the left more successful. It might sound strange that at this point any choice will do, but it is analogous to saying that if you are at the summit of the mountain, no direction is up. – Tim Harford

One irate forum dweller succinctly posted the following in trying to define the line between unsporting and unsporting feints.

“There is only one (almost immobilized) defender during a penalty kick on the goal line, 12 yards away. The goalkeeper. What little chance the goalkeeper has to stop the ball going into goal consists of a “good guess” where the ball is going. Should we now allow the penalty kicker to feint drastically to eliminate the “good guess” possibility?”

Yes says Brazil. No says South Africa. What you allow in your country is not sporting, according to my association, SAFA. By now, you get the point. At best it is, in the absence of FIFA giving direction in classifying certain type of feints as permissable or not, a murky situation. At worst, it’s downright confusing in delegating the discretion to various associations trying to come up with a solution to consistency and clarity. After all, Fifa has previously given clearer direction in certain rule applications for the sake of clarity and consistency.

I propose FIFA should do so again. Or, at the very least, give some examples as a guiding light to our broad discretion. That’s what I want as a referee. The players deserve that too. I don’t expect the Law to cover any and all possibilities. And FIFA, as custodian of world football, owes the football fraternity clearer direction on the referee’s wide/broad discretion when feints are unsporting behaviour, or not.

So what do I propose? I humbly suggest (c) below. This proposal will still be compatible with Law 14 (Penalty Kick) and Fifa’s current stance pertaining to feints:-

(a) allow feints at penalty kicks

(b) allow no feints, as the opposite extreme

(c) if (a), then some criteria or basic examples what types of feints are permissible, or not.

Currently FIFA is dictating (a) above without giving any criteria/examples, save for the referee’s very broad discretion/opinion. And now Fifa is proposing (b) as a possible rule change on 6 March 2010! Unclear indeed, wouldn’t you say?

In the absence of clear direction, clarity and consistency falls victim to confusion and inconsistency. Each referee/Association will use his/their discretion to try and define and make a distinction what type of feints are permissible or not. If you are, as national referee, lucky enough in that your Association gives direction and concrete criteria as to how you should apply your discretion, well… you are the blessed few.

Laws loath to narrow discretions down to simple examples, lest they not cover all eventualities. If you believe this to be spot-on and correct, be warned. You cannot have a wide discretion as defined in the Law and have consistency in its application. My applied discretion as referee, in the absence of any criteria from Fifa and/or direction from my association, is based on what I believe, subjectively, as to what feint acts are unsporting. My opinion is certainly not going to be necessarily consistent or in line with a referee from another association, another country or continent, or even from the same country! Clearly to be avoided, you would think.

Some Football Associations do try and clarify the line between sporting and unsporting behaviour at penalty kicks. The USA Soccer Federation (USSF) for example, in a memo dated October 2004 on this subject, identified 4 specific actions by the kicker that could constitute unsporting behaviour:

  1. the kicker delays unnecessarily after being signaled by the referee to proceed,
  2. the kicker runs past the ball and then backs up to take the kick,
  3. the kicker excessively changes direction during the run to the ball,
  4. the kicker makes any motion of the hand or arm which is clearly intended to misdirect the attention of the goalkeeper.

USSF referees have to abide by the above ruling. My association, SAFA, agrees with actions 1, 2 and 3. SAFA has yet to consider/rule on #4 with concrete examples. SAFA may come to the same conclusion as the USSF on this point. Most of the EUFA associations also loath the “step-over” feinting action (kicking initially over the ball in the air).

A valid argument can be made (and added) if the kicker feints so well with his stop-start run-up action and thus duping opponents and team mates alike into entering the 18-yard penalty area before the ball is kicked, that such actions are an example of misconduct and to be cautioned with a yellow card. This type of mass confusion at penalty kicks are frowned upon, particularly in the USSF and in most EUFA associations.

It’s not that the above notable endavours by various Associations to try and classify certain feints as sporting/non-sporting are without merit. They are striving for some clarity.  Its Fifa’s lack of direction for so long in allowing the various Associations their own interpretations, which sows confusion. With Associations stepping in and instructing their national referees how the Law should be applied, we have the scenario where no two associations might – and do not – agree. What feints are allowed in, say for example Brazil, will not be allowed in my country South Africa, or England. Again, inconsistency in interpretation from country to country, association to association.

Should FIFA re-examine the definition of “feint” to get some clarity?

Feints are maneuvers designed to distract or mislead, done by giving the impression that a certain maneuver will take place, while in fact another, or even none, will; A deceptive action calculated to divert attention from one’s real purpose; A mock attack or movement designed to distract an adversary. — Webster Dictionary

Back to the Law. Fifa opinions that feinting is part of football. Movements to mislead, or maneuvers to distract or mock attacks to confuse opponents are allowed. This ties in with FIFA’s basic premise that the lawmakers (IFAB) do not want to take feinting skills away from such players. Thus, all player movements connected directly to the action of executing a feint should, in principle, be allowed anywhere on the field.

In practice, all body actions/movements of the players arms, legs and torso to distract or confuse while taking the penalty kick should then be allowed. For example, stepping over the ball and not kicking/touching it during the player’s initial kicking motion  falls within the ambit of the Law and the definition of a “feint.”

This is the stance and reasoning at one end of the spectrum, as followed by some South American countries, in particular Brazil.

In Brazil they call a well-executed feint a “paradinha.” Portuguese for “little stop.” A little stop in the run-up to the ball on the penalty mark, a little stop in the actual kicking motion of the kicker. In Brazil a step-over is legit. No artificial feinting distinctions for Brazil. The viewpoint, as per my Association, that  kickers are only allowed to feint in their run-up action and that it’s not legal to feint with the actual kicking action/motion once players arrive within kicking distance of the ball (defined as 1 metre) are being scoffed at. It’s too artificial a distinction for Brazil!

In the land of the 5-time World Champions, it is reasoned – reasonably some would say – that to feint is a God-given talent. And skill damnit – Pele and company put it on the map decades ago! It’s a real art to feint properly, to feint completely, to feint with conviction. For Samba players, fooling an infield player or the goalkeeper for that matter should be no different, so they argue.

FIFA disagrees with Brazil. Said Sepp Blatter on the “paradinha”:

This is cheating. This “stopping” must be stopped.

In Brazil, the reasoning is that there is no point in run-up feints only. This type of feint alone is just not that convincing. Whether it’s the run-up action or the kicking action itself, it’s all legal. They are classified as feints and as such should be allowed. Brazilian referees seem to agree. Have a look at the examples below.

For the record, the first two examples below are NOT allowed in South Africa.  In Brazil there seems  no sympathy for the goalkeeper if he gets thoroughly fooled by the deceptive actions of the penalty kicker…

And this one from Fred in Vasco-Fluminense …

The gods certainly smiled in this example, taking pity on the poor shot-stopper’s soul …

I propose: Bring back clarity and consistency will follow!

Edit: The International Football Association Board (IFAB), soccer’s rule-making body, amended on 18 May 2010 Law 14 (The Penalty Kick) as follows:

Feinting in the run-up to take a penalty kick to confuse opponents is permitted, however feinting to kick the ball once the player has completed his run-up is now considered an infringement of Law 14 and an act of unsporting behaviour for which the player must be cautioned.

The decisions concerning the Laws of the Game taken by the International Football Association Board will come into effect on 1 June 2010.

“We saw some video examples, which make it clear it’s very unsporting when the player gets to the end of a run up, feints to kick completely over the ball, the goalkeeper goes in one direction, the player pulls his foot back, and kicks the ball in the other direction,” IFAB member Patrick Nelson, chief executive of the Irish Football Association told reporters. “It’s clearly unsporting.”

Fifa general secretary Jerome Valcke admitted it would be a race to introduce the new rule in time for the World Cup on 11 June 2010. “We have to make sure the referees, players and coaches understand what it is about and will use videos as an example for the players to see where we are coming from.”

Fifa decided to go for option (c) as suggested above. In my humble opinion the most reasonable decision. Only run-up feints (stop-start runs) will be allowed. Kicking action feints will now be sanctioned with a yellow card for unsporting behaviour.

There we have it; clarity at last!