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The Five Penalties of Soccer

author image Jared Paventi
Jared Paventi is the communications director for a disease-related nonprofit in the Northeast. He holds a master's degree from Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication and a bachelor's degree from St. Bonaventure University. He also writes a food appreciation blog: Al Dente.
The Five Penalties of Soccer
Pushing or striking a player is considered a foul in soccer. Photo Credit Pete Saloutos/Hemera/Getty Images

It's a dramatic moment in a soccer match when the referee calls for a penalty kick. When a defender commits a foul in the penalty box, play is stopped and an offensive player is given a shot on goal with only the goalkeeper playing defense. Referees can take disciplinary action on the pitch, ranging from awarding free kicks to disqualification, when a foul in one of five areas is committed.

Dangerous Play

FIFA, the international governing body of the sport, sets the Laws of the Game. These rules have been adopted worldwide by federations and national organizations like US Soccer. Law 12 covers fouls and misconduct, including those "considered by the referee to be careless, reckless or using excessive force." These plays, where a player kicks, trips, jumps at, charges, strikes, pushes or tackles another player, result in a direct free kick. In this situation, a player may kick directly toward the goal. Referees may award an indirect free kick, a kick following a stoppage where a player can pass the ball anywhere he or she chooses. Particularly egregious plays may earn the player a yellow card, or caution. Violent conduct earns a red card and immediate ejection.


The laws require players to show good sportsmanship at all times during the match and penalties for failing to do so are severe. Spitting at an opponent results in a red card and direct free kick. A red card also is shown to any player who uses offensive or abusive language or gestures, or commits "serious foul play," at the referee's discretion. Unsportsmanlike behavior or disputing the referee's decision by word or action is punishable by yellow card.

Impeding Progress

Referees can call penalties when a player impedes the progress of another player or the game itself. Direct free kicks are awarded for holding an opponent, either by the jersey or body part. Impeding the progress of an opponent or delaying the game by preventing the goalkeeper from releasing the ball from his or her hands may result in an indirect free kick. The referee can also show a yellow card to any player who deliberately delays the restart of the game for any reason.

Touching The Ball

Players, with the exception of the goalkeeper, may only touch the ball with their hands when a play is blown dead or when inbounding the ball. Intentionally touching the ball on the field during play results in a direct free kick. Using your hand to deliberately prevent a goal from being scored is a red card offense. Even though a goalkeeper may touch the ball, there are four instances when he can be penalized: holding the ball for six seconds or more, touching the ball after releasing it and before another player comes in contact with it, touching it after it was kicked to him or touching it after it was thrown inbounds by another teammate. Any of those infractions may result in an indirect free kick.

Technical Penalties

Players who violate the technical rules of play can also be penalized. The referee can levy a yellow card when a defender does not provide an offensive player the proper amount of space during a corner kick or inbound. A yellow card is also shown if a player leaves, enters or reenters the field of play without the referee's permission.

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