How you can concede a penalty outside the area…

Daniel Storey

This is it, folks: the last of the laws, all about set pieces, all of which can be covered fairly quickly. First is Law 14 –The Penalty Kick, but since last time we learned that feinting is permitted ‘as part of football,’ I hereby decree it’s permitted as part of football journalism, and start with something from Law 13, not 14. Here it is:

if a player leaves the field of play as part of play and commits an offence against another player, play is restarted with a free kick taken on the boundary line nearest to where the offence occurred; for direct free kick offences a penalty kick is awarded if this is within the offender’s penalty area

This is quite extraordinary. A foul outside the lines can be a penalty if committed in the space behind the penalty area, 44 yards wide. If you wonder why you’ve never seen this called, it’s because the provision was only added in 2016.

Let’s take a closer look. The official explanation for the law says ‘football would expect if two players leave the field as part of normal action and one fouls the other off the field, a free kick should be awarded.’ Ignore the hilarious opening (did they get an e-mail from football about its expectations?), and note that it’s now both players who leave the field as a result of play, not just one. And it’s not ‘play’ now but ‘normal action.’ Note too it doesn’t explain the penalty kick option, but just assumes it follows naturally.

The law makes sense from some angles but not others. Let’s say both players are off the pitch, and one prevents the other from getting back on and into the area. You can say a penalty is justified because a player off the pitch can be considered in the penalty area for purposes of offside. But you can also say no penalty, because if a player is only trying to get into the area, it’s no different from when he’s on the pitch trying to get into the area.

And what happens if two players wind up rolling off the pitch as part of normal play and then get into a fight? Red cards for both, but by the literal terms of the law, a penalty to the attacking team as well. Is that really what the rulemakers want?

Law 14 itself has nothing so interesting/strange, although there are a few quirks. In the feinting department, the law allows feinting during the run-up, but not after the run-up is completed. Query: are you sure you can tell the difference? If the taker is only a foot away from the ball, cant he still be in his run-up? Can’t he move even closer? And closer? (Ask Olympiakos fans, who are still steaming from Zeno’s ruling in the Cup Final back in 450 B.C.)

Another nice distinction comes when a penalty kick is taken after time in the period has expired. If the keeper saves, that’s it. No shot on a rebound is allowed, not even by the penalty taker. On the other hand, if the defending team commits some kind of offence and the kick is missed or saved, the taker gets another try.

On the subject of offences, there’s a hugely complicated set of rules on what to do if an infraction of some kind takes place during the kick. You get a table of outcomes, and believe me, you need it. I’ll leave it up to you to peruse it and figure out where the immortal Pires-Henry cock-up fits in.

 And one last thought on penalties: am I the only person who thinks that if the taker’s team encroaches when the kick is taken, the kick should be forfeited, rather than retaken?

Next are throw-ins, which have always mystified me. They resemble nothing else whatsoever in the game, and the rules are hardly intuitive. They almost always look awkward, and (Rory Delap specials excepted) the team usually just improvises while the thrower looks silly and/or frustrated. The way the refs call foul throws seems inconsistent as well. The good news is that Law 15—The Throw-In has a fair few points of interest.

Quick: how far away must defenders be from the thrower? If you answered two yards or two metres, you’re on the next pub quiz team. Defenders also can’t ‘unfairly distract’ the thrower, which leaves us wondering what the line is between fair and unfair distractions. Doing jumping jacks—fair. Forming a human pyramid—unfair. Flashing naked pictures of Sam Allardyce—straight red.

As for the throw itself, you have to 1) face the field of play; 2) have part of each foot on the touchline or on the ground outside the touchline’; 3) throw it with both hands from behind and over the head.

I’ve quoted number 2) exactly, so read it closely. If only ‘part’ of each foot need be on the touchline or behind, then the rest of your size 12’s can be inside the touchline, right? Read literally, the law allows you to be standing entirely on the field of play, since the touchline is part of the field. No one seems to interpret it that way, but I’d like to see someone try, and when penalised, whip a copy of the laws out of the offending footwear.

As for number 3), your guess is as good as mine. I see what looks like a foul throw roughly every other match, but they’re very rarely called. Refs understandably just want to move the game along. Since I’ve got nothing better to do with my time, I’ll watch throw-in technique closely this year and look for patterns. I host good parties, honest.

What happens when a throw-in goes directly into the opponents’ goal (not even Rory managed that one)? A goal kick for the other side. And once again the lawmakers spoil our fun: a throw-in that goes directly into your own goal is only a corner kick. There’s really no excuse for this. But we’ll always have That Night In Birmingham, when Olof Mellberg’s heave just maybe grazed Peter Enckelman’s instep. Many thanks to commenter Steve Hyde for reminding me of this one.

And now for the humble goal kick, stepchild of the dead ball family. Sure, every week there’s David De Gea swinging an elegant leg, or Claudio Bravo Ederson showing his passing skills, but goal kicks aren’t going to stir the blood. Law 16—The Goal Kick is appropriately boring. In fact, the high point comes in the FAQ, where someone is in a confessional mood:

Q1: Why is the word ‘stationary’ highlighted as a change to Law 16?

This was one of the strangest discoveries when The IFAB started the revision work as the old wording did not say anywhere that the ball had to be stationary (not moving) for a goal kick.’

 If you’ve followed this series, you know by now it’s not strange at all to find something missing in the laws. What’s strange is that the guy who wrote this one thought it necessary to tell us that ‘stationary’ means ‘not moving.’

We can cover the fine points of the goal kick law in a paragraph. You can’t be offside on a goal kick (actually part of Law 11); goal kicks can be taken from anywhere in the six-yard box; the ball isn’t in play until it leaves the penalty area; if the ball doesn’t leave the penalty area the kick is retaken; opponents have to stay outside blah blah meh yawn.

But here, at last, it’s YouTube to the rescue. The law for once doesn’t say that if a goal kick goes back into your own goal it’s a corner kick. In fact, it doesn’t say anything. So if the kick leaves the penalty area, and the wind is up, you get this and this. The second video even has palm trees.

And so to Law 17—The Corner Kick. Now that Iago Aspas is filling his boots and putting money in his purse at Celta Vigo, our chief object of corner ridicule is Charles Graham Adam. I bring this up not just to razz Charlie (and also to use his full, quite Scottish name) but to praise assistant referee Darren Cann. He spots the infraction immediately, then clearly communicates with the central referee before raising his flag. Refs do their jobs very well for most of the time.

But the most important reason for the video is that there’s not much to say about Law 17. A couple of small things worth mentioning: 1) the initial kick doesn’t have to leave the corner area; 2) ‘the corner flag must not be moved.’ I take that to mean you can brush it or bump it when you kick but can’t bodily remove it and put it somewhere else beforehand, no matter what excellent ideas you may have in that direction.

As usual, there are the few it’s-never-gonna-happen provisions, but we’ll mention one in particular, because of the FAQ that goes along with it. If a corner goes directly into your own goal, it is, alas, a corner kick. No surprise. But here’s the FAQ, fittingly the very last words in the laws:

Q1: Why does the Law mention scoring an ‘own goal’ from a corner kick as that must be almost impossible

The Laws try to cover all possible situations and there is a (small) chance that on a sloping field in a very strong winds this could happen.

First of all, the FAQ as it reads on the official website is missing the question mark and does say ‘winds’ instead of ‘wind.’ So the proofreader is still AWOL. Second, the provision referred to never uses the words ‘own goal,’ because the outcome isn’t an own goal, it’s something called a corner kick. Third, that FIFA go out of their way to explain this near-impossible hypothetical and no other perfectly encapsulates how arbitrary the laws sometimes appear.

So with those very last words of the lawgivers, we’re done. If you’ve followed the series all the way through, an extreme thank you for your patience. At times I’m sure it’s been a bit of a slog. But I’ve learned a lot—at times it seems perhaps too much—and I hope you have too. 

Allow me a couple of closing thoughts. As a former lawyer and current teacher of writing, I’m somewhere in the 99.9999th percentile of pickiness. But it really does look as if the laws have been drafted catch-as-catch-can. Some are clear and precise, others vague but still mostly useful, others frankly laughable. If anyone on the planet has a host of lawyers available, it’s FIFA—but perhaps they’re busy with other matters, if you get my drift. Still, a couple of experienced contract lawyers could fix the whole thing in a few weeks.

But in some deep way, the laws as they are fit the game. Football can be simple and complex, utterly predictable and then mad. Sometimes it’s orderly, sometimes well beyond chaotic. Sometimes it follows the rules and sometimes doesn’t bother. The refs, as much as we abuse them, somehow manage to keep it all together. It’s the high-wire act to end all high-wire acts, and we love it for what it is.

So having finished our critique with the very last words of the Laws, let’s finish the series with the very first, the opening sentence of the official Introduction, probably the best-drafted provision of all:

Football is the greatest sport on earth.

Now that’s what I call a law.

Peter Goldstein