Penalty! Obviously!

Here’s a perfect example from one of my games this weekend why something that might look so obvious to coaches and players on the team bench and parents on the sideline is actually far from obvious:

The game was a U17G NorCal NPL game between two top nationally ranked teams.

At least a dozen players were in the penalty box near the goal when an attacking player received the ball close to the goal post. She was facing the sideline on the parents’ side (who were sitting in stadium bleachers about 30 yards away from the sideline), her back was facing the goal, which was maybe 5 yards behind her. The goal line was about 2 yards to her right. She had a defender on her back preventing her from turning to face goal. This defender was, naturally and legally, putting some physical pressure on her back. The attacker had no other obvious passing/lay-off options because her teammates were covered by defenders.

The attacker suddenly fell forward (but not in a dramatic fashion like Arjen Robben in the image above…it was much more subtle) and the defender then fell on top of her.

Guess what the attacking team’s coach, players, and parents thought this was from ~75 yards away?

Well, I was around 10 yards away and had the perfect 90 degree angle and it was clear to me that the attacking player was trying to get a cheap penalty decision. She flopped forward, surprising both me and the defender behind her, which made the defender fall forward on top of the attacker – she wasn’t anticipating the sudden loss of resistance from the attacking player’s body.

While the coaches, players, and parents complained about the ‘obvious’ referee mistake (“how can you not call this penalty kick, ref??”) I went over to the attacking player and said “nice try”, in response to which she smiled/smirked for a second, composed herself, and then protested her innocence. In fact, I could have yellow-carded her for unsporting behavior and, in hindsight, probably should have to send a clear signal about what I saw.

There was no doubt in my mind that she intentionally flopped forward to try to get a penalty kick. Keep in mind that body contact and some degree of nudging/shoving/shielding using the body and arms is acceptable in soccer. Players have to learn to deal with that as they get older and play through it. The referee has to determine whether any of this contact infringes on the laws of the game while taking factors such as age and level of play into account.

And in the large majority of cases the difference between a flop forward and a foul justifying a penalty kick can only be determined up-close and with the right viewing angle. It can be a fine line sometimes, of course.

It is a scientific fact that the human eye cannot see the required subtleties of an event such as the above from 50 to 75 yards away. The human eye will see the high-level outcome (e.g. the player fell) and the brain will then attempt to fill in the gaps by creating the illusion of certainty based on personal preferences, emotions, similar past observed occurrences, etc., but it’s impossible to know what really happened unless you are close to the action.

Please keep in mind that the referee is in by far the best position to make this judgement call. Referees will make mistakes, but he/she is by far the closest to the action, has the experience and training, and is the least emotionally vested in the outcome of the game to increase the odds that the right decision is made for the good of the game.

Lifelong player and student of the beautiful game in Germany, England, and USA. Volunteer futsal coach and USSF referee.

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