As if saving a penalty isn’t hard enough, the International Football Association Board has decided to further handicap goalkeepers with a penalty rule change coming into effect on July 1.
The amendment, which was introduced in the IFAB’s 2023/24 law changes report, states that goalkeepers “must not behave in a way that unfairly distracts the kicker.” This includes delaying the taking of the penalty shot or touching the posts, crossbar or net.
They add that goalkeepers “must not behave in a manner that fails to show respect for the game and the opponent.”
Although it’s unclear what other specific actions are meant by “show respect” and “unfairly [distract] the kicker,” there’s an accepted belief that this includes most of the antics Emiliano Martínez pulled off in the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Throughout the tournament, the Argentine goalkeeper used mind games to distract and intimidate penalty-takers. He taunted some of his opponents, used time-wasting tactics like throwing the ball away from shooters and asking the referee to check the ball’s placement on the penalty spot, and celebrated hard after some saves and misses.
It’s these mind games that seem to have caught the ire of IFAB’s decision-makers.
The overarching philosophy of the changes appears to be to prevent goalkeepers from intimidating penalty-takers. Penalties are supposed to be advantageous to the shooters, and it appears the IFAB is concerned that goalkeeper antics are tipping the scales in favour of the goalkeepers.
But what this rule change actually does is it limits what a goalkeeper can do beyond a historically-acceptable level, and thus minimizes a goalkeeper’s already-minuscule chances of saving a spot kick.
Coupled with another penalty rule change from 2019 that focused on a goalkeeper’s foot placement, this rule change also raises concerns about just how far the IFAB will go to prevent goalkeepers from doing their jobs to the best of their abilities.
A history of trickery
It’s no secret that penalties are incredibly advantageous to the takers. After all, we’re talking about a scenario where a player can kick a ball as hard as they want from twelve yards out, at a target that’s 24 ft long and 8 ft high, with the only barrier being a human who’s more often than not going to be too slow and too small to save a well-struck penalty.
That’s why even the best goalkeepers have low penalty save percentages. Gianluigi Buffon, a GOAT goalkeeper contender, has saved a very impressive 39 non-shootout penalties in his 28-year career (per Transfermarkt.) But, he’s also conceded 85 non-shootout penalties, giving him a total save percentage of 31%.
Other legendary goalkeepers, like Manuel Neuer and Iker Casillas, haven’t even broken the 30% barrier; they’ve only saved 29% and 23% of the non-shootout penalties they’ve faced.
The odds are heavily stacked in the shooter’s favour — so much so that you never just think that a shooter might score a penalty, but rather, you expect them to score.
But while the numbers are on the player’s side, so is the pressure to convert the penalty — and pressure can make people do silly things. When under pressure, every minute blip will feel like a gargantuan mistake, every simple task will feel like a complex puzzle, and every glance from onlookers will feel like a thousand pounds of weight on one’s shoulders.
This is especially true for penalty-takers. Professional players will often take penalties in front of thousands of watching eyes — and millions more around the world. Each one of those eyes expects them to score, which is a lot of expectation for one person to shoulder.
It’s for that reason that penalty-takers need an exceptional level of concentration in order to tune out the bad noise — and why so many goalkeepers attempt to break that focus through distraction tactics and mind games.
An important thing to keep in mind is that distraction tactics are not a new thing. In fact, this kind of gamesmanship has been around for a very long time and has seen a variety of forms.
One of the earliest examples I can think of is the 1984 European Cup Final’s shootout, in which Liverpool’s Bruce Grobbelaar mocked AS Roma’s Bruno Conti by biting the back of his net as if he were eating spaghetti. He then wobbled his legs in faux terror ahead of Francesco Graziani’s penalty. Both takers missed and Grobbelaar’s Liverpool won the shootout and the European Cup.
Other successful examples of goalkeeper gamesmanship include Manchester United’s Edwin van der Sar pointing to his left to tell Chelsea’s Nicholas Anelka he knows where he’s going to shoot, then diving to his right and producing the Champions League-winning save; Holland’s Tim Krul taunting Costa Rica’s penalty-takers during his team’s 2014 World Cup quarter-final shootout; Canada’s Stephanie Labbé using a variety of mind games to backstop the Canucks to Olympic gold (which I analyzed in more detail here); and Australia’s Andrew Redmayne dancing on his goal line to distract Peru’s takers during a 2022 World Cup qualifier.
And, of course, who can forget Martínez “eating up” Colombia’s Yerry Mina during the 2021 Copa América, by trash-talking the defender prior to his penalty save?
The point is, distracting the shooter is a very common and effective tactic. It’s one of the only ways goalkeepers might gain a leg up in a situation where they rarely come out on top. So by amending the rules to prohibit goalkeepers from using these tactics, it feels less like an attempt for fairness and more like a way to weaken a goalkeeper’s strongest — and sometimes only — weapon.
This isn’t to say change is bad, nor is it to suggest that every trick should go unpunished. Things like scuffing the penalty spot or refusing to give the opponent the ball lean toward the disrespectful side, and I agree that these kinds of mind games should be reprimanded in some way.
But there were already punishments in place for these kinds of actions prior to this rule change. In fact, Martínez was booked for throwing the ball away from Aurélien Tchouaméni prior to the latter’s penalty in the World Cup Final, so he didn’t go unpunished for his antics.
Another example was seen in 2002, when Manchester United’s Fabien Barthez was yellow-carded for refusing to get in his goal to face a Fulham penalty. So these punishments aren’t one-offs; they already existed in the rulebook.
In my opinion, if the IFAB wants to phase out these kinds of tricks, they should explicitly mention them in their ruling. But as it stands, the penalty rule is too vague, even with the new clarification.
The vagueness of the rule change probably means referees will interpret the rule as they see fit, which is concerning because (as things like the handball rule and offside reviews have shown) there probably won’t be any consistency in referee calls.
The inconsistency could result in some goalkeepers getting punished for actions that are a normal part of football, such as celebrations and taunts. This could remove some of the individuality and flair from the sport, which would be a significant loss. (More on that in a bit.)
Yes, some goal celebrations already result in yellow cards and even some sending-offs. But have you ever seen a goal ruled out because of a player taking off his shirt? Are you ready to see a penalty save potentially reversed because a goalkeeper danced on his goal line prior to a kick? Or a goalkeeper receive a second yellow for trash-talking his opponent?
Until we get some closure on what the IFAB means by their wording, this rule change just comes across as a way for the IFAB to coddle the penalty-takers at the expense of the goalkeepers.
The IFAB’s rule change and their explanation for it are especially frustrating because the IFAB is turning a blind eye to similar gamesmanship tactics from penalty-takers.
From long, staggered run-ups that draw defenders into the box early (like Neymar’s run-ups), to stutter-steps, ballet hops and full-on stops that push goalkeepers into prematurely revealing their reactions (which I broke down in detail here), penalty-takers use a variety of run-ups to mess with their opponents and put themselves in a position where they always come out on top.
These techniques have become very popular in recent years, to the point where most of the world’s top players, like Erling Haaland, Robert Lewandowski and Bruno Fernandes, have used them to give themselves an even greater edge from the penalty spot.
They’re also very difficult for goalkeepers to react appropriately to because the tricks often bait the goalkeeper into reacting early to the penalty.
In penalty situations, the goalkeeper tries to mirror their save attempt with the shooter’s run-up in order to time their dive appropriately. So if a player attacks a penalty with pace, for example, the goalkeeper has to get ready to dive quickly in order to react to a shot at an appropriate moment. Likewise, if a player approaches the penalty slowly, the goalkeeper can’t react too quickly or else they’ll reveal where they’re going early.
So on a well-executed stuttered run-up, the goalkeeper is at risk of being baited into moving too early because the shooter’s sudden change of pace might throw them often, and they more often than not fail to readjust their body shape in time to make a good save attempt.
Even a subtle slowdown like the one Messi performed in the 2022 World Cup Final shootout was enough to get France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris moving to his left early. As a result, he couldn’t recover in time what was a pretty tame penalty.
Penalties already heavily favour the takers, even without these kinds of techniques. But factor in stuttered run-ups and other similar tricks, and it’s no wonder guys like Sergio Ramos, who had only taken three non-shootout penalties pre-2017, could score 25 penalties in a row at one point.
I can appreciate the athleticism it takes to pull these kinds of run-ups off. Considering the sudden change of pace and extremely quick body adjustments required, it would be easy for the average player to scuff their penalty by trying to do too much or getting themselves caught between two actions.
But just like a goalkeeper’s distraction techniques, these run-up tricks work at the expense of the taker’s opponent. They’re not fair on the goalkeepers; they push the goalkeeper to spill their cards early, and while the goalkeeper tries to get set again, the penalty-taker can calmly put the ball into the opposite part of the goal.
If the IFAB truly cares about maintaining “respect” for the game and the opponent while eliminating “unfair distractions”, then it would also make sense to remove these kinds of stuttered penalties in order to allow goalkeepers to make the best save attempt they possibly could.
Taking the fun out of football
Beyond fairness and respect, history and penalty-taker tricks, the biggest thing that concerns me about this rule change is the potential death of the spectacle of penalties.
Part of the reason why penalties and shootouts are so tense is that, despite the odds being in favour of the takers, the circumstances (player pressure, distraction techniques, etc.) always give the goalkeeper enough of a chance to be a potential difference-maker.
But when you remove the goalkeeper’s ability to exploit those circumstances — even in a fair manner — you’re making the goalkeeper as close to a non-factor in the penalty as possible, and a goal as close to a near-certainty as possible.
imagine what football might look like after this rule change comes into effect, and after goals from the penalty spot become as close to a certainty as they’ve ever been.
Imagine how boring penalties would be if goalkeepers were all forced to line up in a similar, stone-like manner. No dancing, no arm waving, no crossbar tapping, and no creative actions that can be taken as disrespectful or unnerving, like a point or a smile.
Imagine how cringy it would be if a penalty-taker was allowed to distract the goalkeeper however they’d like — by having a long run-up, by stuttering when approaching the ball, by hopping just before striking the ball to bait the goalkeeper into reacting early — without the goalkeeper being allowed to reciprocate.
Imagine how helpless you as a fan would feel if your team was on the receiving end of a penalty call, knowing that your team’s goalkeeper can’t make any sort of impact on the situation other than guess and pray the shot hits them.
Imagine how soulless football will feel if every penalty call was pretty much a guaranteed goal, even more so than they already are.
Is this what we call fun? Is this what we call entertainment? Is this what we want football to be?
Goalkeepers aren’t the only losers with this rule change. The fans — the ones who pay good money to not just see their team win but to see entertaining football too — are losing the spectacle of penalties and the shootout too.
Even those who hate goalkeeper tricks with a passion can admit that they add something to penalties. Whether that something is wanting to see the goalkeeper eat dirt for his antics or not is up to the viewer. But nonetheless, it’s something — something that could be lost when the IFAB’s rule change comes into effect.
Football is not the only sport grappling with the balance between entertainment and quote-unquote “respect.” In Major League Baseball, overly celebrating a home run with something as minute as a bat flip can be interpreted as disrespectful and controversial by the opponents (even though pitchers are often seen celebrating strikeouts with no opposition.)
Elsewhere, the NFL literally has a penalty for “excessive celebration,” and players can receive large fines and even suspensions for celebrations the league deems highly offensive. The NBA has also dished out big fines for some excessive celebrations, and according to some basketball fans, it’s one of the reasons why the league has “gone soft” in recent years.
It’s a trajectory that top-tier football seems to be following, and as someone who lives in North America and has seen how these rules have impacted the allure of those leagues and sports, it hurts to think those same discussions and grievances could soon become commonplace in football.
The clock’s ticking down until July 1, and I don’t know what it will take to make IFAB change their mind (or at least clarify what the new rule actually prevents.) The only thing we can probably do as lovers of football is voice our concerns while we wait until we see this rule in action.
Ultimately, the goalkeeper side of me is disappointed by the IFAB’s rule change because it means my professional counterparts can’t do the same tricks that have been done for years upon years. Yet, I’ve come to expect these kinds of anti-goalkeeper edicts from the IFAB, so I can’t say I’m too surprised by the rule change.
But my most passionate disappointment comes from the fan in me. That side of me feels like it’s mourning the partial death of fun, of entertainment, of tension, in football.
Sure, I’ll still find appeal in the other 95% of the sport; I’m talking about things like ridiculous saves, open-play goals, talented players, intelligent tactics and fan atmosphere. Those will always keep me invested in my teams and the sport in general.
But when it comes to the 5% of it that is penalties and shootouts, I don’t know if I’ll ever feel the same emotions and tensions that I used to feel again.
Mouhamad Rachini is a journalist and goalkeeper enthusiast. You can find him on Twitter via @BlameTheKeeper.
One thought on “IFAB penalty rule changes an attack on goalkeepers — and entertainment in football.”
That is all right. Good observation and clarifications.