Penalty Marks (Who Knew?)

Every once in a while, a question comes in that piques our interest because it has resulted in some historical research that turns up interesting but odd outcomes.  Recently, a reader of the site asked the following question:  “At a penalty kick, the kicker places the ball just by the side of the spot but part of the ball touches the spot.  What should the referee do?”

Our response back to the questioner was equally brief but was not published because the matter was very narrow.  This is not at all uncommon.  Narrowly defined questions whose answers are equally narrow are often handled by a private e-mail reply.

In this case, however, we were piqued enough about a “side issue” that we engaged in some historical research about the penalty mark which turned up surprising results.  They did not change the response to the above query in any way.  The referee should do nothing. The ball, as described, was properly “on the penalty mark” because the penalty mark is like any other marking on the field (e.g,. penalty area lines, touchlines, center circle lines, etc.).  All follow the general rule that the ball is in whatever area is enclosed or defined by that line so long as any part of the ball is on or overhanging any part of that line.  For example, a goal is not considered to have been scored unless and until the entire width of the ball has entirely crossed over the entire width of the part of the goal line which is between the goal posts.  Until that happens, the ball is “on the field” and not “in the goal.”  The same principle applies, for example, to both perimeter lines, corner arcs, penalty arcs, and so forth.  In this case, the ball would be considered “on the penalty mark” if any part of the ball touched or overhung any part of the mark.

There are a few, narrow exceptions.  For example, the midfield line is considered to define both ends of the field simultaneously.  Any player standing on the midfield line is considered to be in either end of the field depending on the circumstances — that is, based on the specific issue where this fact is important.

Our research on the penalty mark resulted in upending what we had thought we had learned decades ago.  “Everyone knows” that the penalty mark (like the center mark) is a circle.  Every field diagram in Law 1 in Lawbooks we reviewed back to 1985 shows that!  Case closed.  Looking closely, though, we discovered that this apparent “fact” does not appear anywhere in the text of the Laws — only the term “penalty mark” was found.  Furthermore, the field diagrams up through 1995 clearly showed that the penalty mark had a specific dimension (nine inch diameter) which further supported the assumption that the mark was a circle because only a circle is defined by a single measure of “diameter” (all other ovoid shapes have multiple diameter measurements).  What was surprising is that this nine inch diameter “requirement” disappeared — with no further announcement or explanation — after 1995.

Accordingly, we followed up this research with a query to someone in a high position with the International Board with whom we have discussed in the past tricky Law issues in order to achieve the most reliable information possible for this website (as well as for our own peace of mind).  The response was more than interesting.

Without getting into details about how, when, and why the disappearance of this “nine inch diameter” suddenly occurred, the basic answer was startling.  The text of Law 1 never specified the diameter of the penalty mark because (a) the mark has no official diameter and, more surprisingly, (b) the penalty mark doesn’t have to be a circle.  Further, it is not unknown for penalty marks used elsewhere in the world (places which are members of FIFA and adhere to the Laws of the Game, as required) use shapes other than a circle for the penalty mark.  Indeed, “various shapes including doughnut/polo mint, crosses and boxes” was mentioned in the reply of this source.

Two things should be taken from this little excursion.  First, nothing emerged from this discovery that should shatter your world.  The size and shape of the penalty mark is not a big deal — Law 1 is very clear as to where to place whatever shape and size of mark is being used.  Second, it’s always possible to learn something new and, if you ever encounter something you once thought was certain based on what you learned long ago, be open to the possibility that you are dead wrong.…

The Field and Objects Around It

(Originally published on 7/6/17, “Operation Restore”)

Matt, a U13 – U19 parent, asks:

What is the required clearance on touchlines for obstacles such as fences and light poles?  I’m asking for US Youth Soccer guidance and field side clearance.


We do not speak “for” US Youth Soccer anymore than we speak “for” USSF.  We suggest you contact US Youth Soccer directly and ask if they have any specific guidelines on the matter.

However, we also don’t like to seem as though we are shirking our responsibility to give whatever advice we are able to provide — particularly because doing so is quite easy.  There is no such thing as “required clearance,” at least not in the sense that the Laws of the Game deal with this issue.  The field is the subject of various requirements (mostly in Law 1) but they all have to do with (a) the layout and constituent parts of the field itself (e.g., lines, goals, dimensions, etc.) and (b) the technical areas just outside the field.  Advice to Referees added guidelines about “appurtances” (things attached to goals)  and “pre-existing conditions” (e.g., overhead wires, overhanging branches, pop-up sprinkler heads, etc.) — none of which connect directly to your question.

What do you do when a potential problem pops up which seems important but which is not covered explicitly by anything in the Law?  You step back to common sense and the three ultimate objectives of officiating — safety, fairness, and enjoyment.  The Referee has a duty to inspect the field and to deal affirmatively with any condition reasonably pertaining to what goes on in and around that field related to the match.  Suppose you saw a large trash bin on the ground less than 2-3 yards away from the goal line.  What would you do?  What can you do?  You can go to the home team coach (the person traditionally held responsible for providing a safe, legal field for the match) and advise him or her about a dangerous condition that potentially affects the safety of players on both teams and urge that it be corrected.  This sometimes works.

If it doesn’t, then you have another decision to make — how important (i.e., dangerous) is the situation?  Important enough that you would be willing to declare that the field was unsafe and an officiated match could not be held at that location?  If so, stick to your decision.  If the teams can move to another field, well and good.  If they want to play anyway despite your warnings and final decision, let them (just walk away, after making clear the basis for your decision).  Finally, include it in your game report and know that you have upheld one of the prime principles of the Laws of the Game.

Handling the Ball

Leroy, a parent involved in youth soccer, asks:

Can the goalkeeper handle the ball in the penalty arc of the goal being defended?


Nope, not legally (at least not while the ball is in play).  The “penalty arc” is specifically defined as the portion of the area ten yards around the penalty mark which is not in the penalty area.  It is rather like the center circle except that only the part of the circle that is outside the penalty area is actually marked.  So, the important things to take away from this are that (a) the penalty arc is not part of the penalty area, (b) the only time anyone cares about the penalty arc and its area is at the taking of a penalty kick, and (c) a goalkeeper handling the ball in this area during play has committed a handball offense.…


Why is the touchline so named? What is the origin of “touch” and “in touch”?

Answer (September 5, 2014):
“Touch” is any area outside the boundaries of the field, particularly the lines that run between the corners across the halfway line to the corner at the far end of the field. It is the area in which the ball may be handled legally by players, i.e., “touched.” Once the whole of the ball has crossed the whole of the boundary line, it is “in touch.”…


A couple of months ago, I was watching the UEFA U-17 Championship final, and it went to kicks from the penalty mark. It seemed like every single player was trying to place the ball at the very edge of the mark in order to have the ball a few inches closer to the goal. And every single time, the referee intervened. He made every player reposition the ball, and it seemed he wasn’t satisfied until the ball was at the center of the mark. To me, the referee was wrong.

Law 14 says the ball must be placed on the mark. And Law 1 says that the lines are a part of areas which they define. I know the penalty mark isn’t a line, but doesn’t the same principle apply to it? Just as a ball that is touching the imaginary plane above the touchline or goal line is in play, shouldn’t a ball that is touching the imaginary cylinder above the penalty mark be considered on the penalty mark?

Answer (July 22, 2012):
In order to ensure uniformity in penalty kicks and kicks from the penalty mark, the IFAB established the penalty mark in the form of a circle 9 inches in diameter; not a box or a simple line. The Law specifies that the ball “must be placed on the penalty mark” and “the ball is properly placed on the penalty mark,” not elsewhere.…


My child plays U8 soccer. There is no goal box, only a penalty area. When taking a goal kick, the ref insists the ball sit on the corner of the penalty area. The offense of a team we played either stood immediately in front of or rushed the ball while it was being kicked. For larger fields, the offense has to stay back because of the goal box being inside the penalty box. since they’re one in the same for us, can the offense stand immediately in front of the ball?

Answer (May 9, 2012):
According to USYS Rules for U8, there is no penalty area in U8 soccer; they use only a goal area, which has two lines drawn at right angles to the goal line three (3) yards from the inside each goalpost. These lines extend into the field of play for a distance of three (3) yards and are joined by a line drawn parallel with the goal line. The area bounded by these lines and the goal line is the goal area. The opponents must remain outside the goal area and at least four (4) yards from the ball until it is in play. There is absolutely no requirement that the kick must be taken from one of the corners of the goal area, just as there is no such requirement in adult soccer

One of our readers, Greg Brooks, supplied this useful information:

I thought I’d chime in on the U-8 question posted today. In a league
which I officiate, they allow the U-8 players to take goal kicks from
the edge of the penalty area instead of the goal box. I believe the
required minimum distance is 8 yards, so that should apply to those
goal kicks in such U-8 games, correct? I’ve never had a problem with
failure to maintain the required distance, but this gives me something
to think about.


The following occurred in an official match in Argentina’s “Torneo Argentino C”: A forward kicks the ball towards the goal, the ball hits the crossbar and goes up, then hits a branch that was inside the field area and goes down. A defender takes the ball with his hands, and the referee signals a penalty.

Questions: Was the branch an outside agent? Should have the referee signaled a dropped ball instead of a penalty?

Please advise.

Source (with video):
also at

USSF answer (February 25, 2012):
We agree with the referee that the ball was still in play. The tree limb overhanging the field is a pre-existing condition, meaning that play is the same as if the ball had hit the crossbar or the referee — it is still in play.

One is unlikely to find a tree overhanging a field in which the game is played under a FIFA-run competition, as there would certainly be no tree to worry about.…


As a referee, I have always been told that the lines on a field are part of the area of which they “contain”. However, this seems to be in conflict with the law regarding throw-ins and the placement of the feet of the individual taking the throw-in along the touchline.

I recently had a game in which I had to explain the lines are part of the area of which they contain and he brought up the fact that on a throw-in as long as both feet are touching the touchline in some form that the throw-in is considered legal. However he then pointed out that by my description, would not that be illegal since in a throw-in the player must take the throw-in from outside of the field of play, however the line is considered in play?

The only reasoning I can come up with for this is that at its most basic form the throw-in is a method of restarting the match and thus follows a slightly different set of circumstances or rules than normal course of play.

But is there any further reasoning as to why a player is allowed to be completely in the field of play when taking a throw-in (in the case where they keep both heels on the inside edge of the touchline) and yet the throw-in is technically taken to put the ball back in to play?

USSF answer (November 24, 2011):
The answer to your question lies in applying Laws 1 and 15 as they are written, not in finding reasons to doubt them. “He,” whoever “he” may be, was totally wrong in suggesting that having one’s feet on the line had anything to do with a dichotomy in the Laws. Your original understanding is correct. Your interlocutor is talking apples and applesauce, two different things, and creating his own muddled version of the Laws.

Law 1:
Field Markings
The field of play must be rectangular and marked with lines. These lines belong to the areas of which they are boundaries.

Law 15:
At the moment of delivering the ball, the thrower:
* faces the field of play
* has part of each foot either on the touch line or on the ground outside the touch line

This is the Law and it is also tradition. Where the Law is clear, follow the Law; where it is not, do the best you can (including applying logic).…


Earlier this month, I was refereeing [at a] Labor Day Cup. It was very, very windy. An attacker shot the ball from a far distance towards the goal. However, the wind pushed the net on the other side of the crossbar. The net shockingly prevented the ball from entering the net. (Did I mention how windy it was?) The net did NOT detach from the crossbar, but the wind was so strong the net was sitting in front of the goal.

What does the law say about the net? Well, from what I’ve researched, you do not have to have a net. From my perspective, the net (once it is pushed by the wind onto the field) becomes an outside agent even though the net is still connected to the posts. The referee should restart with a dropped ball from goal area line outside of where the contact was made. “Selling” this call would be nearly impossible, so I thought I would ask you guys on the best way to handle a situation like this.

USSF answer (October 3, 2011):
No, the net cannot be considered an outside agent in any game situation. In this case, referee failure to follow the dictates of Law 5 was the cause of the incident

As you say, the net is not required by the Laws of the Game; however, it is normally required by most rules of competition (such as the tournament at which the incident occurred). The organizers should have ensured that the net was firmly mounted on the goal and secured to the ground. The referee and the rest of the officiating crew should have inspected the field an all its appurtenances before the game began (and again prior to the start of the second half or any additional periods) and also ensured that the net was firmly mounted on the goal and secured to the ground.

Therefore, the fact that the net was blowing around must be regarded as a natural occurrence. There is no solution other than the one you suggest: once the net has been repaired, the referee must drop the ball from the spot at which the interference occurred (in accordance with Law 8): “The referee drops the ball at the place where it was located when play was stopped, unless play was stopped inside the goal area, in which case the referee drops the ball on the goal area line parallel to the goal line at the point nearest to where the ball was located when play was stopped. Play restarts when the ball touches the ground.”

The same logic could be applied to other situations caused by referee inattention to the Law and his or her duty to protect the players and, most important, to provide a “level” playing field so that each team receives fair and equal treatment. For example, suppose the scenario had involved a goal frame which, due to the high winds, was pushed forward toward the field such that the crossbar (though still attached) was ahead of the goal line rather than straight above it. Suppose further that a shot on goal was made at an extreme angle such that the ball struck the crossbar and the deflection enabled the ball to stay on the field whereas the ball would have gone into the upper left corner of the net if the crossbar had been properly positioned.…


Law 1 tells us that goalposts and crossbars must be white and that they must be shaped a certain way (e.g., if the goalposts are rectangular or elliptical, the longer axis must be perpendicular to the goal line).

In Tennessee, we have goals that aren’t white (they’re bare metal), and it’s not uncommon to see portable goals that aren’t shaped as now specified in Law 1. For example:

If a referee notices unsanctioned goals (wrong color, wrong shape, or both), does US Soccer really want that referee to mention this in his/her referee report? Also, should goals that are the wrong shape be treated the same way as goals that aren’t white?

Should these two parts of Law 1 be ignored (by referees)? After all, neither infraction is a safety issue, and neither should be the reason for preventing a match from being played.

I’m asking how we should handle such goals because my instructors are asking me how they should teach the material and how they should respond to “What do I really do” questions.

USSF answer (August 12, 2011):
The safety of the players and other participants always comes first. Referees should conduct a complete inspection of the field and its appurtenances before every game (and again if something happens to endanger a participant). If there is a problem, such as the goal made of steel 2 x 4s in the hotlink you provided, the referee must judge whether or not the item is truly safe for the players. If the referee decides that the goal or any other appurtenance is unsafe — and there is no viable alternative — then the game cannot be played.

IN all such cases, the referee must include full details in the match report.…