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.