Referees On Course To Give Record Amount Of Penalties At World Cup

Referees On Course To Give Record Amount Of Penalties At World Cup

Just three minutes into today's tie between Japan and Colombia, a red card had been brandished to Carlos Sanchez for a hand ball in the box. Shinji Kagawa scored the resultant spot kick as the Japanese side became the first Asian country to defeat a team from South America. It may have been the first sending off of the World Cup, but it was the  ninth penalty given in less than a week of football.

That was followed up with a tenth later in the day when Mo Salah hit the back of the net from the penalty spot to get a consolation for Egypt, whose World Cup is all but over after losing 3-1 to Russia.

We're only 17 games into Russia 2018, but referees have pointed to the spot in just under 60% of matches thus far. To put it another way, there's been a penalty every 126 minutes.

Looking at the '32 team era', i.e. since the last time the tournament expanded for 1998, the average percentage of matches featuring penalties in the last five World Cups comes to 22%, almost three times less than the total for this year.

This reverses a downward trend that has been occurring since France 98. There were only 10 penalties given that year, which is just 15% of the total 64 games, but in 2002 that percentage jumped to 28%. In 2006 it was 27%, in 2010 it was 23%, while in 2014 it was down to 20%, just a fifth of all matches.


This year has already seen more penalties missed than in Brazil four years ago, where only one didn't find the back of the net. Peru's Christian Cueva missed against Denmark, while the other was from Lionel Messi of all people, who had his effort saved by the Iceland goalkeeper on the way to a 1-1 draw.

That means 78% of all penalties have been converted in 2018, which is a relatively standard record compared to previous tournaments. The outlier is France 98, where every single penalty was scored.


What is responsible for this increase in penalties? One's first inclination might be to conclude that the football has been more attacking, and therefore more opportunities to win them, but it can be hard to tell without a bigger sample to judge from.

One possible influence in all of this is VAR, the video assistant referee that has been brought in for the first time at a World Cup. With their ability to put a word in the official's ear should they miss a foul, it should in theory lead to a greater number of correct calls.

So far they have been no reversals on a penalty decision, meaning the ref hasn't gone to VAR after awarding a penalty and changed his mind due to a "clear and obvious error." There have however, been two penalties awarded after play was allowed to continue.

The first came on just the second day of football during France vs Australia, when referee Andres Cunha waved play on after Antoine Griezmann was seemingly clipped on the heel, only to then stop play suddenly in order to watch a replay of the incident on the pitch-side monitor. The Atletico Madrid striker duly slotted home the resultant penalty.


The second came on Monday when Sweden faced South Korea, where the referee let play go on for almost 20 seconds before calling a halt to proceedings. Although the correct decision was ultimately made, the RTE panel devoted 15 minutes of post-match 'analysis' to the penalty award, leaving just three minutes to talk about the rest of the game.

VAR awarded another penalty when play had stopped during Egypt vs Russia, after the referee inexplicably gave a free-kick when the foul happened inside the box.

Even accounting for the three spot kicks that were given thanks to VAR, 44% of games have featured a penalty, still well above the average.

The refereeing in general has been quite good thus far, with few controversial calls. Whether or not the safety net of having VAR is anything to do with it can be debated, but the level of officiating has contributed to the correct decision being made most of the time.

A regression to the mean is surely on the way, but for the moment we're on course for a record setting number of penalties in Russia.

All stats regarding penalties at the 2018 World Cup relate to the 16 games up to and including Tuesday's tie between Egypt and Russia.

Ste McGovern
Article written by
A man and his cans. @nostalgiaultra5

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