What is a penalty kick in Soccer?

  • Penalties are some of the most pressurized moments of any soccer game
  • The attacking team hold a sizeable advantage in a penalty situation
  • Many soccer matches are even decided with a 'penalty shootout'
Harry Kane is a master from the spot.
Harry Kane is a master from the spot. / ALEXANDRA BEIER/GettyImages

Penalties are some of the most intense situations in soccer.

A well-executed penalty kick -- or 'PK' -- can often mean the difference between success and failure for teams chasing glory. But what exactly are they?

What is a penalty in soccer?

Lionel Messi, Hugo Lloris
Lionel Messi scored in Argentina's shootout win over France in the 2022 World Cup final. / Etsuo Hara/GettyImages

In the regular run of play, a referee will award a penalty for a foul committed by a defending team inside their own box, which is aptly named the 'penalty area'.

The ball will then be placed on a spot directly 12 yards in front of the net, with a chosen player from the attacking team looking to beat the defending goalkeeper with a shot in a one-on-one situation.

If the attacker scores, their team will be awarded one goal, while the score will remain the same if they miss the target or the goalkeeper saves the effort.

Who has the advantage on a penalty kick?

An attacking player has no restrictions on what part of the goal they can aim for when taking a penalty, so this unpredictability naturally gives them an advantage.

What's more, players taking a penalty have few limitations on what kind of run-up they can take, whereas a goalkeeper must stay on their line until the shot is taken, leaving them at an even bigger disadvantage.

Since the start of the 2020/21 season, over 81% of penalties taken in the Premier League have resulted in a goal, highlighting the natural advantage given to the attacking team.

What is a penalty shootout?

A penalty shootout is used to determine the outcome of a match that has ended level after normal time, but is unable to remain a draw and must be decided at the time. These instances include Champions League knockout round second legs, World Cup knockout matches, and major cup finals like the FA Cup and Copa del Rey.

By the time a penalty shootout occurs, the two teams have normally played out the full regulation 90 minutes followed by 30 minutes of extra time, with no winner being found.

A penalty shootout is a best-of-10 affair where the two teams take turns attempting to score a penalty. If the teams still cannot be separated at the end of this, 'sudden death' follows, with each team looking to win 1-0 in a series of one-on-one penalty attempts.

Among the most famous recent penalty shootouts were Argentina beating France 4-2 in the 2022 World Cup final and Italy winning Euro 2020 on penalties against England.