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Double punishment in football: is justice just?

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By Walter Broeckx

A rather interesting remark was made after one of the ref reviews and when trying to comment myself I just thought it might be interesting to shed some more light in to this. And so I decided to write an article about it.

It was about the situation where a striker goes on goal and is brought down by the keeper (or a defender) and the ref gives a penalty and a red card against the keeper or the defender. Some people argued that this was wrong because it was double punishment for one foul.  As one of our readers said it:  “A basic premise of any sensible justice system is that one offence merits only one punishment. A penalty and a sending off is clearly two punishments for the same offence, which is an unjust situation.”

And I could agree with the basic rule of this as it is a very honourable and seemingly justified basic law. So why then will I disagree with this?

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First let me start by saying how the lawmakers have been coming to this “double” punishment. It is because of the fact that you have a punishment of the foul and a punishment of the personal behaviour of the player.

Committing a foul results in a free kick.  I think nobody will disagree with this. In case the foul is in the penalty area a penalty should be given. So when a player commits a foul in the penalty area the TEAM is punished by a penalty given against them.

But then there is also the fact of the personal behaviour of the player. Just imagine that a player punches a striker in the face would anybody find it acceptable that this player can stay on the field? Because if you ask only one punishment for one foul one has to make a choice: give a foul or send the player off.

It is a foul so a foul should be given. And because of the fact that if a player wants to punch someone it is clear that he should have chosen another sport like boxing. As we don’t want to see boxers on the field he should be send off.

So yes there is double punishment but one is a “team” punishment and the other is a “personal” punishment.

Now I took at rather obvious example of what is unacceptable on a field with punching another player. But according to the rules it is just unacceptable to bring a player down who is on his way to score a goal. If you play the ball clean away then there is no foul, but from the moment a player is on his way to score and you tackle him and make sure that he will not score the double punishment should be given.

I really do think that the lawmakers are correct in this with the double punishment. One going against the team, the other against a player who clearly has shown no respect for the laws of football.

Now we can all debate of course about the fact if the foul was really made on a player that was having a clear goal scoring opportunity or not. And this is not always easy to judge at the moment. Generally one could say that when a player who pushes the ball away from the goal and is brought down, the defender should be given a yellow card and not the red because the striker reduced his own chance by dribbling further away from the goal. When a player goes past the keeper and the keeper (or defender) comes in from behind in a last attempt and brings the player down then it is clear that the striker just had to push the ball past the line for the goal and it should be a red card.  But this is not always easy to decide in a fraction of a second.

How much the sanction should be is also something that is very debatable. Now a player who commits a personal foul could receive the same 3 game ban as a player who has punched someone in the face. I do think a one game ban should be enough for a professional foul, unless there is clearly some violence in the attack. If the defenders tries to play the ball but just misses the ball and hits the foot of the player, or a keeper trying to play the ball but not getting to it a one game ban is fine for me.

But if the defender comes in from behind with both feet in the air flying like a suicide pilot on a mission to kill whatever is in front of him a 3 game ban should be given. But as I am only the ref, the ban itself that is given is the decision of the disciplinary committee.

Now going back to the real life and the begin statement of this I do fear that also in real life we have a double punishment for the same offence. I think we all have heard of people being punished with a jail sentence for let us say killing someone when driving under influence. And most of the times the judge will also order the murderer to pay a sum of money to the family of the victim. In fact this is also a double punishment. One against for society (= penalty against the team) by locking up a person who has broken the “don’t drive when drunk” rule. And also the personal punishment (= red card) for the fact that even when money cannot make up for the loss of a live but I think it is justified that the damage that has been caused to the family of the victim is made up for.

So a double punishment does exist in most societies and most justice systems. And I think the football rules are just a copy of the real life justice.

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11 comments to Double punishment in football: is justice just?

  • Gord

    Double punishments do exist in other circumstances.

    In Canada, Fish and Wildlife regulations commonly have double punishment. Being found guilty can result in fine or imprisonment. The second punishment is the impounding of the animals and any “resources” used in the offence. The resources can include vehicles and property. I don’t know what other countries do in this respect.

    Almost universal, are securities regulations. Double punishment is common there (restitution and fine).

  • El Gringo

    Hi Walter,

    Thanks for the thoughtful consideration of my comment. You’ve definitely led me to re-think my position. Could you help me make sure I’ve understood your line of reasoning? I think that you’re saying:

    foul in penalty area = one offense to be punished with a penalty


    professional foul = a second offense to be punished with a red card.

    If that is your point, I think you’re right in principle. However, I’m still uneasy about the proportionality of the punishment, because (in my opinion) an awful lot of fouls in the penalty area are not called, so it seems unjust that Ruddy (for example) gets sent off when any number of defenders hold and wrestle opponents at every single set piece with impunity. Since the “minor” fouls tend to be overlooked, it’s difficult to celebrate justice being done on “major” fouls. This is especially true when the professional foul is pretty debatable (I did not see the Ruddy incident, but the reviewer doubted there was a professional foul). The area of debatability can often be inhabited by refs who want to influence matches more than they ought.

    Great article!

  • El Gringo

    I forgot to say that my original comment should have said “double jeopardy” instead of “double punishment.” That would have captured my meaning much more accurately. Unfortunately, I didn’t want to have to bother trying to spell jeopardy right. I’m still not sure that I have done.

  • Gord

    @El Gringo

    Double jeopardy doesn’t exist in football. Once the ball has been put into play, the referee cannot come back and punish you for that same offense. Play has to stop (either by the referee stopping play or by the ball leaving the playing field) in order to punish someone (free kick or card). Once the ball is back in play (with the referee’s permission), there is no chance to punish the same offense again.

    The exception to that is what you call the “ignoring” of minor fouls. In the interest of allowing play to flow, a referee is permitted to not punish someone for breaking the laws. The referee(s) are supposed to note to themselves that an illegal act did occur. The referee is expected to keep a running tally of all fouls by all players. If some player gets to some particular annoyance level (lots of niggling fouls, or fewer, more serious fouls), the referee should change his running on the field so that he can pass close to the player and whisper in his (her) ear to cut this behavior out. If this player continues with the “ignorable” fouls (another one or two), that is when the yellow card for persistent infringement comes out.

  • walter

    El Gringo, yes I think you got what I was trying to say.

    In fact a lot of penalties are given without any card at all because it just was a foul that happening in midfield would not be given a card for. Unless players start protesting the decision then the card will come out.

    About the not giving a lot of penalties…. don’t get me starting. Or I will write another article or 2 or 3 or 10…. 😉 I think it is an utter disgrace for football that all that shirt pulling and pushing is allowed by refs.

    It is the task from the refs to warn at the first corner they see it starting before the kick is taken. One warning before the ball is given and then by consistent and blow the foul (penalty or foul against attacker) and do this on a consistent basis and they will stop after one penalty or two free kicks. But one has to have the balls as a ref to act like that. Most don’t. Why? I wish I knew…

  • walter

    Gord, yes you are right. A good ref will try to spot a player that does two or 3 minor fouls that he didn’t give in order to play some advantage. But he will run pas the player during the game or when the ball is out of play and then say a word to him. If he continues the card will come out. a clever player will stop his behaviour before the yellow card, a stupid one will need a yellow card to become a bit more clever and well if you are really really stupid you can get the second yellow card.

  • Dec

    Good stuff Walter, as usual.
    Something that’s always bugged me though is, when did Association football decide to adopt the rules of schoolgirl’s netball? It seems nowadays that as soon as the play gets inside the penalty area Football becomes a totally non-contact sport.
    How often do we hear ‘experts’ proclaim after umpteen replays from umpteen angles ‘that there WAS contact’ and so it must be a penalty. It seems that the briefest brushing of a player’s bootlaces justifies a penalty (and often as not a card). Do players have any moral (or sporting) responsibility to try to play the game as it’s supposed to be played or is it OK to hit the ground at the slightest contact to gain an advantage. If this was to be so all over the pitch we’d never have more than a few seconds of unbroken play. I’m not advocating the Nat Lofthouse / Chopper Harris philosophy of playing the game but some penalties are given for contact no stronger than a puff of wind.

  • Gord


    It has nothing to do with schoolgirl’s netball.

    Football is a contact game. However, the only contact permitted is shoulder to shoulder contact when the ball is within playing distance. All other contact is a foul. And to provide flow to the game, it is at the referees discretion as to whether to award a free kick or not.

    As I pointed out above, and Walter verified, all these other “fouls” which seem to be ignored, shouldn’t be. The good referee will mention to players in the course of the game to stop doing things. If they don’t, even if it is the next occurrence and very minor, the referee is within his/her right to issue a yellow card for persistent infringement.

    If you feel the game should be played in such a way that it is okay to accidentally break an opponent’s leg, you would probably be better off giving up football and following sport where intent to injure is part of the sport.

    I have done some refereeing (in Canada, so backwoods, even if it was at the highest amateur level). I’ve spent way more time doing athletic first aid for football teams (20+ years). And I’ve played football. I am not highly skilled. For my size I am very strong, and when I was playing regularly my VO2_max was much better than most people I played against. Being someone who has patched up players before, during or after games, I have no desire to see anyone get hurt. That notwithstanding, I have hurt people in playing football. A couple of those injuries probably had lifetime consequences. This from someone who knows injuries and tries to only go into “collisions” in a manner which isn’t meant to hurt anyone.

    There are no end of injuries in professional football from people “who aren’t bad players”, caused by people who play in such a manner that serious injuries are inevitable. Coaches and managers can see this. Eventually, the player will go into a tackle, and the result is a serious injury; usually to the opponent. As it isn’t (usually) an injury to a player on his own team, there is no problem. All that has to happen is that the manager say that this “boy” would never seek to injure anyone else, and all is forgiven.

    The coaches all through the player’s career and the manager, in reality they are all complicit. At the most senior level (the manager of the professional team currently on, and all previous managers of professionals teams this person played for) the manager would know without a doubt that the player was approaching situations in a way that could cause serious injury.

    I suppose one could hope that people coming through the system from children would be taught how to play so as to avoid injuring opponents. That doesn’t happen.

    At times, having players willing to injure an opponent or “useful”. Ask Pele about that.

    If soccer (football) is the beautiful game, no player should go into the game with an idea about hurting any opponent to the point they need medical intervention. Players that go into the game with the idea that they will (or could likely) end some other player’s career, should not be allowed on the pitch.

    Sorry, too long.

  • Domhuaille

    Walter…good explanation and just a small point here: ¨Committing a foul results in a free kick. I think nobody will disagree with this. In case the foul is in the penalty area a penalty should be given.¨ You didn’t mention that it must be a direct free kick in the penalty area(ie: a penalty), and that brings me to my other point.
    I have almost never seen an indirect free kick in the penalty are given. Yet in amateur Football it is quite commonly given. whenever I see an obvious defensive foul ignored by the referee in the penalty area, I ask myself: would that foul have been punished if it had occurred outside the area or alternately, or alternately, if the foul is punished in the area, would it have been ignored outside the area?
    This deals with your question about why serious foul play in the area seems to be ignored so often, despite it happening right in the referees face! I believe it has a lot to do with what I always called the moment of TRUTH. That is the moment in a referee’s game when he or she has to make a very difficult, risky, contentious or game changing decision (a penalty, an expulsion, an attacking free kick right on the opponent’s area, etc.). This is when I see a referee ¨back down¨ and either ignore the foul or punish it less severely, in order to escape the consequences. It seems to me that our EPL officials opt for the lesser of two evils when officiating certain games in certain stadiums. There is definitely a double standard in the EPL and there is also an excessively lenient tolerance for two-footed and flying scissor tackles, shirt pulling (to the point of ripping it off the player’s back, holding the player like he was crazy-glued to his opponent, interfering and blocking like ice hockey, shoving and pushing opponents with gusto, screaming at an opponent while verbally abusing him, dragging a player off the ground, slapping the back of his head, etc.).
    I think the EPL officials are avoiding controversy, SAF style ranting, media scrutiny and the like in order to ¨buy¨peace and avoid being verbally attacked on the field and in the media. These men prefer a moment of invisibility to the TRUTH. Good officiating is all about being firm but fair, having the courage to call it as it is regardless of the consequences and protecting the game, the players and the spirit of the Law…anything else is a sham.

  • WalterBroeckx


    thanks for the correction. You are right I should have mention the “direct free kick”. I was caught up in my own way of thinking and presumed everybody knew what I was meaning.

    You are also right about indirect free kicks hardly being given. And obstruction in the penalty area is not a penalty but an indirect free kick and yet it is never given.

    And for the last part I also agree: yes some refs are afraid for the consequences and back off from the decision. I always say: if you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen. As a ref you don’t have to look for controversy but when controversy is looking for you, you must be brave and take it on.

  • Stuart

    Is it really a double punishment? I think there were two offences carried out, the first being bringing the player down and the second being stopping a goal scoring opportunity. Bringing a player down when they are on goal warrants A red card and the robbing of a goal opportunity justifies the penalty kick to me.