Free Kick vs Penalty – What’s The Difference?

Last updated on December 1st, 2022

When players commit fouls against the opposition during a match, a referee can punish them by awarding a free kick or a penalty kick. 

These kicks are valuable because they are good goal-scoring opportunities, particularly in the case of penalty kicks. It is not unusual for players to try to trick referees by faking a foul so they can be awarded either of these kicks.

However, even though both kicks result from fouls and are used to restart play, they have notable differences. This article will provide you with an in-depth explanation of all the differences between a free kick and a penalty kick, so read on.

The Difference Between a Free Kick and a Penalty in Football

They may look similar, but there are several differences between a free kick and a penalty kick. 

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Free kicks, according to Law 13 of the Laws of the Game, are ways to restart a football match and are awarded when a player commits a foul or an infraction outside the penalty area.

Conversely, a penalty kick, according to Law 14 of IFAB (International Football Association Board), is an uncontested shot awarded when a player commits an infraction or a foul within the penalty box during a goal-scoring opportunity.

The location of the foul is crucial since that determines the kind of kick the referee will award to the team of the fouled player.

There are other types of set pieces too, including a corner kick and goal kick, and you can find out the differences here.

How Do They Happen?

The referee awards a free kick or a penalty kick after a foul occurs. 

When a player fouls an opponent outside the penalty box, the referee awards a free kick against the offending team. 

In most scenarios, the foul occurs when a player is rough when trying to regain possession of the ball from the opponent or when the player roughly hinders the movement of the opposition player. 

Referees award free kicks by blowing their whistles to first stop all play. Next, they point to where the player must place the ball and, with their free arm, towards the goalpost of the offending team.

Players determine which team has a foul and can restart the game by looking at the direction in which the referee points.

The referee awards a penalty kick when a player on the defending team commits a foul in his penalty box. The foul can be a rough attempt to win the ball, impeding the attacking player, or a handball in the penalty area.

To award the penalty kick, the referee blows his whistle and points his other hand to the penalty area/spot of the offending team.

Location of Kick

A player can only take a free kick from the spot where the foul occurred. The referee sometimes uses a temporarily vanishing spray to show the spot where the ball should be placed.

Penalty kicks can only be taken from a penalty spot located 11 meters (or 12 yards) from the goal line in the penalty area. The penalty spot is usually marked and centred and is at the equidistant midpoint between both goalposts.

Important Boundaries

When the referee has awarded either a free kick or a penalty kick, there are boundary rules all players must follow. The free kick or penalty kick will probably be retaken if any player from either team fails to observe these rules.

When taking a free kick, players must observe the following rules:

  • The ball must be on the spot where the foul happened.
  • If a foul occurs outside the pitch, the ball will be placed closest to the spot where it occurred.
  • The defending team players are allowed to set up a player’s wall, but they must be at least 10 yards or 9.15 meters from where the ball is placed. Any attempt to intercept the ball while the player is less than 10 yards will lead to the free kick being retaken.
  • Only in the case of a quick free kick can a player less than a yard away attempt to intercept the ball.

When taking a penalty kick, players must follow these boundary rules:

  • The ball must be placed on the penalty spot which must be 12 yards or 11 meters from the goal line.
  • The goalkeeper must not leave the goal line until the attacking player makes contact with the ball. If the goalkeeper moves before the player touch the ball, the kick is retaken.
  • The only players allowed in the penalty box are the penalty taker and the goalkeeper. Until the penalty taker kicks the ball, every other player must remain outside the box.
  • The goalkeeper must have at least one foot touching the goal line or be behind the goal line before the penalty taker kicks the ball.

You can find out more about why there is a ‘D’ boundary outside the penalty box here.

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Types of Free Kicks

There are mainly two types of free kicks usually awarded during a match. A free kick can be either a direct free kick or an indirect free kick. 

Direct Free Kicks:

Direct free kicks are the most common types of free kicks awarded by referees in football matches. 

They are goal-scoring kicks that are awarded in response to the majority of serious fouls in a football match. Fouls such as rough tackles, impeding players, or handballs are punished with a direct free kick in the goal area of the offending team. 

The referee can also award a direct free kick in any part of the pitch except the penalty area. They signal this by pointing in the goal direction of the offending team, as shown in the clip below.

Indirect Free Kicks:

Indirect free kicks are those awarded by the referee for minor infractions. These are usually non-contact fouls, which rarely happen in a match.

For example, referees consider a goalkeeper picking up a back pass a non-contact foul, so the referee awards an indirect kick to the other team. Indirect kicks are the only type of free kick allowed in the penalty area.

The clip below shows the referee’s signal for an indirect kick.

Types of Penalty kicks

Penalty kicks are one of the best and most direct attempts to score a goal any team can get. Coaches generally put their players through shooting drills to hone their penalty-scoring techniques. Some of the top examples of the best types of penalty kicks include the following:

#1 The Panenka

Panenka penalty kicks are one of the most cheeky styles of taking a penalty kick. It involves chipping the ball down the middle in a lob, as most defending goalkeepers tend to dive to the sides.

Players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Suarez have used this cheeky method to score penalties, as shown in the clip below:

#2 The Stutter Step

Players regularly hit penalty kicks hard and with a pace directed at a corner to prevent the goalkeeper from diving and saving it. Players who use the stutter step take a different approach as they run forward slowly and take a hop before hitting the ball, usually after the keeper has likely dived.

A good proponent of this style of penalty kicks is Jorginho, and here are some of his best penalty kicks with this technique:

#3 The Ezequiel

The Ezequiel is a penalty kick technique named and made famous by Ezequiel Calvente. It involves running up to the penalty spot and kicking the ball with the standing foot rather than the swinging foot. 

This simple trick fools goalkeepers into diving in the wrong direction, as shown in the clip below:

#4 The One-Two Pass

With penalty kicks, it is the penalty taker against the goalkeeper, but the kicker can bypass this with a clever trick. This technique happens when the player, rather than making a direct shot, passes the ball so a fellow teammate can take a clearer shot at the goal.

Some good examples of this technique are in the clip below:

You can find out how it is possible to pass a penalty here.

#5 The Pressman 

The Pressman technique gets its name from former Sheffield Wednesday goalkeeper Kevin Pressman and is the most common penalty kick technique used by players. 

It involves hitting the ball at a hard pace and a high angle to ensure the goalkeeper does not save the penalty kick. 

The clip below shows the best description of this hard-hitting technique:

Can You Score From a Free Kick or Penalty Kick?

In penalty kick situations, players can score directly, but in free kick situations, scoring rules are a bit complex.

A penalty kick is the ultimate goal-scoring chance, and the kicker has a 75% chance of converting the penalty kick into a goal. It is simpler to score than other direct kicks since it is just the goalkeeper defending it and so close to the goal. 

However, if the ball hits the post, it is not possible for the player to score from the rebound.

The scoring rules for free kicks are more complex since there are two types of free kicks.

With direct free kicks, the taker can score a direct free kick attempt from anywhere on the pitch, as direct free kicks are considered a legitimate goal-scoring attempt. An example is Lionel Messi scoring this superb direct panenka free kick: 

Players are not allowed to score indirect free kicks directly; the ball must be passed to or touched by another player before entering the goal. 

If a player kicks an indirect free kick into the goalpost, the goal will not stand, and the referee will give the other side a goal kick.

The video below is a very good example of a goal scored from an indirect free kick:

Who Can Take a Free Kick or Penalty Kick?

When a referee awards a free kick, any player on the team receiving the free kick, including the goalkeeper, is entitled to take it.

Because free kicks provide excellent opportunities for goals, most teams select one or two players with technical abilities as designated takers. These players can spin or curl the ball more effectively than their teammates and frequently practice taking free kicks on the training field.

However, don’t forget to make sure you’re not in an offside position when the free kick is being taken!

Penalty kicks are often taken by attacking players such as strikers or midfielders, although they can be taken by any team member, even the goalkeeper.

In fact, scoring a penalty is one of the main ways that a goalkeeper can score a goal in a match.

Penalty kicks are excellent goal-scoring opportunities, so players with high shot accuracy are normally selected to take them.

Rules When Taking a Free Kick or Penalty Kick 

Players from either team must observe some rules when taking a free kick or penalty kick. Any violation may result in the kick being retaken or the referee giving the other team a free kick.

For free kicks:

  • The ball must be stationary before the player kicks it.
  • The ball is considered in play if it is kicked and has moved.
  • When the referee awards a defending team a free kick in their goal area, they can take it anywhere in the goal area.
  • In the case of a quick free kick, an opponent near the ball must not deliberately prevent the ball from being kicked. 
  • Players can feint kicking the ball when taking a free kick to confuse the opposition. 

For penalty kicks:

  • The ball must be stationary before the player kicks it.
  • The penalty kick taker must play the ball forward.
  • The referee considers the ball in play from the time the player touches it, regardless of how far it moves.
  • The penalty kick taker can only kick the ball once and can only touch it again after another player has kicked it.
  • If a defending team player, including the goalkeeper, commits an offense when the penalty kick is being taken and it is saved, the kick must be retaken.

Final Verdict

Here’s a summary of the differences between a free kick and a penalty kick:

Free KicksPenalty Kicks
Ball placementThe player must place the ball on the spot the foul occurs.The player can only place the ball on the penalty spot
Ball directionThe player can play the ball in any direction.The penalty taker must always play the ball forward when taking a penalty kick
Defending playersEvery member of the defending team can help defend against a free kick.Only the goalkeeper is allowed to defend against a penalty kick.
Awarded forMost fouls outside the penalty box
except in the rare case of an indirect free kick.
Only for fouls that happen in the penalty area. 
Odds of scoringLow odds of scoringVery high odds of scoring
Referee SignalThe referee blows his whistle, points to the spot the foul occurs, and then to the offending team’s goalThe referee blows his whistle and points to the penalty spot of the offending team
Number of kickersMultiple players can stand near the free kickOnly the penalty taker is allowed to stand near the ball

Penalties are also taken in a penalty shootout, and you can learn more about penalty shootouts here.

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