The World Cup is the most prestigious competition in football, with 32 teams from around the globe (or 48 from 2026) competing every four years to win the coveted Jules Rimet trophy. Its importance on the sporting calendar has held true through the ages, beginning with the very first edition in 1930.
However, since that inaugural tournament in Uruguay, many modifications have been made to its format, as well as its structure. In terms of rule changes, we have seen how the penalty kick has become increasingly important in recent editions. Indeed, the introduction of the penalty shootout in 1982 was a watershed moment that changed the World Cup forever.
Three decades later, FIFA mandated the use of VAR at a Finals for the first time, which also significantly impacted the number of penalty kicks that were awarded that summer. Suffice to say, penalties have never been so decisive at the World Cup, which raises the question: just how common are they today compared to early tournaments?
The Importance Of Penalties Through The Ages
The penalty kick as we know it today was first introduced into Association Football in 1891. Awarded for an infringement inside the box, it gave the taker a free shot at goal with just the goalkeeper in the way.
Since then, its importance in the game has only increased. At the very beginning of its usage, referees adopted a very laissez-faire approach to officiating games, meaning that fouls weren’t as commonplace as they are today. This bled into the early editions of the World Cup, as in 1930, only one penalty was scored in the entire tournament – by Mexican Manuel Rosas in their 6-3 loss to eventual finalists Argentina.
As time has gone on, penalties have started to be awarded for smaller and smaller infractions, especially in regard to unintentional fouls. Dangerous play, tripping, handling of the ball, and charging are now penalised with much greater regularity, which has had a notable impact on the number of penalties we see in all competitions. This general clamping down on foul play by officials has forced defenders to adapt their games and has even given rise to attacking developments like “diving” and appealing to try and get a penalty awarded for their team.
Significant Rule Changes In Football
- 1891 – the invention of the kick of death, or the ‘penalty kick’ as it would come to be known
- 1902 – The penalty spot was invented. Prior to this, takers could shoot from anywhere along the 12-yard line
- 1903 – Infringements such as handball, tripping, pushing, holding and kicking an opposition player inside the box all now result in a penalty kick rather than an indirect freekick
- 1912 – The keepers can only handle the ball inside the penalty area
- 1937 – Modern 18-yard box – or penalty area – was created, with the addition of the semi-circle
- 1992 – Keepers can no longer pick the ball up when it is passed back to them by a teammate
- 1998 – Referees are instructed to award straight red cards for violent tackles from behind
- 2009 – UEFA begin trialling extra officials at the side of the goal, or ‘assistant referees’
- 2017 – VAR is debuted for the very first time in the MLS
- 2018 – New handball interpretations make penalties more likely
Which World Cup Tournaments Had The Most Penalties?
|Year||Matches Played||Penalties Awarded In Game||Penalties Scored In Game||Penalties Saved In Game||Penalties Missed In Game|
Incrementally, we’ve seen more penalties awarded at World Cups with each passing decade. From only four being given at the 1930 World Cup in Uruguay, there was an all-time high of 18 penalties from open play by the time of the 1998 World Cup in France. This remained the record until the scarcely believable 29 at Russia in 2018. Although, things did seem to calm slightly with 23 in 2022 despite VAR (perhaps defenders are getting more wise?).
While there were some outliers during this span, including the five awarded in 1970 and the 13 in 2014, the increase has been pretty consistent, perfectly capturing how rule changes have impacted the game and the way its officiated.
In the case of the 29 penalties at the 2018 World Cup, the reason for the sharp increase from four years earlier is pretty clear – the introduction of VAR. We will assess the rise to prominence of VAR a bit later in this piece, but it’s important to note how impactful it has been, as the ‘Video Assistant Referee’ is able to see infringements that previously wouldn’t have been picked up by the man in the middle.
Just how common penalties are at a World Cup Finals also very much depends upon the number of games that are played. For instance, where there were only five penalties awarded at the 1938 tournament, there were also only 18 matches played in total, meaning that one was given just over every four games.
However, the highest percentage of penalties per match at any World Cup is still very much Russia in 2018, as there was just shy of a penalty every other game – which is remarkable in and of itself. The lowest during the 64-game era of the World Cup Finals (since 1998) came in 2010, where one was awarded for every 6.5 matches.
Penalty shootouts At The World Cup
We may take them for granted today, but for over half of the World Cup’s lifespan, penalty shootouts simply didn’t exist. First created in 1970, the tournament wouldn’t host a shootout until 1982 when West Germany edged past France in the Semi-final. The format was actually introduced for the 1978 World Cup, but as fate would have it, no game would require the dreaded penalties.
All in all, there have been 35 shootouts since 1982, with three even deciding the destination of the Jules Rimet trophy. In both 1994, 2006m and 2022 penalties were required after the two finalists couldn’t be separated in 120 minutes of play. Italy were the beaten finalists in ’94 to Brazil, with Roberto Baggio’s skied spot-kick the abiding image from that tournament. However, the Azzurri would enact their revenge in 2006 by defeating France in a shootout at Berlin’s Olympiastadion. Argentina scored all their penalties against France in 2022 but the French had two saved losing 4-2 (following a 3-3 draw after extra-time) – There were 3 penalties in open play during the game, two for France (both scored by Mbappe) and one for Argentina (scored by Messi), that is the most penalties in open play in a final.
Contrary to the current trend of open play penalties being awarded with more regularity at the World Cup Finals, shootout numbers have remained fairly consistent since the 90s. The average number of shootouts for a World Cup tournament is just over three, as only in 1990, 2006, 2014, 2018 and 2022 were four used to decide a knockout match. The other two 21st century World Cups, 2002 and 2010, each only had two shootouts, showing that there isn’t really a clear trend over time.
Out of the 16 knockout games at the World Cup, a shootout took place 25% of the time in 1990, 2006, 2014, 2018 and 2022, while it did so just 12.5% of the time in 2002 and 2010. What this tells us, more than anything, is that teams have a duty to prepare for a shootout, as the chances of them being involved in one could be as high as one in four. The success of nations like Argentina who have won six shootouts, also appears to show that there is a science to penalties – despite what some may argue.
World Cup Penalty Shootouts
|World Cup year||Number of shootouts||Percentage per knockout game||Winning sides|
|1986||3||18.75%||France, West Germany, Belgium|
|1990||4||25%||Ireland, Argentina (x2), W. Germany|
|1994||3||18.75%||Bulgaria, Sweden, Brazil (F)|
|1998||3||18.75%||Argentina, France, Brazil|
|2002||2||12.5%||Spain, South Korea|
|2006||4||25%||Ukraine, Germany, Portugal, Italy (F)|
|2014||4||25%||Brazil, C. Rica, Netherlands, Argentina|
|2018||4||25%||Russia, Croatia (x2), England|
|2022||4||25%||Argentina (x2), Croatia (x2)|
Why Are We Seeing More Penalties Than Ever Before?
Returning to penalties in open play, we can put forward some theories as to the increased number of penalties that we saw at the World Cup in Russia and somewhat so at Qatar in 2022.
Introduction of VAR
While VAR in and of itself cannot account for the rise in the number of penalties at the 2018 World Cup, it most certainly had a sizeable impact. Across every significant competition where VAR has been implemented, we’ve seen a sharp rise in penalties given and red cards dished out, as nothing now goes unmissed.
As an example, in Russia, 11 of the 29 penalties that were awarded were successfully converted after the referee either missed the incident entirely or gave the wrong decision in real-time.
In the time since the technology’s introduction, which was still in its infancy at the 2018 World Cup, VAR has been deployed in a much more level-headed manner. Moreover, players are now acutely aware that they won’t get away with anything in and around the penalty box. It’s, therefore, unlikely that we’ll ever have a scenario like 2018 again, where both players and officials were still getting used to VAR and its many quirks.
“Generally, it should be noted that FIFA is extremely satisfied with the level of refereeing to date and the successful implementation of the VAR system, which on the whole has been positively accepted and appreciated within our football community,”
said FIFA Media Relations Manager Giovanni Marti in the aftermath of the 2018 tournament.
Indeed, 2022 is testament to that. While the number of penalties given was higher than all other tournaments except 2018 there were 6 less than in Russia. This shows that VAR is becoming more intelligent and players are becoming better at no giving penalties away knowing that all actions will be checked now on video.
New Handball Interpretations
The use of video assistants at the 2018 World Cup also coincided with a new directive from FIFA and football’s other governing bodies. One such outcome of this directive was a much stricter interpretation of the handball rule, which was evidenced by the officiating at the 2018 World Cup.
For the tournament in Russia, it was decided that penalties could be awarded even if a handball from the defending player was accidental and/or was deflected from very close range. Once again, this is another rule that players have gotten used to in the years since, but back in 2018, it had a notable impact on spot-kick numbers. In total, five penalties were awarded for handball in 2018, with France even benefitting in the Final when the ball crashed into the arm of Croatia forward Ivan Perisic.
Officially, the new rule stipulated that a penalty could be awarded against the offending player if the hand that made contact was in an “unnatural position”. In a sign of how football has changed since then, we very regularly hear pundits reference “unnatural” arm positions when discussing potential penalty incidents in the Premier League.
In 2022 handball rules were relaxed a bit more and only X penalties were awarded for handball. Plus, players have gotten more used to new handball rules and make more conscious decisions to keep their arms out of the way as much as possible.
Will These Patterns Continue In 2026?
Ultimately, it’s impossible to predict whether we’ll see similar penalty numbers this year as we did in 2018 and 2022. The main reason for this is the context around the World Cup four and eight years ago, as the handball rules and VAR were both new to the game. With eight years to adapt, you’d assume that players would be more cognizant as to what they can and cannot get away with.
We also don’t know how the tournament will be officiated, as a new directive could yet be announced. This leaves me to speculate that the number of penalties in USA/Canada and Mexico will likely dip back down to ‘normal’ levels, as Russia and Qatar are very much outliers for a number of different reasons.
What we can be fairly certain of, however, is the overall numbers of penalties at the 2026 World Cup should be high or higher thanks to the fact there are 80 matches instead of 64. There will likely be more shootouts too given a whole round of 32 has been added to the knockout stage, doubling the number of knockout games from 16 to 32. The interesting point will be whether the number of penalties per game goes down, which I suspect it will.
As we’ve demonstrated throughout this piece, the importance of the penalty kick has changed drastically since the very first World Cup back in 1930. Today, in order for a team to succeed, a specialist spot-kick taker is essential, while it’s also vital that the rest of your squad is ready to take one in the event of a shootout.
Rules changes have created an environment where we see more penalties than ever before, although entirely whether that will remain the case in future editions of the World Cup remains to be seen. What we can say with some confidence is the days of one penalty being scored at a World Cup Finals are most certainly over – barring a massive overhaul of the sport’s rule book.