World Cup: Mexico vs. Netherlands Reveals Flaws in Rules Governing Penalty Kicks

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World Cup: Mexico vs. Netherlands Reveals Flaws in Rules Governing Penalty Kicks
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

If you watched the tragedy that was Mexico vs. the Netherlands in the 2014 World Cup round of 16, then you're already well aware that the existing system of awarding penalty kicks is flawed.

If you missed the action in Fortaleza, then all you need to know is that Arjen Robben of the Netherlands exaggerated a minor collision in the box and was awarded what looked to be a very questionable penalty kick in the late goings of a drama-soaked encounter.

After a first-half strike by Giovani dos Santos, the Netherlands brought the heat in the second half and were rewarded with an absolute rocket by Wesley Sneijder that evened the score at 1-1 with less than two minutes left in regulation.

Six exciting minutes later, the referee observed an infraction by Mexico in their own penalty box and awarded the Netherlands an early holiday gift in the form of a free pass to the quarterfinals of the 2014 World Cup.

In doing so, the official also robbed millions of worldwide soccer fans the thrill of watching these two teams fight tooth and nail for that same prize in overtime and a possible penalty shootout.

For El Tri, it was a crushing whistle announcing their sixth consecutive loss in the round of 16 at the World Cup. For a team that qualified by the skin of their teeth in 2014, Mexico had demonstrated some exquisite fortitude in passing through a difficult group and then standing toe-to-toe with one of the tournament favorites in the the knockout round. 

The master behind Mexico's rejuvenation, head coach Miguel Herrera, let the referees know exactly how he felt after the game in what was clearly an extension of the same passion and fire that had catalyzed this group into a threat in the first place.

While Herrera's frustration is certainly understandable, the time and place for his rant probably could have been reserved for a later date.

Nonetheless, this shocking and disappointing result will probably linger in the minds of most Mexicans this week like a few too many shots of tequila after a long night out in Tijuana. And the Mexican fans won't be alone in their suffering: scores of other global soccer fans are without question just as miffed as they are. 

Officiating is never perfect, but as with many other examples from past World Cups, the problem may actually lie in the system, not with the referee. 

The modern game has transformed into one of cat and mouse, in terms of exaggerated dives to the pitch in search of a free kick. Nowhere else are these tactics so masterfully practiced as in the two 18-yard rectangles of grass that surround each team's goal.

The penalty kick was of course designed to deter any extracurricular activity near the woodwork when a player is moving toward a goalscoring opportunity. In the modern game, however, players appear to be taking liberal advantage of that sensitivity in the box, acting the part of a molested player as opposed to legitimately trying to put the ball in the back of the net.

Due to this transformation in attitude, the rules of soccer must be tweaked to adjust for this more unsavory approach to the game.

The same player who brought this question to the forefront, Robben, actually admitted after the game that he does indeed intentionally "dive" on occasion. After the game, Robben told reporters, "I have to say, in the first half -- and right away offer my excuses -- I dived. I mustn’t do that. It was another stupid action.” 

If that isn't clear evidence a change is needed, than nothing likely will be.

Skipping past options A-Z for amending the current system, the best solution may be to simply open up the entire field for referees to use the three-option system of calling fouls. 

Currently, outside the penalty area, a referee has the option to call a "regular" foul, a yellow-card foul or a red-card foul. The question is why that discretion should be limited within the goalkeeper's box. 

Why not give officials the option to call a regular foul in the box that results in a free-kick from the spot of the foul? Fouls that merit a yellow or red card would still result in a penalty kick, as seen today. 

By adding the standard foul into the equation within the goalkeeper's box, officials would possess the arsenal necessary to arbitrate fouls based on severityon every single piece of the pitch.  

To reiterate, the only change would be that non-carded fouls occurring in the penalty box would not result in a penalty kick. In this scenario, the opposing team would have the ability to form a wall or otherwise defend their area according to the rules of the game, as with any other free-kick on the field. 

As it stands now, referees are "boxed" in by the rules governing the game, as any judgment they make in the penalty box can have a dramatic impact of the game. It’s clear that the gravity of these decisions often weigh on the decision-makers and create unfortunate and imperfect results. 

Judgment will always be an important ingredient in officiating soccer games, but this minor change could improve not only the ability of the referees to do their jobs but also help produce the fairest result.

For "standard" fouls in the box, FIFA could even legislate that the ball should be placed at either corner of the 18-yard line instead of having teams kick from the spot of the foul.

The exact details can be worked out easily by FIFA once they've moved swiftly to ensure that disappointing outcomes like the Mexico-Netherlands match don't occur again. Opening up the entire field to the three-option foul system would likely have an immediate and significant impact on producing the fairest outcome possible in a soccer game. 

As it stands now, the referees simply have too much power when it comes to fouls committed in the box. And the blame for this injustice lies not with the referees but with those governing the rules of the game.

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