The debate: should Fifa really get rid of penalty shoot-outs?
15:32, 25 May 2012
Miguel Delaney argues that, for all the perceived problems, there is no more perfect way to settle a tie-break
We’ve all been there. The 112th-minute of some god-awful knock-out nil-all
You haven’t invested a lot of emotion – because there simply hasn’t been any in a drab game – but you have invested a lot of time.
And the only consolation now is that, at the very least, you’ll get to enjoy the distilled drama of a penalty shoot-out. That, in some way, will make it worth it...
... until, four minutes from that tantalising prospect, the game is settled with an opportune goal from a set-piece.
It isn’t even a good goal. The situation, however, is absolutely galling.
But now, it seems, Sepp Blatter wants to perpetuate it. He wants to take penalty shoot-outs away from us permanently.
“Football can be a tragedy when you go to penalty kicks," Blatter told the Fifa Congress in Budapest today. “Football should not go to one. When it goes to penalty kicks, football loses its essence.”
Is that really true though?
To answer, let’s first be clear. If it was anyone other than the self-serving Blatter, you might have a certain amount of sympathy.
Players’ entire careers have been tarnished by one kick. It also seems unfair - and contradictory - to boil a team game down to individuals.
But, when you really analyse it, what are the alternatives?
Consider, after all, what penalties replaced.
Up until the early '70s, the very grandest football matches were decided by literal coin tosses: the Euro 68 semi-final, countless European Cup games.
When Liverpool finished level with Koln in the 1964-65 quarter-final, the referee threw the coin – which was actually a betting chip – into the air, only for it to get stuck in the mud, side up.
Ron Yeats takes up the story.
“Up it went and didn’t it stick in a divot. I said to the ref, ‘You’ll have to re-toss.’ And he went, ‘You’re right, Mr Yeats.’ I thought the German captain would hit me. He was going berserk as it was falling over on their side.’ The disc was flipped again.”
Liverpool went through.
Nine years after that, Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich finished level in the European Cup final. This time, Uefa decided to stage a replay two days later.
In terms of pure competitiveness, this is undoubtedly the fairest way.
But, as regards everything else, it’s entirely unfair.
Consider this. Because of fixture congestion and the fact the World Cup was coming up imminently, the 1974 final had to be staged the day before Bayern had a Bundesliga match against their main rivals of the time, Borussia Monchengladbach. It was just as well they had already won the domestic title, as – with a lot of alcohol on them but absolutely no sleep – the new European champions were thrashed 5-0.
Imagine that situation in the tightly controlled, hysterical adherence to international calendars of the modern game? The FA Cup final has already been moved to the same day as league fixtures.
And what about the fans? It’s simply unfair to ask people to shell out for another expensive few days in a foreign city, plus – more than likely – another match ticket.
What’s more, the prospect of a replay would remove the sense of epic finality to, well, a final.
As for other alternatives, many have mentioned the idea of counting corners or other attack-based stats. But this could lead to farcical unintended consequences like teams chasing set-pieces rather than goals at the end of a game.
Because, while some sides do play for penalties now, there is still the prospect of at least hitting the other side on the break.
Solo runs towards goal also form the basis of one of the more popular suggestions: the hockey-inspired one-on-one from 35 yards out.
In theory, this seems exciting. In practice, it’s even more contrived than penalties and the run towards goal can even be more laboured... and somewhat odd.
Because, when you break it right down, Blatter is completely wrong. Far from football losing its essence, penalties are the very essence of football: a single kick try and beat an opposition player and score. That is the most fundamental, basic piece of skill in the sport.
It’s just unfortunate that a false narrative has been built up around it, that players get psychologically spooked by ideas of it being a “lottery”.
When you think about it, after all, a more accomplished technical player like Arjen Robben should be far more capable of scoring from 12 yards than a defender like David Luiz.
But, of course, the whole psychological aspect only adds to the drama; enhances the sense of spectacle. Isn’t this what Blatter wants?
It’s certainly more exciting than a drab 0-0 draw.
The one improvement that could be made, however, is in terms of the order of penalties. As Ben Lyttleton argues, the team that hits the first penalty in a shoot-out wins 60% of the time. In order to level this out, the order should be reversed as in tennis. For example: team A, team B, team B, team A, team A, team B, team B.
Otherwise, though, it’s hard to think of a more perfect way to settle a tie-break. Or a more thrilling one.
Miguel Delaney is a European football journalist who writes for the Evening Herald, the Irish Examiner, ESPN, the London Independent and ourselves. In 2011, he was nominated for Irish sports journalist of the year.
Follow him @migueldelaney
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