In defence of penalty shoot-outs
5 June ~ "And so the greatest game in the world will be decided by the lottery of a penalty shoot-out." The words of John Motson moments before England's penalty shoot-out defeat against West Germany at Italia 90. The perpetual myth is sure to be peddled this summer. That the penalty shoot-out is somehow football's equivalent of Russian roulette with journalists bemoaning that a game at this level should be decided in such a manner.
"We hit the target and it's all you can do. He made some amazing saves. They are so hard, there's so much emotion around them. It's not about talent. It just didn't work out." The thoughts of Owen Hargreaves after England were dumped out of the last World Cup by Portugal. The belief that succeeding from the spot after extra-time is nothing more than a game of chance was echoed by a shoot-out winner in that tournament, Iker Casillas. He said: "We were lucky to get over this hurdle. It is a lottery."
Is it though? Perhaps if Rooney, Ronaldo and co are forced to take their spot-kicks blindfolded while the goalkeeper is wearing roller skates then maybe. But comparing the attempt of the world's best footballers to score from 12 yards out with that of a random act seems derogatory to the talent on display.
Scoring from the spot-kick could be considered to be football in its most pure form. A test of performing skills under intense pressure, the very essence of sport at the highest level. Of course there is an element of chance involved, yet all the usual variables considered to be “unlucky” – a poor refereeing decision, wicked deflection or act of diving – are all negated. The scope for blaming bad luck should surely be reduced, so why does it happen? Rarely will a manager comment after a victory that his team were just "plain lucky". As Ed Smith says in his book, What Sport Tells Us About Life, doing so admits the limits of one's talents and self-determination. Pointing a finger at the referee after a defeat is often the usual default setting for a manager. Blaming bad luck, however, sounds far too much like sour grapes.
During normal time there are far more events over which one side will have virtually no control that may dictate whether a team wins or loses. Yet it is far easier to blame luck in a shoot-out, as though a defeat on penalties does not really count. Roberto Donadoni certainly thought so when his Italian side were knocked out by Spain in Euro 2008. "It is a lottery. They have been really good and have had a very strong bond. It doesn't matter what result they achieved.” Except that it does. Spain went on to win the tournament and, following the Azzuri's elimination, Donadoni was sacked as manager. In four of the last five World Cups the winner has successfully won a penalty shoot-out en route to lifting the trophy.
At France 1998 Glen Hoddle freely admitted that his England team had not practiced penalties, reasoning that it would be impossible to create the pressured atmosphere in training – muddled thinking which has contributed to England losing four out of their last six penalty shoot-outs. David Batty – who missed the decisive fifth penalty – admitted after the tournament that he had never even taken a penalty in training before being entrusted with the responsibility by his manager. It is near impossible to create the same high-stakes environment of any tournament game, yet a manager wouldn't practice defending and set piece routines.
By the time the World Cup is lifted there will have been many chance encounters that may change the course of the tournament. Four years ago, Italy rode their luck en route to lifting the trophy. They received a fortuitous penalty decision when down to ten men against Australia in the second round and then profited from a Zinedine Zidane moment of madness in the final.
A smattering of the same good fortune could see England's captain holding the world cup aloft on July 11. Yet if the waking nightmare of the penalty shoot-out exit returns, blame a fragile temperament, bad preparation or bad skill. Just don't blame bad luck. Steven Quick
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