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

Comments (10)
Comment by waterlooroader 2010-06-05 12:07:38

Reminds me of a "Top Tip" from Viz a few years back
"Footballers: Spend the 30 minutes of extra time passing the ball aimlessly between defenders and goalkeeper and then complain about the "Insane lottery" of a penalty shootout"

Comment by jupiter53 2010-06-05 12:26:22

In China this week the Australian women's team won the Asian Championship beating a superior DPR Korea team in a penalty shoootout after a 1-1 finish. There was torrential rain and the penalty area was absolutely sodden. The Matildas hit 5 of 5 while one of the Koreans hit hers wide.
Of course the Australians got to the last World Cup by knocking off Uruguay in an epic shootout so on this side of the world shootouts look pretty good.
You are absolutely right that it is the opposite of a lottery. It's down to skill and above all the determination and coolness to execute that skill.
Surely Cappello has got your blokes to practice this time! No excuses!

Comment by tratorello 2010-06-05 17:21:07

I love the "can't practice penalties because you can't recreate the pressure" argument, this is why firemen never train and are just given a hose and told to get on with it and soldiers never bother with exercises because you can't recreate the exact conditions of a battlefield...

Comment by Dalef65 2010-06-06 13:32:30

What kind of proffessional footballer has never even taken a penalty in training.....???
The mind boggles.

Comment by Braai on Earth... 2010-06-06 13:34:53

If anyone's interested, I've just done the calculations for this. The algebra's a bit taxing, but an example might be instructive. Germany have converted 93% of their shootout penalties over the years, whereas England have converted 68%. Assuming those conversion rates, Germany could be expected to beat England in 91% of the penalty shootouts in which the two teams meet.

Of course, it gets more complicated than that in practice, because different teams have different records of penalty-[i]saving[/i] as well, but I think the above shows that if it's a lottery, it's one in which getting better at penalty-taking buys you many more tickets.

Comment by Rogins Drift 2010-06-06 18:04:25

The "dire, dishonourable, and disgraceful conclusion", as Brian Glanville described penalties in 1994, would be viewed as much more of a true test of the various teams' abilities in a tie-breaker if two things were enacted.

Firstly, goalkeepers [i] must [/i] be kept on their lines at the kick by referees. As a Liverpool fan, I'd be the first to eulogise Jerzy Dudek's performance in the shootout in Istanbul in 2005, but also the first to admit that he was virtually on the six-yard-line for the ones he saved, whereas Dida, to his credit, in the Milan goal, tried to stay within the rules. I'd love to see more penalties retaken in shootouts where the keeper has obviously encroached, but it rarely happens. I think referees are under too much pressure to make that call, because they think no-one would agree with them, but the opposite is probably true. Similarly, I'd be happy to see more scoring penalties retaken where the taker is deemed to have "stalled" his run-up (which I think has happened just the once, to Jamie Carragher).

Secondly, some further compensation has to be given to the team who have ended the game with eleven men on the pitch, not ten. At present, in the rules, a team down to ten or even nine men almost have an advantage, as they can start using their main penalty takers again in the penalty sequence at that point, while the team with eleven men have to go through all theirs in turn. At least, I would say that at that point, the team with more players on the pitch at the end of the game should be given the chance of one or two "free" penalties - and there's an argument that this should even apply when it comes to the "first five". It would certainly accentuate the "penalty" of having a player red-carded during the game.

Comment by Machungu Hibernus 2010-06-07 01:30:14

Rogin, that 'advantage' was taken away ten years ago, when FIFA introduced a directive relating to Kicks From The Penalty Mark. If one side has finished the game with less players than their opponents, then the team with the extra man/men must remove the correct number of players from their line-up so that both sides have the same number of players. This prevents a situation whereby if the shoot-out progresses deep into sudden death, then the side who have had a man dismissed don't gain from having their best taker take a second penalty whilst their opponents have yet to use their worst. The Euro 2000 semi final between Holland and Italy saw this directive first applied, when Italy finished the game with ten men and Holland chose to sacrifice Edgar Davids before the shoot out began.

Comment by Robert S. 2010-06-07 03:26:46

I quite like Johan Cruyff's idea that, instead of penalties, each side removes one player every X minutes. His reasoning is that this will create more and more space for players to exploit.

Comment by jertzeeAFCW 2010-06-07 12:17:34

I am not sure you are correct, Rogins Drift, about the penalties when a man is sent off.

When Wycombe knocked us out of the FA Cup a few years back they were down to 10 men and the penalty count was creeping up to 7 each and many said that when the 11th needs to be taken BOTH sides start again, ie the worst taker of the team with 11 gets a reprieve.

As it is I agree that the team with 10 should miss out one penalty personally.

Maybe the pressure aspect can be increased for the England players by having the rest of the squad shouting, form just a few feet away, that John Terry has shagged your wife as you prepare to take the kick.

Comment by Braai on Earth... 2010-06-07 16:28:58

Fast work.

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