They are simple in theory but increasingly contentious in practice, believes Philip Cornwall, because so much more can be at stake when a spot-kick is awarded today

That you have never seen everything the game has to offer was underlined once more in Istanbul on Oct­ober 11. Something as simple, in theory, as a penalty produced a variation that was new to me.

Penalty-missers often say they wished the ground would open up and swallow them, but the hole in the turf that appeared beneath David Beckham’s left boot was both premature and too interventionist for my liking. As were the celebrations of Alpay Olazan, as it turned out; when Martin Keown showed at Old Traf­ford that the English can be every bit as undignified in their re­actions to mistakes by the opposition, he really went over the top only after the final whistle.

The current trend for overexcitement surrounding misses, as opposed to their award, seems unusual, too, ev­en if it would be absurd to claim that penalties have ever been controversy-free. Think back to the (per­haps mythical) days when Corinthians would al­low the goal to stand unguarded from their shame at conceding a kick. Such sepia moments aside, penalties have rarely spent long out of the headlines in spite of the fact that they are one of the most rigid situations you can en­counter on a football pitch. We talk about set pieces, but the only one with a truly fixed formula is the spot-kick. Two players, 12 yards apart, everyone else behind the ball and at least ten yards from the kicker at the moment the ball is struck. You cannot play the ball twice, so must try to find one shot with which to beat the keeper. What could be complicated about that?

The laws relating to penalties themselves have changed little. In the 1980s there was an attempt to make the law fit reality, rather than to force the truth to change shape: the goalkeeper no longer had to keep his feet down until the ball was struck but could instead move along his line. But the laws around penalties, which cause them in the first place, have altered significantly and so forced the spot-kick further into the headlines and into controversy. The pause in the game creates the perfect opportunity for argument while the significance of an incorrect decision encourages peo­­ple to make use of it.

There have always been high-pressure penalties. In 1924, Cardiff City’s Len Davies missed from 12 yards in the final game of the season; had he scored then the Bluebirds would have won the League title, an honour which has instead eluded them. More recently in Spain, Dep­ortivo La Coruña missed out on what would have been their first Primera Liga title in 1994, when a string of play­ers turned down the chance to clinch a last-day win over Valencia and Miroslav Djukic missed.

In these cases – because the triumphant side was not actually involved in the incident – it is the name of the misser which is remembered. But spot kicks also give goalkeepers a chance for fame. Up there with Escape to Victory (the match ended in a 4-4 draw) in the battle for least apt football film title should be The Goal­keeper’s Fear of the Penalty. The spot-kick is a rare opportunity for the No 1 to be a hero and to be remembered. Such a save is tantamount to scoring. At a time when the name of Wimbledon is being dragged through the mud, it is worth recalling two of their stoppers: Dickie Guy, who saved from the allegedly unstoppable Peter Lorimer to give the non-League Dons a draw against Leeds in 1975, and Dave Beasant, denying John Aldridge at Wembley 13 years later.

But, of course, the invention of the penalty shoot-out means that far more competitions and matches are settled from 12 yards, giving keepers multiple shots at glory. David Seaman’s finest hours in a national shirt both came at Euro 96: once in nor­mal play when a rolling ball and an elbow thwarted Gary McAllister, then against Spain after the quarter-final finished 0-0.

As well as dramatic, shoot-outs can be controversial, too. The 1998 World Cup semi-final between Brazil and Hol­land left me shouting at the screen as Claudio Taffarel advanced by yards each time to deny the Dutch; the game’s authorities finally decided to act after his com­patriot Dida put his best foot forward far too early in this year’s Champions League final for Milan. As a result, the current crackdown on keepers moving and encroachment is creating fresh fury, mainly, at this stage of the season, in relation to penalties in normal play rather than shoot-outs.

Controversy has more often arisen in the award of the kick. This has always been true as far as I am aware. I have no memory of the 1974 World Cup finals as such, but I do recall being told that the Dutch had been rob­bed, not just because of being the better team but also because referee Jack Taylor erred in balancing out his first-minute award to Johan Cruyff’s team.

However, in those days a foul really was supposed to be foul: the referee had to look for intention to play the man not the ball in a challenge and a bit of rough-and-tumble at a corner wouldn’t be penalised. To­day, a misjudged attempt to win the ball or a bit of push and pull can both be punished the same way as a scythe. Remember “the Alan Wilkie Double”, as Man­chester City fans dubbed United’s 1996 success, after Eric Cantona was awarded a penalty for a bit of jostling while the ball sailed ten feet over his head. Or this season’s six-of-one... at Villa Park, when Bolton’s Ivan Campo’s half-a-dozen was spotted by a referee who turned round too late to see the initial clambering by Juan Pablo Angel. It all seems too soft to be punished so severely, more so when wrong.

Of course the added penalty for denying an auto­matic goalscoring opportunity can make the award even more brutal: the slightest misjudgement on a serious attempt to play the ball really can mean game over. Rule-changes are conspiring to make the penalty more and more contentious. Somewhere out there is the ultimate spot-kick: wrongly awarded for a foul by the last man in golden goal overtime, that then needs retaking. In the meantime, we’ll have to make do with Euro 2000’s best effort.

I had a near-ideal view of the dramatic conclusion of the semi-final in Brussels, sat high behind corner flag and linesman, looking along the goalline, when Abel Xavier handled Sylvain Wiltord’s shot. But after an immediate reaction of “Penalty!” – unlike most in the ground whose views were obstructed – came the realisation that this meant the dismissal of the de­fender from the pitch and Portugal from the competition if the kick was converted. Xavier’s extremer pro­­tests earned a nine-month ban, Nuno Gomes an eight-month one, Paulo Bento six.

They were in the wrong and no doubt the protests would have been vehement, whatever – there were just three minutes on the clock. And I can’t quibble with the red card when, as in this case, there is a deliberate and successful, even if instinctive, attempt to prevent a goal. But the more pressure that is placed on referees and players surrounding penalties, the more the former will duck difficult decisions and the latter lose their heads at correct ones.

From WSC 202 December 2003. What was happening this month

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