Spot of bother

The penalty shoot-out has never been particularly popular. However, as Matthew Knott wonders, if we all dislike the system so much, why has no one come up with a lasting alternative?

As a system it has variously been labelled as “public flogging”, “a lottery”, “gripping drama”, and even “racist”. Even Sepp Blatter professes to dislike its use, yet August 5 marks 40 years since Denis Law stepped up in the first-ever penalty shoot-out in England and demonstrated its potentially humbling effect.

That kick came in the short-lived Watney Mann Invitation Cup, a pre-season tournament in an age before replica-shirt flogging foreign tours which invited the two highest-scoring, non-promoted teams from each division to compete. In an attempt to create excitement, the offside rule was only applicable in the area, but it was the penalty innovation that outlasted the tournament.

With Man Utd and Hull City locked at 1-1 in the semi-final, George Best scored first and the next five spot-kicks were dutifully dispatched before Law’s misfortune, although he was spared ignominy as Hull missed their last two and became England’s first official shoot-out losers. The Watney Cup survived until 1973, with two finals being settled on penalties.

Watney didn’t invent the shoot-out, but were the first to use the device once FIFA approved it. The genesis of the idea has been disputed. Karl Wald, a Bavarian referee, reportedly submitted plans to his regional FA after experimenting illegally with penalties in local leagues. However, Israeli journalist Yosef Dagan claims to have written to FIFA with his proposals, which were accepted with reservations in 1970.

In truth, many leagues were probably toying with the idea and the exhaustive statistics foundation lists prior shoot-outs in Italy and Yugoslavia, while the Trofeo Ramón de Carranza, a Spanish-hosted invitation tournament, used pens in the 1960s.

What cannot be disputed is its subsequent impact on knock-out competitions. First used in the European Cup second round in 1970-71 – when Everton defeated Borussia Mönchengladbach 4-3 – it has since settled nine finals. The first major international tournament shoot-out came in the 1976 European Championship final between Czechoslovakia and West Germany when Antonin Panenka’s casual chip proved that the Germans weren’t infallible.

However, they had perfected their shoot-out technique by the time of the World Cup’s first penalty decider in the 1982 semi-final with France and the one inconsequential miss was to be their last at this level. In all, 20 World Cup ties have gone to penalties and four of the last five champions have required their usage at some point.

One common accusation against penalty kicks is that they compel teams to be more defensive, and they have certainly had the effect of making extra time futile. Prior to the new method of concluding only three replays were required in World Cup history, yet in 34 subsequent extra times, 18 have been goalless. The European Championship shows a similar pattern and the tendency is even more pronounced in the European Cup/Champions League final, where since the abandonment of replays only one extra time has produced a goal – Ronald Koeman’s free-kick for Barcelona against Sampdoria at Wembley in 1992. Six years earlier Barça had been suffocated by Steaua Bucharest for 120 minutes before losing 2-0 in a shoot-out, so their inept penalty takers would understand what Sepp Blatter meant when he bemoaned: “When it comes to penalty kicks, it is a tragedy… Football is a team sport and penalties are not for a team, it is the individual.”

Christian Karembeu likened them to Russian roulette in terms of fairness, and those individuals are required to replace football’s usual speed and instinct with nerve and mental arithmetic. In Why England Lose & Other Curious Football Phenomena Explained authors Simon Kuper and Stefan Syzmanski noted how economists revere the penalty as a real-life example of game theory, when what one person should do depends on what another would do.

The striker usually goes to the right, but the goalkeeper knows this, but the striker knows that the goalkeeper knows this and so on. They explain that when Edwin van der Sar belatedly realised Chelsea’s strategy in 2008 he pointed to where he knew the kick was planned to go, a gesture that unnerved Nicolas Anelka.

Penalties are often derided – by the losers at least – as a lottery, thus allowing England (for they are international football’s most hopeless exponents) to pose as plucky losers, defeated only by chance. Such an attitude has probably prevented a thorough evaluation of why the game couldn’t be won in the first place. It has also built an aura around penalties, even dictating that there is no point practising because there is no way of recreating real match conditions. In his book, On Penalties, Andrew Anthony criticises successive England regimes for that stance, arguing that there is no lottery in a decently struck pen and that, not unreasonably, a few practice kicks couldn’t hurt. After all, the “real match” logic would surely render any part of training useless.

A team of university academics describing themselves as unhealthily obsessed with the shoot-out set up the website to showcase their findings and demonstrate that results are far from random. In a paper entitled “Are penalties racist?” they conclude that the shoot-out favours nations that are more collectivist by nature, using a scale devised by the Dutch sociologist Geert Hofstede, suggesting penalties places far greater strains on the takers from “individualist nations”.

Other significant trends include younger players more successfully converting, the team shooting first having a 60 per cent chance of success, and a tendency for the team that equalised in regular time to carry the momentum. So shooting first after having snatched a late equaliser with a younger set of takers ought to have meant that England couldn’t fail against Portugal in 2004.

So why does the shoot-out survive? Given that golden goals were intended to counteract the defensive influence that penalties had on extra time, but instead compounded it and have since been discredited, the lack of alternatives is clear. Despite Blatter’s comments there seems little appetite for change. A telling survey at suggests a sense of schadenfreude among fans. While only 33 per cent enjoy watching their own team in a shoot-out, 84 per cent revelled in seeing other clubs toil.

The fact that the Watney Cup was broadcast live emphasises the shoot-out as an innovation of the television age. Unless an equally telegenic format is discovered, they are unlikely to disappear. In fact so well does the shoot-out fit the formula of a reality TV talent show with its prolonged periods of forced suspense, heightening fatalism, tears and magnanimous hugs, that we might as well just let Dermot O’Leary take ten players into the centre circle and announce the names of the lucky nine.

From WSC 281 July 2010