The penalty shootout is the monster under soccer's bed. There are good reasons for this. Well, there are reasons, anyway, and they grow knotted and blighted from the nature of the penalty kick itself.
The sport we quaint Old Worlders call American football is one of micro-management. An American football game is divided into dozens of short bursts of activity - a huddle in which a play is called, followed by the play in action, followed by another huddle, and so forth. This sequence of packets of time facilitates discipline and intra-team order. Each play call is a precise, unyielding instruction. Executive power thus largely resides in the coach making the call rather than in the foot soldier.
In soccer, the balance tips somewhat more - though not totally - in favour of Johnny Full-Back. Soccer is often characterised as a game of few stoppages, but it has more than we can sometimes gauge without actually counting them. The difference is stoppages in soccer are not usually an occasion to gather round and meticulously plan the next ten seconds' play. Restarts are largely procedural: they exist to quickly get things moving again. This is not to say that a throw-in, say, or even a goal kick cannot be a weapon, but this is not their chief use. In American football, every play is a set piece. Not so in soccer. A footballer must be an improviser. Faced with a decision - pass to that man or that man or that man, or dribble in this direction or that, or shoot? - he must decide for himself. The decision is partly conditioned by a team's structure - its tactics and strategy, the philosophy a coach has tried to instill in his team - and by the player's own past experience. But it must be made live and in situ; ultimately, the player is alone with his thoughts.
Soccer may appear to be the globetrotting, backpacking "free spirit" whose enjoinments to stop letting The Man rule your life and just follow your heart attract swooning and envious fantasies in equal measure, but it's not really like that. Time is the governor, the grim clock face on the factory wall. Pause on a busy motorway junction to contemplate the wonder of man's free will and things get a trifle messy. The opponents' desire not to allow you to do as you wish makes choice an urgent matter. "Choice" may barely even be the word for it, according to Andrew Anthony in his book On Penalties:
The choices players make on the pitch - run or mark, shoot or pass, elbow or headbutt - are nothing more than micro-decisions, instant reactions, impulses.
The penalty is both Siren and rocky shore. It tempts with the promise of an easy goal, free from the bother of teamwork and build-up play and their many tripwires. And it offers time to think about it. It offers freedom. But, as the band didn't quite sing, in their baby-picture adorable naive cynicism phase, freedom is anxiety. In his book Lost Worlds, Michael Bywater recalls the not-so-distant, "strangely comforting" days when "the only consumer choice was (a) Yes, we've got some or (b) No, out of stock:"
Compared to our ancestors, people then [a generation or two ago] were indescribably materially well-endowed. But compared to now, the choice was minimal. Were people happier? It seems so. Choice perplexes us.
What seems like the most desirable state of all can ferment all too easily into crippling angst. Now the burden of choice falls squarely on the player. What was once almost automatic, almost pre-ordained, becomes something inert, something unreal until such time as he makes it real. And he has no choice but to make it real. The secret of happiness may be to limit one's expectations, but that is hardly possible here, where the outcome is a binary proposition: succeed or fail. Given that the difference between success and failure is that between a goal and the absence of a goal, the penalty is the act with the greatest consequence. The choice has the effect of a laser sight on the taker's forehead.
The reason choice is important at all is the presence of the goalkeeper. He must make a choice himself, of course. But this contest is uneven, both in probability - a goal is an expected outcome whereas a save is not - and, therefore, in the significance of the outcome: a miss is a greater triumph for the defending team than a conversion is for the team whose kick it is. With two active minds comes the temptation to second guess each other's intentions, and perhaps third- and fourth-guess too. The likelihood of doubt, though, is greater within the mind of the kicker. The goalkeeper can play the role of devil, tempting his subject and setting the terms.
All this can have fascinating consequences. One of the most famous of all penalties was that taken by Czechoslovakia's Antonin Panenka in a shootout against West Germany in the 1976 European Championship final. Knowing that a successful kick would clinch the title, Panenka shaped up as if to hit a powerful shot, but instead floated an exquisite chip down the centre of the goal, leaving Sepp Maier, who had already dived left, helpless. So many have attempted to emulate this penalty that it has entered the football lexicon as "the Panenka." For most of its imitators, it is an expression of daring, of an apparent ability to maintain consummate control in a situation fraught with danger. It's a boast. These players miss the point. For Panenka, it was primarily a practical solution to a problem. He had difficulty scoring penalties in training against the goalkeeper of his club team, Bohemians Praha. Racking his brains as to why this should be, he eventually figured out that the keeper would begin his dive just before the ball was struck, thus enabling him to make saves that should not have been possible. (This is technically against the rules, but is usually punished only in the most blatant cases.) So Panenka devised the chip. It worked, and would again in subsequent Czechoslovak league games. By the time it came to Euro '76, it had been rehearsed and honed. It tends to be described as "cheeky," or similarly, and it was certainly breathtaking. But even for an avowed showman such as Panenka, this aspect of the kick was decidedly secondary. The important thing was that he taken the root of the dread of choice out of the equation by study, calculation, and practice. Today, more often than not, the Panenka is akin to someone running across a railway track as a train approaches and expecting to be congratulated for not getting knocked over. Leicester City's Yann Kermorgant is the latest to discover that the all-or-nothing essence of the penalty is unyielding. Try to win style points from it without the substance to back it up, and you'll get hit.
It's not so much the disparity between the mentality required for general play and that required for the penalty that is so spellbinding, but the fact that these two states must co-exist within the one person. The rules do not allow for the specialist penalty-taker, someone whose sole job it is to inhabit that peculiar mindset. In actuality, the player must step forward from the din of chaos and face the maw of ineluctable choice. The good footballer must have a honed instinct for the correct, instant decision; the penalty-taker must have the capacity to handle the thought-out decision; what is more, he must be able to switch from the former mode to the latter at a moment's notice.
The penalty is thus possessed of an otherness, which is emphasised by its relative rarity: most games pass without one, and a team may even (in rare but not unknown cases) go an entire season without winning one. But they are frequent enough that they always loom on football's consciousness; and, of course let's not forget how important a single goal can be in soccer. This otherness is also reflected in how a penalty fits into a game. It feels like an anomaly (an important and usually decisive anomaly, but an anomaly nonetheless): it interrupts the flow; it turns a twenty-two player game into a game for two; the penalty-area is cleared by all but the two protagonists with everyone else gathering around like it was a fight in a pub car park. Then the kick is taken, and the normal game resumes.
The penalty shootout, however, makes this anomaly the norm. It takes an already seemingly perverse form of the game and turns it into the game. It promotes cognitive dissonance. Small wonder it also provokes fear and revulsion. It even has its own Homeric epithet: the "dreaded" penalties.
Dread is also the sine qua non of the World Cup. Sure, it's a carnival, it's a global party, it's scantily-clad women in the crowd that the cameraman always seems to be able to spot, it's moments which appear scripted by the ad exec working on behalf of the shoe company, it's moments which are scripted by the ad exec working on behalf of the shoe company, it's indulgences and obsequiousness really getting the blood pumping through Sepp Blatter's black little heart, and so forth. Above all, it matters (just because Bono says so doesn't make it untrue) and nothing that matters comes without dread. It's the dread of failure. One team will get to cheat death; thirty-one will meet with the end to end all ends. For that damned lot, their tournament will turn out to have been a series of attempts to delay the mortal coil shuffle for just one more round, like someone joining a gym, or praying furiously. The beautiful cruelty of the World Cup is that it is held every four years, and four years is a purgatory of a time to wait for reincarnation. Every game assumes an unreasonable importance, which is what makes it such fun.
As with the regular penalty kick (but to the power of a very large number) the penalty shootout happens often enough for teams to know Hell, and infrequently enough to prevent anyone getting too used to it, "like in a hot tub," as Bart once suggested. Since the shootout was introduced to the World Cup in 1974, out of 95 games which could have gone to penalties, 20 have done so, a shade over 21%. (These figures do not count third-place playoffs. No-one counts third-place playoffs.) If this proportion is to maintain itself in South Africa, we can expect three shootouts.
Thus, we can again observe this most special of sporting psychoses. The most prominent of these have addled the minds of the Italy, Netherlands, and England teams. Italy were eliminated from three consecutive World Cups via shootouts from 1990 to 1998, including a home semi-final and a final in which the great, under-appreciated Roberto Baggio cleared the crossbar with the last kick. The Netherlands were eliminated from three consecutive European Championships on penalties, including a farcical performance against Italy in the 2000 semi-final in Amsterdam in which they missed five of the six penalties they took (two of which were awarded in normal play). England have competed in six shootouts and won but one; two losses inflicted by (West) Germany and one by Argentina have been particularly scarring. Unsurprisingly, these displays of differently-competent football granted the teams in question a certain reputation: they were simply bad at penalties. And these are national teams we're talking about. They are not considered simply as sports teams, but as, in some twisted way, a representation of the nation. A heaping of salt on the wound.
Soccer's relationship with objective reality can be tenuous. While there are some sabermetric-style advances being made, they are largely confined to managers' offices. In general, though, we don't really know what to do with statistics: partly because of the notorious difficulty in extracting meaningful stats from the game, partly because the culture long ago decided that it is impossible to extract meaningful stats from the game. What does get accepted is interesting. For instance, many newspapers give marks out of ten to each player based on their performance - rather, based on one writer's assessment of a player's performance, an assessment which could be in no way thorough. This marks-out-of-ten system - if "system" is the word - is even occasionally employed in previewing matches, whereupon, hilariously, the marks are added up, giving each team a score out of 110. No-one takes this too seriously, but nor has it been laughed out of existence. More pertinent to our subject matter is the idea that a nation can be inherently bad at penalties. That England lost a shootout in 1990 should not have affected their chances in 2006. But it did. That 1990 defeat initiated a self-fulfilling prophecy, a chain reaction which led to one of the most predictable and painfully comedic failures in shootout history.
(Holland and Italy have both, it would seem, broken their spells. Holland's next shootout after the Amsterdam fiasco was in the Euro 2004 quarter-final against Sweden; they converted five out of six and won. Italy won the 2006 World Cup final by scoring all five penalties against France. Like Paul Gascoigne, I never make predictions and I never will, but I predict that England will win a shootout this time round.)
Attitudes towards the penalty shootout break down along fight-or-flight lines. One can accept it as the reality and deal with it. Or one can retreat into superstition and irrationality. A common response to defeat in a shootout is to fantasise about how to abolish it. Louis van Gaal, no doubt still smarting from his Ajax team's loss on penalties in the 1996 Champions League final, has suggested a "gladiatorial game," with a player from each side being withdrawn every five minutes during extra time. Other suggestions have included such silliness as awarding the win to the team with the most shots on goal, or the most corner kicks, or the fewest bookings (the latter suggestion requires that referees be measured for body bags beforehand); one gentleman feels the shootout should take place before extra time. In a chapter of Brilliant Orange: the Neurotic Genius Of Dutch Football written after the Netherlands' 2000 defeat, David Winner suggested that the next time the team found themselves involved in a shootout, they should deliberately miss all their kicks in a protest designed to force the extinction of the penalty competition.
The purpose of some of these ideas is to reward the more attack-minded team. Indeed, there is a solid case to be made that the potential for a shootout can have an effect on the way the preceding game is conducted. Teams will often "play for penalties," believing that they have little chance to win a game through normal means and instead playing in a highly defensive manner to try and force a draw. As we have seen, a fifth of World Cup knockout matches have gone to penalties since 1974. Before then - when the tie-breaker was, at different times, a replay or a coin toss - less than 6% of knockout games were level after extra time. (Again, I haven't counted third-place matches in this calculation.) Some big matches have been decided this way. The 1991 Red Star Belgrade team was a swashbuckling unit containing some of the best attacking talent of their time. One team's scouting report on them reportedly read, in its entirety, "We're fucked." Red Star entered the European Cup final against Marseille with the expectation that they would demonstrate exactly why this was so. Instead, they played ultra-defensively, stifling Marseille with the express intention of taking it to penalties, according to their manager, Ljupko Petrovic:
We realised we could not really beat Marseille unless they made a mistake, so I told my players to be patient and to wait for penalties. We practised penalties a lot in our closed training session on Tuesday and it paid off.
It was, the Guardian would later say, "an extraordinary transformation, like Paris Hilton becoming a nun". The game was goalless, and Red Star won the shootout. So too did, as we've seen, Italy against Holland in 2000. After Gianluca Zambrotta's 34th minute red card, Italy dug a trench. Their complete indifference to the notion of scoring goals was almost audacious. One Italian wrote said, "Zoff [Dino, coach of Italy] is a tactical genius: he pinned the Dutch into our half for two hours. Then they were cooked." Again, there were no goals, and we know what happened next.
Of course, teams will play defensively regardless of whether penalties may ensue. It is, after all, the easiest way to play football. As Brian Phillips put it, "Defensive, 'negative' football [...] tends to work in concert with the natural entropy of the game." It is an exaggeration of what is already there. Or to put it in medical terms, you can put implants in it, but it's still an arse.
A more common objection to the shootout is that it is little more than a lottery. ("Lottery" is another Homeric epithet.) This dogmatic elevation of the random factor (which is present in all parts of the game) to the level of absolute truth is both pre-emptive excuse and post-rationalisation. It is accompanied by the riff that you can't practise penalties. Former England manager Bobby Robson even suggested that one can practise them too much. This kind of thinking reduces football to voodoo. It is absurd to believe that the football penalty exists such on a different plane to other set plays in sport which can bring equal pressure - a putt, a free throw, a double in darts - that it should in fact be explained away as some sort of mystical rite. The conditions of a matchday penalty can never be wholly replicated on the training pitch; but by grounding the act in its true essence, i.e. a technical exercise, one can reduce the potential for a random attack of mental paralysis, for choice to trigger anxiety. Penalties are sometimes seen as a separate game, detached from "normal" football (Winner: "being good at penalties and being good at football are different things entirely"). As we've seen, there are differences, but the similarities are greater. That anyone can be surprised by the nature of the penalty when it has been part of the rules of soccer since 1891, dammit, surely speaks badly of many of the sport's practitioners. That it is still deemed decent to take comfort in the notion of shootout loss as moral victory is certainly impressive.
Another argument against penalties is that they decide the outcome of a game by mutilating the "team" aspect of football. They place too great a responsibility on individuals and cruelly recast a match as a bout of Russian roulette where only careers and souls are murdered. This is a point which exerts an inarguable emotional pull. I speak here as a fan of the aforementioned Baggio; his bowed head post-miss is one of the saddest sights I've seen on a sports field. One wonders, though, how cruel such a consensual act can really be. Does the player not want to win? And is he not prepared to do something to effect this? In normal play, a crucial mistake stands a chance of being buried under other activity. A defensive error can be subtle - not picking up an opponent quickly enough, say, or wrongly going out to meet the player in possession - and it may only be noticed on watching a fifth or sixth replay, or not at all. The tiniest detail can be the difference between a goal and no goal. A shootout merely brings this out into plain sight. It is where we most clearly see that football may be a team game, but it's played by individuals.
This is the truth that lies beneath the soccer, unpalatable though it may appear. Also, according to Phillips, though penalties are "a terrible way to judge the footballing abilities of two football teams":
You could counter that judging the footballing abilities of two football teams is so difficult that football itself is often a bad way to do it, which is why penalty shootouts are necessary.
Phillips adds, "But that's beside the point." But is isn't. This defect has no special remedy. And would we want one, anyway? The fact that the better team sometimes appears to stand a lesser chance of winning than the worse is something that most fans love. Most coaches and players too, I'd bet. It's just so much more interesting in its many dimensions than the purely efficient conversion of good play into success. It allows for everything from the triumph of the strong to the subversion of supposed sporting justice by the weak. It allows for the flourishing of greatness and the deliciousness of the upset. It allows for an array of combinations of game and result, of process and outcome, which makes for the drama that keeps us hooked.
The shootout is the debt we pay for this. If this game means anything at all, it should be embraced. Just as the rewards for success are immense - the fame, the triumphal parade, the ecstasy - so should failure feel concomitantly awful. There should be sleepless nights spent staring at the ceiling, a dread of what rotten fruit may await on your return home, the constant gnawing of the irreversible decision. If two long hours of play don't yield resolution - which is necessary and inevitable, remember - the anticipation of the penalty should inspire terror. Zinedine Zidane vomited before taking a penalty at Euro 2004. That's going above and beyond, but there should at least be stomach ulcers and careers flashing before eyes.
We owe it to the idea of the Beautiful Game. We need to temper the egregious deployment of that term; too often, it describes some drippy fantasy of pure artistry and justice which must be wrapped in a disinfected cotton wool ball and tucked away in some tender atrium of our heartikins to keep it safe from the beastly philistinism of normality. We need the shootout to remind us that the true beauty of the game does not take place in a vacuum, or some pot-pourri-scented blandness, but emerges from chaos; that the beauty is conditional on its environment, and that this is nothing to be ashamed or afraid of. This is not about taking a sadistic pleasure in misfortune, nor about having a rotting corpse in the reeds to poke slack-jawed with a stick. It is about experiencing sport as transmitted through uninsulated cables; it's about seeing not just external analogues of inner turmoil, but having a live feed from inside the pulsing blood vessels. We need to sometimes see this basic reality, these quarks vibrating indifferent to our sentimental attachment to the larger body they make up. This terror would be too intense to confront every week; indeed, it would surely lose its intensity were it to happen so often. But, when it does occur, confront it we must if we want to truly appreciate the poetry when it does flash before us. We need to be familiar with the forces which appear to work against our desires if we are to see the full glory of those moments which seem to exist purely to lift our spirits.
If the World Cup is to be more than a glorified jamboree or a month of scheduled incantations of aspirational advertising slogans, we need to recognise that the stark ugliness of the division of teams into winners and losers is inherent in this Beautiful Game - that it constitutes a part of that beauty, and gives birth to the rest of it.
[Fredorrarci is a writer based in Ireland. He considers sport in almost every of its beautiful forms at Sport Is a TV Show. To read more by Fredorrarci, check out his profile.]
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