Penalty Shootouts (Newcastle United – NFFC Programme Notes)

One of my most painful childhood memories was watching my hero, Stuart Pearce, miss a penalty at the Italia 90 World Cup. I remember thinking that it was a cruel and unfair way for England to lose the semi-final but, twenty-one years later, penalty shoot-outs are still at the heart of all tournament football.

It’s because of a penalty shoot-out against Notts Country that Forest progressed past the first round of the League Cup and it could be by the same means that we win or lose tonight. Surely there has to be a better way?

Football is becoming so commercial that, if tonight’s match ends in a draw, I’ll half expect to see Ant and Dec emerge from the tunnel with the results of a public vote concealed in a golden envelope. There have been worse ideas …

As ridiculous as it sounds, before the invention of the penalty shoot-out, the outcome of tied tournament matches was decided by the toss of a coin. More recently matches went to umpteen replays until there was an eventual winner but, rightly or wrongly, there simply isn’t time for this within the structure of the modern game. Perhaps, therefore, penalties are a necessary evil?

The biggest criticism of penalty shoot-outs is that they are more of a lottery than a sporting contest and the winning team will prevail, irrespective of ability. It has often been said that penalty kicks only require a small subset of a footballer’s skill and that using them to decide the result of a drawn game is like playing crazy golf to decide who wins the Ryder Cup. Personally, I’d pay good money to see Lee Westwood putt the winning shot through the legs of a giant plastic gorilla.

There is also a suggestion that penalty competitions put too much pressure on individuals. Roberto Baggio claims it took him three years to get over his 1994 World Cup Final miss. Coincidentally that’s the same amount of time it took the ball to land, after he ballooned it wildly over the bar.

The strange thing is that Baggio was a wonderfully gifted player and a prolific penalty taker. But penalty shoot-outs are very little to do with ability and everything to do with nerve. The team who wins is most likely the team that handles the pressure of the occasion best.

They could be accepted as an inconvenient but unavoidable footballing truth was it not for the fact that they have been publicly admonished by the most powerful man in world football.

Sepp Blatter, the eighth president of FIFA and fourth in line to the Qatari throne, has the following to say on the subject: “Football is a team game, while the penalty shootout is all about the individual.” So if the self-elected dictator of the footballing world opposes penalty shoot-outs, why do they still exist? Maybe there is no viable alternative?

I know what you’re thinking. Why doesn’t Sepp Blatter just award each tied match to the highest bidding country … or perhaps the country with the most turbulent political past? In actual fact, his views on the topic are refreshingly reasonable.

The idea he supports is to decrease the number of players on the pitch during extra time, creating more space and thus increasing the likelihood of a winning goal. The factors that determine which team progresses would become the strategy of the manager and the adaptability of his players. There are a few variations on this theme but the general idea is that as more time passes the number of players per team is decreased. The winning team would be the one that scores first.

I think the idea has a lot of potential, but to be honest it will probably never be tested. It’s even less likely that it will ever take the place of penalty shoot-outs. The reason is that, although they are fundamentally unfair and undermine tournament football, penalty shoot-outs are fantastic to watch!

During the 2010 World Cup, I had people around my flat for the glamour fixture of Paraguay versus Japan. The non-football-loving women locked themselves in the kitchen, bemoaning the strain that twice daily televised football had put on their relationships.

The match was a boring 0-0 draw, the sort you could quite happily knit a jumper to, but as soon as the cry of ‘penalties’ was bellowed, the women rushed in to watch and everybody was literally on the edge of their seat. Despite having no allegiance to either team, it was seven minutes of compulsive drama. That is why penalty shoot-outs, the most cruel, unjust and electrifying way to end a game, are here to stay.

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