Sepp Blatter has tired of penalty shoot-outs at World Cup Finals, and wants to replace them with.. well, he doesn’t really know. Counting corners, taking players off one by one during extra time, just playing on until someone scores – like a lot of us, Blatter senses that there’s something cheap and unsatisfactory about penalties, yet coming up with an alternative that isn’t actually worse is extremely difficult.
Penalty shoot-outs are a product of the 1970s. If you didn’t know that before, I doubt you’d be surprised to hear it. They’re a German idea, allegedly sprung from the fertile brain of Kurt Wald (although claims are made for the Israeli Yosof Dagan too). Back then, they were a replacement for a simple drawing of lots, and at first, one team took all of its initial five kicks before the other team took theirs, the shoot-out ending when the winner became obvious.
I’ve spent a lot of time since England’s World Cup exit mulling over why it is that we are so poor at penalties, and it’s just my kind of luck that they look likely to be pulled just when I think I’ve come up with a relatively foolproof way of preparing for them. Thank heavens the same methods work for golf. But there’s hope yet. The alternatives to penalties are all worse.
The principle weakness of the penalty shootout is that it encourages weak teams to defend with ten men behind the ball in the hope of fluking a passage against superior opposition. Or, two unadventurous teams can come to a silent compact on the pitch, and put all of their faith in the shootout. The dire match between Switzerland and the Ukraine epitomised the latter: no one who was there will ever forget the way they can’t remember a single incident from the game. It’s probably also worth saying that shootouts can accidentally reward the wrong team. I don’t really think that’s ever been England’s fate – but I do feel sorry for Spain over England’s penalty victory over them in Euro ’96: Spain were by far the better side on the day, and had a perfectly good goal disallowed before succumbing to David Seaman when extra time failed to find them a winner.
All that is better than drawing lots, of course. It’s been said many times, and it’s still true, that penalties at least allow the players themselves to decide matters. What about some of the other ideas?
One that is often put forward is a kind of penalty-max. The attacker is one on one with the goalkeeper, but has to begin his approach to goal with the ball at his feet from the centre circle. From there, he can beat the keeper in any way he chooses. I’d enjoy watching Alonso or Beckham try this in their own inimitable style.. Obviously, this would be more time consuming than simply taking a penalty kick, and there are other complications. What happens if the goalkeeper fouls the attacker – especially if the foul takes place outside the area? How long do you give the attacker – he can’t roam the field all day plucking up courage. Of course, if this method were to be adopted, the pratfalls committed by terrified attackers in the glare of the world’s gaze would make for some wonderful and eternal footage. But the trauma would be unfair on the worst of players; missing a penalty is one thing – we’ve seen the worst of that, in Beckham’s slip against Portugal in 2004 – what players might have to recover from under this new system just beggars the imagination. What’s more, it would bring the seriousness of the occasion into disrepute.
Counting corners is another favourite idea. The team who have won the most corners over ninety minutes and extra time win the match. No need for penalties, and allegedly the result would reflect the balance of the game. But it wouldn’t, of course: a Mourinho or some similarly tactically-literate coach would soon be on top of the new situation, and that coach’s team would straightaway be generating corners to excess and in the most unusual ways. Top matches would begin to resemble croquet or bar billiards. It would mean the renaissance of the old-fashioned English centre-forward as teams sought a Geoff Hurst or an Alan Shearer to meet all of those corners, but is that really what you want to pay to watch?
Of course, the teams could just play on until someone scores – changing ends every twenty minutes. The golden goal, in fact. I must admit to missing the “silver goal”, where a team scoring without reply in the first half of extra time won the game, and the “golden goal” itself, if it came, was a moment of huge emotion and drama, the footballing equivalent of the destruction of the Death Star. But we’ve only ever had the “golden goal” in situations where, should it not come, penalties are still sitting just over the horizon. If the “golden goal” applied in a penalty-less situation, then the problems that would present are actually quite severe. Cast your mind back to England’s game with Brazil in Japan in 2002: how long are you going to ask players to continue in those hot, humid conditions? And even in bearable temperatures, how long can players continue without actually losing the physical energy necessary to get up the pitch and score? Will a tournament be distorted by the exhaustion of the winning team spilling over into later rounds? Will players be left on the field carrying injuries – and do themselves lasting damage as a result? Games like this might very well suffer a kind of heat death, as two listless sides pass the ball between themselves, all passion spent, just longing for the whole thing to be over.
What about the idea where each team begins to withdraw players one by one as extra time progresses, opening the game up, until one team scores? Again, it sounds good in principle. But the problem of just playing on and on until a goal is scored – exhaustion, and its effect on later rounds of a tournament or indeed a player’s later career – is magnified here. Players who are already tired are going to be asked to cover more and more of the pitch. One team may be carrying more injuries than the other, and are going to be disproportionately disadvantaged. What’s more, knowing what’s in the offing, teams are going to start conserving their energy earlier in the game, meaning that matches will slow down. Teams will save themselves for the moment when the balance of their opponents’ side is disrupted by a withdrawal – and everyone in the stadium or at home will be forced to watch them saving themselves. And anyway, I can’t be the only one who thinks that this method just feels wrong.
Counting shots on goal? No, see counting corners. Some of the best teams make fewer attempts than their opponents – but craft better chances.
For all the disasters they’ve brought upon England – and they really intrude on the national consciousness these days – penalties still seem to be the only workable solution to a tied match in a knock-out tournament. Unless you want to try St George’s luck with a toss of the coin. No. From England’s point of view, the only option is to take Sir Clive Woodward’s advice. We have to stop throwing up our hands and bemoaning the impossibility of preparing for penalties in any real way, and make taking the blasted things (blasted in the Shearer sense, I hope, not in the Waddle) under crowd and situation pressure a part of our Saturday and Sunday afternoons, our weekday evenings. A national, season-long penalty competition. Private practice but under severe psychological pressure (the Army might be able to supply some ideas – I notice that they don’t take the attitude that you can’t prepare a man for combat). All this would require a spectacular change in attitude from the players especially. At present, they’re likely to make fun of all of this. And of course, if they’d rather, if we’d rather, have a giggle now and the long failure trudge back to some dressing room as another World Cup or European Championship goes the same way.. well, we all have to respect that. Don’t we?