Watching last weekend’s African Cup of Nations Final reminded fans everywhere of soccer’s elephant in the room, penalties. The penalty shootout is the one glaring error in a beautiful, near-perfect game. After 120 minutes of battling for each yard and each shot, the game is finally decided by a combination of luck and some level of mind games. The penalty shootout ignores so many aspects of the game. While shooting is obviously a major part of soccer, the shootout eliminates passing, spacing, dribbling, teamwork, physicality, and many forms of tactics from the game. We boil down our beautifully sculpted sport to a backyard shooting contest.
The penalty shootout arose from the logical need to have a final way to end the game. Up until its adoption in 1970, many knockout games were decided by a coin flip or entirely replayed. The coin flip was inherently unfair and a complete replay often took too long and caused many logistical issues. The penalty shootout was proposed after it had been used sparingly with some success. At the time of its adoption, many people accepted it as a better option but still flawed. The International Football Association Board, which decides the rules of soccer, adopted the shootout while still “not entirely satisfied” with the solution. Since then the penalty shootout has become ingrained in soccer. While wildly considered imperfect, no serious efforts have been made to change it. This is largely due to its sheer entertainment value. Soccer is often criticized for being too slow and boring. Anyone that watched the Cup of Nations Final can’t argue with that. The shootout without fail creates a headline, a hero, and a villain. The entertainment value equates to more viewers which equates to more money.
A number of alternatives have been proposed attempting to match the excitement of a penalty shootout with a more soccer-like finale. The 90 minute penalty is one of my favorite alternatives. It would place the penalties at the end of regulation of a tie game. The teams would still play extra-time, and if still tied at 120′ the game would go to the winner of the shootout. The excitement of the shootout remains as well as introducing excitement to an extra-time generally plagued by fatigue and careless play. By giving one team an advantage going into extra-time, the other is forced to play offensively against a team defending to the best of their ability. This method eliminates the possibility of a scapegoat. Missing the final penalty can make any player enemy number 1 in the eyes of their fans. The extra-time period will give those players a chance at redemption. Fans also wont remember the final moment of the game as a penalty off the crossbar.
The second popular alternative is a golden goal extra period with reduced numbers of players. After the first 120 minutes have been played, the teams could enter 10 minute sessions of golden goal where each proceeding round removes a player from each side. By opening up the field, the teams are more likely to score. The greatest positive of this method is that the game will be decided by an actual soccer match. No game will ever end in bout of luck. New tactics will arise as the field spreads out. For example, sweeper-keepers like Neuer would become more valuable with their ability to leave the goal and help a short sided team. The clear disadvantage from using this design is the growing fatigue experienced by players. They could play upwards of 200 minutes in a single game and be expected to play again a few days later in a tournament situation. FIFA President, Sepp Blatter, expressed his dissaproval of penalties and his support of this plan.
“When it comes to penalty kicks it is a tragedy…Maybe to take players away and play golden goal”. However, he said this in 2006 and no change has been implemented. When faced with the monetary incentive that penalties bring, it ‘s hard to blame him.
Until fans stop watching shootouts or another better solution is proposed, penalties will likely remain the deciding factor of knockout games across the soccer world.