Tuesday, July 18, 2006


The Penalty Curse, Part 1

All sorts of complaints have been made about the 2006 World Cup. Too much diving, atrocious refereeing, negativity aplenty from timorous coaches and players.

But for me, one of the saddest things about this World Cup is that, as in 1994, it was decided on penalty kicks.

The majority of football fans, it seems, see no real objection to penalties being used as a means of deciding a cup tie which has failed to produce a winner after two hours of football. It is a test of mental toughness, we hear, and not simply a lottery. Teams at the top level need to be prepared for it.

This, of course, is true. But there are many other objections to the procedure, and I have believed for some time that FIFA should at least try some of the alternatives.

Here, in a nutshell, are my three main objections to the penalty shootout.

1. It has no real connection whatsoever with the game that has just finished.

You would think that some aspects of the intense two-hour fight just finished would figure in the calculations to determine who will progress in the case of a deadlock. Nothing of the sort! As a result, far too often we see teams who have failed to offer anything in a footballing sense winning simply because they keep their nerve better from twelve yards.

"Playing for penalties", as practised by the Red Star Belgrade team in the European Cup final of 1991, the Italian national side in the semi-final of Euro 2000 and many others since then, should never be a legitimate tactic in order to "win" a game of football. In a sense, however, it is difficult to blame these opportunistic sides, since the rules gave them clear licence to shut up shop in defence and wait for the shootout.

2. It places inordinate responsibility for defeat or victory on the shoulders of just one or two players, and creates convenient scapegoats.

There will always be a "penalty victim", a player who guessed wrong on the goalie's dive or got his angles askew. Like it or not he will always carry the can - whether he deserves it or not - for the defeat. This, in my view, is unnecessary, cruel, and contrary to the spirit of the game.

Images of a shattered David Trezeguet played mercilessly over TV screens worldwide in the aftermath of the recent World Cup final. His crime was to have had his shot rebound off the crossbar a few inches short of the goal-line.

Would he have attracted the same amount of attention, unspoken blame and inevitable self-reproach had he been guilty of a similar miss in normal time? Of course not.

Even more poignant was the case of poor Roberto Baggio. In the 1994 World Cup, his magnificent displays in the knockout phase had propelled a frankly mediocre Italian team all the way to the final of the most distinguished international football competition. In that final, he battled through 120 minutes of midfield attrition despite carrying a serious injury. When his turn came in the shoot-out, with Italy needing a further goal to stay alive, he trotted up to the ball, exhausted, and sent it flying over the bar.

I will never forget the headline on the front page of the paper the next day. "BAGGIO – HOW I LOST THE WORLD CUP".

Enough said.

3. The propensity of goalkeepers to come off their lines (and the failure of linesmen to police this) is currently making a farce of the whole procedure.

I hardly need to quote examples. The most obvious case in recent times was the 2005 Champions' League final. On kick after kick, Jerzy Dudek waltzed happily off his line before the Milan players had gotten to the ball. Any reaction from the linesman? You must be joking. They barely seem to notice goalkeeper encroachment anymore.

Even at the World Cup, we had a penalty shootout blighted by the usual cheating. Before saving the penalty kicks of Roberto Ayala and Esteban Cambiasso, Germany's Jens Lehmann had clearly moved off his line (as, indeed, he did for Arsenal in the FA Cup Final last year). Not, it is true, as far as Lee Woon-Jae quite shamelessly did before saving Joaquin's penalty in the Korea-Spain quarter-final in 2002, but still...

Lazy linesmen need to be made aware that this is a serious problem. If the current level of indifference continues, shootouts will simply become a test of which goalkeeper can cheat more outrageously.

Several "alternatives" to penalties have been suggested, and I will deal with them in some detail in the next couple of instalments. But a distinction needs to be made here: some of the suggestions aim merely to lessen the probability of a shootout being required, while others allow for the procedure to be altogether dispensed with. The former I will refer to as "palliatives", the latter "alternatives".

In Part 2: the palliatives.

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