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Sports In praise of penalty shootouts at the World Cup: All human frailty is there

Here’s what to say to persons who assert that a penalty shootout is a terrible way to end a soccer game: There has to be an ending. A divorce. The conflict can’t go on forever. As much as two sides are fully engaged in an endless tug of war for dominance, the niggling fouls and attempts at ascendancy must stop. An ending is a good thing.

Besides, the penalty shootout is soccer distilled. A goalkeeper faces a player from the opposing team who has the ball, trying to score, with the referee watching. That’s the essence of the game itself.

Further, the penalty kick is itself a large-scale signifier. Perhaps the most famous use of soccer as a metaphor in art is Austrian writer Peter Handke’s novel The Goalkeeper’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. (Also adapted to film by director Wim Wenders in 1972.) The novel is about mental frailty and asks the question, “How do we measure reality?” There is no room for mental frailty in the penalty shootout, for the ’keeper or the kicker. It is brutal inescapable reality.

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At a shootout in the World Cup, each team takes five kicks from the penalty spot in alternating order, and the order is determined by the referee’s coin toss. The team that wins the coin toss gets to kick first in each round. If the score in the shootout is tied after each team takes five kicks, sudden-death applies.

Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford stops the final Colombian kick in the penalty shootout of their Round of 16 game at the World Cup, sending England to the quarter-finals.

AFP Contributor#AFP/Getty Images

Studies indicate the kicked ball takes about 0.3 seconds to reach the goalline. The ‘keeper has less than 0.3 seconds to act.

Statistics tell us that the team kicking first wins 65.9 per cent of all shootouts. Most players know that, which is why – although since the 2006 World Cup the captain winning the toss can decide whether to kick first or second – all captains have decided to go first. The scoring rate is 76.3 per cent for the team kicking first and 69.7 per cent for the one kicking second.

Away from statistical analysis it is simply a matter of human nature that the opposing player who kicks after the first is under increased pressure.

The quoted statistics are based on a study of 212 shootouts and have been disputed. Understandably so, since the stats take unreliable human behaviour patterns out of the equation.

This World Cup has already seen several dramatic endings that erupted from dramatic saves or poorly taken kicks. In fact, the more you watch them the easier it is to guess at what succeeds or fails and make informed predictions. A player who takes a few steps back from the ball is more likely to see the shot saved because, often, the shorter the run-up to the kick the less power there is behind it. Lionel Messi was guilty of that mistake when his penalty against Iceland was saved.

Anyone watching the shootout between England and Colombia could sense Jordan Pickford was going to save Carlos Bacca’s penalty. Pickford looked confident, jumping up and down and swaying left and right on the goalline before the kick was taken. He seemed to know which way Bacca would shoot. And indeed it emerged later that Pickford had, on the water bottle in his goal, notes on which way various Colombian strikers typically shoot. He was prepared.

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Until the World Cup in 2002 it was typical for managers to trust the players on the field at the end of extra time to decide who would take the penalties. The players would volunteer based on who felt confident – or too drained – to do it. Since then it’s been increasingly common for teams to prepare with rigorous practice and research on the opposing team’s pattern of taking kicks. This isn’t difficult information to forage as most players who take penalties for their club teams tend to kick in the same unvarying style. In post-game remarks Pickford said that only Falcao of Colombia did not do the expected.

While goalkeepers might know more about the pattern of the kicker these days, the kicker also knows that the ’keeper has foreknowledge. This makes for a mind game that must be resolved in seconds. Is the ’keeper transferring mental pressure to the taker or is the kicker about to do the opposite of what’s expected and fool the ’keeper?

And still it can come down to rare human error. The most famous penalty miss at a World Cup – sorry England, it’s not all about your history of penalty disasters – belongs at the foot of Roberto Baggio. In the 1994 World Cup, for the first time the final was decided on penalties as Italy and Brazil played to a 0-0 tie after extra time at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. Brazil led 3-2 in the shootout when Baggio stepped up, and his shot careened well over the crossbar.

Baggio, that most reliable and elegant of players – he had previously only missed two penalty kicks in his career and both were saved rather than outright misses, was still haunted by the miss years late. In a 2014 interview he went through what happened.

“There is no easy explanation for what happened at Pasadena. When I went up to the spot I was pretty lucid, as much as one can be in that kind of situation. I knew [the Brazilian ’keeper] Taffarel always dived left or right so I decided to shoot for the middle, about halfway up, so he couldn’t get it with his feet. It was an intelligent decision because Taffarel did go to his left, and he would never have got to the shot I planned. Unfortunately, and I don’t know how, the ball went up three metres and flew over the crossbar. I failed that time. Period. And it affected me for years. It is the worst moment of my career. I still dream about it. If I could erase a moment from my career, it would be that one.”

Not a good ending for Baggio, but an ending to the game; a game that, like any contest or relationship in life sometimes ends with failure, regret and horribly haunting memories. But an ending all the same.

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