Penalty kicks a little-loved way of picking victor
An imperfect resolution meets with grudging acceptance
JOHANNESBURG — With two stylish teams meeting in the World Cup final Sunday at Soccer City Stadium, the outcome will likely come down to Spain’s mesmerizing possession game against the Netherlands’ sudden-strike capability. The match could also turn on a goal by one of the tournament’s scoring co-leaders, David Villa and Wesley Sneijder.
But there’s the possibility of a darker resolution, one that has stirred debate since its introduction nearly 30 years ago: penalty kicks.
You would be hard-pressed to find anyone associated with the sport who enjoys seeing a match of enormous consequence decided on a series of five (or more) 12-yard attempts by each team, shooter vs. goalkeeper, with teammates gathered at midfield, immobilized by unbearable tension.
It’s unrivaled drama produced by an undesirable process.
Although both Spain and the Netherlands emphasize attractive soccer, “the result is far more important,” Dutch midfielder Arjen Robben said. “We have heard enough of talk about how our football is very nice. But it gets you nowhere. We want to achieve something.”
Robben didn’t specify penalty kicks, but if that’s what it takes for the Netherlands to win its first championship after decades of disappointment, so be it. Spain, another team that has failed to meet expectations on soccer’s grandest stage, is also seeking its first crown.
Two of the last four World Cup titles have gone to penalty kicks after 90 minutes of regulation and 30 minutes of scoreless extra time. In 1994, thanks in part to Roberto Baggio’s infamous miss at the Rose Bowl, Brazil defeated Italy. Four years ago in Berlin, Italy outlasted France.
In first-round play, when ties figure into the group standings, a winner is not required. But in the elimination stages, penalty kicks are the imperfect solution to determine who advances.
Since the tiebreaker was implemented at the 1982 World Cup in Spain, 22 of 114 late-round games (19 percent) have required penalty kicks. The most were in 1990 and 2006 (four apiece). This year — with today’s third-place match between Germany and Uruguay, and Sunday’s finale remaining — there have been just two: Paraguay-Japan in the round of 16 and UruguayGhana in the quarterfinals.
Soccer has always struggled with breaking ties. In the early days of the World Cup, draws were resolved by replaying the game a day or two later. Major competitions around the world, and even the American college ranks, have tried a variety of remedies: drawing lots, coin tosses, tallying corner kicks and unlimited overtime, among others.
The defunct North American Soccer League introduced the shootout, a method similar to the NHL’s current tiebreaking method, in which an attacking player would begin dribbling 35 yards from the net and have five seconds to shoot against the goalie.
From 1996 to 2000, Major League Soccer used the shootout for regular-season matches, as well as the playoffs, before allowing ties in league play and implementing postseason penalty kicks.
This week, on the eve of his team’s semifinal win over Germany, Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque said he hadn’t given much thought to the possibility of penalty kicks.
“It’s less under the direction of the coach,” he said. “The players will decide themselves.”
Germany coach Joachim Loew echoed Del Bosque’s sentiments, saying, “There is actually no sense in practicing for penalty kicks because when it comes down to it, there’s no way you can simulate what happens — the walk from the center circle, the atmosphere.”
Germany has fared better than anyone in World Cup tiebreakers, winning all four. Between attempts by Argentina in his team’s 2006 quarterfinal, German goalkeeper Jens Lehmann consulted a tip sheet that he had stuffed in his sock. The recommendations had been scribbled on stationery by assistant coach Andreas Kopke. Later, the wrinkled document raised $1.3 million in a charity auction.
On the gloomier end, England has suffered penalty kick heartbreak in three of its past four World Cup appearances, and Italy has fallen in three of its four tiebreakers overall.
Between 1992 and 2000, the Netherlands lost on penalties four times: three in the European Championship, as well as in the 1998 World Cup semifinals against Brazil. Spain’s all-time record is 3-3, including 1-2 in the World Cup.
Debate about penalty kicks endures, but without a better option, the soccer world has come to accept them. A comment by a Brazilian official following his team’s 1986 elimination to France on penalties perhaps best captured the sentiment of all losing sides: “We didn’t lose. We were disqualified by a very rigid and unjust regulation.”