Penalty kicks a lit­tle-loved way of pick­ing vic­tor

An im­per­fect res­o­lu­tion meets with grudg­ing ac­cep­tance

Austin American-Statesman - - SPORTS - By Steven Goff

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.”

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