Having seen the second World Cup final in the last four decided by way of a penalty shoot out. Sepp Blatter, the all-powerful president of FIFA, has said that an alternative to penalties must be found, and that he no longer wants to see matches (or more to the point World Cup matches) ended in this manner. The problem is though, what is the alternative?
Way back in the 1996 European Championship, a tournament that will live long in the memory of any Englishman, we experienced the first attempt at the adaptation and potential avoidance of penalties. The so-called ‘Golden Goal’ meant that a normal period of extra-time would be played out, but any goal scored would instantly win the game, basically a grown up version of the old playground favourite ‘next goal wins’. The advent of this was most likely influenced by the dour affair played out in Pasadena two years prior between Brazil and Italy in the 1994 World Cup final.
I personally recall that the closest either side came to scoring was the Italian goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca fumbling a tame Brazilian attempt, only to see it rebound back off the upright, surely saving the former Sampdoria stopper from a moment that would have starred in annual Christmas ‘blooper’ videos for decades to come. The dull affair went to penalties and the South American’s claimed their fourth title and the next major international tournament was adapted in the hope that ‘Golden Goal’ would provoke a similar reaction to its playground origins in piling men forward, hungry for goals. Unfortunately what Mr Blatter (and his many ‘yes’ men) failed to recognise was that a major tournament is very different from the muddled scene of twenty-odd twelve-year-olds forcing a tennis ball into a goal made up from a bin and someone’s satchel.
Also, it is very unlikely that the footballing elite will be similarly reprimanded by a form head should proceedings overrun. ‘Golden Goal’ saw just one encounter of the 1996 tournament settled before penalties were required, and even that only came in the final as Germany’s Oliver Bierhoff scored to queue cringe worthy Bavarians singing our adopted anthem for the summer of ’96, Three Lions. This idea of avoiding penalties deciding a fixture was again used in the following World Cup of 1998 that was staged in France, again only one game was decided in this manner (Laurent Blanc’s strike to end Paraguay’s dreams in the second round). The problems with this idea clearly being that the pressure of losing through conceding outweighed the cavalier approach that would be required to score; therefore the game became more negative as a result, despite France again benefiting from the system in the European Championship final of 2000 as David Trezeguet broke Italian hearts with a net bursting strike.
Despite the few exceptions the argument has been variously raised that such ‘sudden death’ periods of extra time actually prevents, rather than provokes, attacking play; as the fear of defeat outweighs the risks taken by going forward hunting a winning goal. With a clear desire to evolve, rather than ‘revolve’, the FIFA think tank took the steps to modify this idea with the creatively titled ‘Silver Goal’, basically a more convoluted version of its predecessor in which a side leading during the interval in extra time would win the tie at that juncture. Again games became more negative and the upshot was, again, more shootouts. Despite attempts to avoid the inevitable ‘twelve yard lottery’, it was still the most common way of deciding fixtures that were level after ninety minutes.
These ideas were axed and for the 2006 tournament and we returned to the traditional half hour of extra time, without all of the previous stipulations, and (of course) we had more penalties. So what is the answer, moreover, is there an answer? Given the tight schedule and time constraints, due mainly to the major media and sponsorship tie-ins of major tournaments these days, replays are not a realistic option. There have been many weird and wonderful ideas from various sources to solve this great issue of the knockout version of our game. One such theory dictates that players be removed systematically at intervals, hoping that fewer players will create more space, and thus more chances.
An idea that FIFA are said to be looking into the possibilities of. However, concerns could be that we end up with a farcical situation in which only four, or even two, players remain on the field. Certainly it would be a spectator’s dream, but the practicality must be questioned. When viewed in that manner, it could even make the satirical ‘extra-time multi-ball’, featured in the well known American beer manufacturer’s advertisements, a viable proposition. Other criticisms of penalties have been that the skill level required to score a penalty is not reflective of that of the team as a whole.
This is without doubt, and no better exemplified as in the European Cup Final (in those dark days before the Champions League) of 1991 where a star studded Olymique Marseilles team lost out to Red Star Belgrade of the then Yugoslavia when the Serbian outfit played out the entire game with the view to winning on penalties, which they did, much to the disappointment of the unbiased specator.
Alternatives like ice-hockey style ‘one on ones’ could be the answer to this, and have been previously trialled in the Far East. With the birth of the Japanese ‘J-League’ in the mid nineties, it was deemed that no games would end in draws and games would be settled in this manner. As this has not become a worldwide trend, we can only assume that the idea was not as good in practice as it appears on paper. With all of the ideas and musings intending to find an alternative to penalties, or at least to do the utmost to prevent them, why should we change this? What is so very bad about them? It is exactly the same for both sides. Both have five kickers, both from twelve yards and both one goalkeeper. We have had penalties as a method of deciding major tournaments since 1976 and they have created an incredible amount of talking points over the years.
The first penalty shoot-out to settle a final created one of the most famous moments. Antonin Panenka’s cheeky chipped effort sealed victory for his Czechoslovakia side over West Germany, the Germans’ only ever defeat in major tournaments via this method. They are also one of the few opportunities for a goalkeeper, in my own consideration one of the most undervalued members of a football team, to become a genuine hero; Bruce Grobelaar’s ‘spaghetti legs’ being as memorable as any, but also great saves from an infamous Harald Schumacher (having, for want of a better word ‘nobbled’ Battiston) against France, Schmeichel from Marco van Basten in ’92 and most recently Gigi Buffon helping his nation begin a three-month-long street party when keeping out the French. Penalties have the simple beauty to create heroes and villains, to demonise individuals and make-or-break careers. The problem basically derives from the fact that in this day an age, football is a sport that is very tightly fought out.
Teams are so well organised and well matched that it is inevitable that they will end encounters inseparable. Before penalties, lots were drawn or coins were tossed to decide the victors of deadlocked games. Hardly the spectacle that spot-kicks provide I’m sure you will agree? Moreover, what should be taken as the most shocking factor in my support of this method is that I am an Englishman. Poor old England have been victorious in just one attempt in six when games have gone ‘the distance’, a record that seems to further pale when placed against Germany’s record of winning five in six.
However, like my old dad always says, «you can’t beat bad luck», and he’s right. Misfortune is part of sport, part of life. A more philosophical man than I may say that it is not the losing that matters, but the learning from losing that makes you a better person (Clearly not though, if you are English). Overall I like penalties, despite the repeated hurt they have caused me over the years. They are brilliant from a spectator perspective, provoking both tears and joy in equal measure. If Mr Blatter does decide on another method to resolve the result of a tied game, I for one will bear the burden of a heavy heart.