Penalty Kick Stupidity

Well, yet another key international soccer match, this time the most important game of all, the World Cup Finals, was decided by penalty kicks.  Penalty kicks are the most absurd way to determine a championship that I can imagine.  They are barely one step removed from a coin toss in terms of their ability to really determine who the best team is.   Its like giving up on a baseball game in the 12th inning and settling it with a home run derby.

I understand that in regular matches and probably in pool play, logistics require that games not go on for hours and penalty kicks make sense.  But by the time you get to the quarterfinals, and certainly the finals, why can't they just play the freaking game until someone wins?  That's what they do in the Stanley Cup, and in US pro football -- each have ways of settling ties quickly for regular season games, but once crunch time comes, they play until there is a winner.  In Wimbledon, they settle sets with tie breakers but come the fifth set, they play until someone wins.  Its not like the stadium is booked for anything else the rest of the day.  And do they really think anyone in the stands is going to get tired and go home?  Pro hockey fans will tell you there is no more compelling time in their sport than overtime in a Stanley Cup Final.  How great would it have been to have just left the two teams on the field until one was a winner, even if that took two more hours?  I mean, they have waited four years for this moment, they can't put in a few more minutes on the field?

As an American non-soccer guy, I have really given this World Cup a chance.  I was in England for much of the tournament, so I not only watched but got to experience some of the excitement of the populous.  And I have, excluding the silly play-acting fake injury thing, mostly enjoyed the games.  But they lost me right at the end.  Settling their once-every-four-years world championships with ridiculous penalty kicks demonstrates to me that soccer types have no respect for their own game.  After just 30 minutes of overtime, they give up on their own game and have teams play a different game to determine a winner. So if they don't have respect for their own game, why should I have any?  Americans are never going to fall in love with a game that decides its championships with the moral equivalent of a coin flip.

Update:  First, though this post was applied to soccer, its not just a soccer rant.  I went on the same rant several years ago when the Olympic ice hockey gold was awarded with a shootout.

Second, I get it that the athletes are tired.  I'm not going to put my toe in the water on the "what sport requires the most athleticism" debate, except to say that soccer is right up there, with its 45 minutes of continuous play each half.  (But I will say that, having personally played rugby for years, rugby is right up there too -- one thing soccer aficionados don't acknowledge is how much physical contact and going down on the ground frequently -- for more than just a fake injury -- takes out of you above and beyond just continuous running.)

My point is that shoot-outs are a different game - they are not real soccer.  Yes they use the same equipment and have roughly the same goal (to get the ball in the net) but by that definition "horse" is real basketball.  Anyone up for settling an NBA finals after two overtimes with a game of horse?  The beauty of soccer is in the passing and the assists, in the clever footwork, in the wing trying to use his speed to turn the corner.  Where are those in a shootout?

If athletes are getting exhausted, it just increases the likelihood that someone will score and end the game, since it is as true in soccer as any other sport that fatigue hurts defense more than offense.  And this might stop teams that play a defensive game in overtime, who are clearly playing for the shootout.

And think of posterity.  No one is going to remember this World Cup final game except to say that Italy beat France on penalty kicks.  But what if the game went 3-1/2 hours in a grueling test of endurance before France finally punched it in, all the players too exhausted to celebrate.  People would talk about the match for years.  I'm not saying you play this way for every run of the mill international competition.  But wouldn't it be nice once every four years to actually decide the championship actually playing soccer, rather than horse?

Update #2: Per a couple of commenters, nothing in this post is meant to imply that sports that are more popular in the US are not without their flaws.  Silly set-piece fist fights in hockey and the unfairness of overtime rules in football (putting too much emphasis on winning the coin toss) come to mind immediately.


  1. Dave:

    I normally like what you have to say on this blog but your coverage of the World Cup is perhaps the most incoherent, rambling, insusbtantial piece of analysis I have ever seen. Too bad. We Americans could stand to learn something about the sport.

  2. Jody:

    *We Americans could stand to learn something about the sport.*

    Mmmm... soccer snobbery .... That's the way to win converts....

    I played soccer competitvely for 12 years and I too think that settling the game with PKs is a farce. I think the golden goal or the English style of replaying matches are both preferable. (I also think that football, basketball, baseball, and tennis make for better TV.)

    For fun, prior to deciding games with the "moral equivalent of a coin flip" games were decided with an actual coin flip! (no html allowed :()

    "Yosef Dagan, a former member of the Israeli football association, is the creator of this original game-decider method and introduced the idea to FIFA after the Israeli national football team was denied from the 1968 Summer Olympics semi-finals, *due to a coin toss*. The idea was adopted by the UEFA and FIFA. Before then, a tie was decided by luck of the draw as, for example, in 1968 when Italy made it to the European Championship Final against the USSR.!"

  3. BobH:

    Expecting the players to keep going endlessly is not as practicable in soccer as in the popular American sports. In American football, the players are only on the field half the time, and they actually do something only a fraction of that time, with long delays between plays. A player is probably exerting himself 20 minutes at most over a 2.5 hour time period.

    Basketball only lasts 48 minutes, with many (many,many,many) time-outs. Both football and basketball also have extensive substitution.

    Baseball requires very little endurance. The only position
    that requires hard work, pitching, is subject to frequent substitution.

    At the end of two hours, a soccer player is totally wiped out.

    Having said that -- I agree that a PK shoot-out is unsatisfying (to put it kindly). I think the exhaustion question could be mitigated by allowing additional subs during the OT.

    My proposal would be going to the golden goal, doing 15 minute overtime periods (with five-minute breaks between), and allowing one extra sub per period.

  4. Matthew Brown:

    I think pretty much everyone involved in the game thinks that the penalty-kick shootout is a silly way of deciding things, and most think that sudden-death after the 30 minutes overtime (i.e. first to score wins) would be the right way to go for important matches at least. Yes, the players are exhausted, but that in itself is likely to eventually turn a goal.

    I also think that penalty kicks increases the odds of overly defensive play. One might think that no team wants to be in that situation, but I feel the overall sentiment too often is that losing on penalties is "less bad" than losing by regular score.

  5. Craig L:

    I agree with Bob that repeated overtimes are impractical in soccer. Once the players have played for two hours, they are far from the top of their game. Also, once players are removed, they cannot return, unlike all sports but baseball, which, as Bob said, requires little exertion.

  6. S:

    What they should do is to keep removing one player from each side every 2 minutes in overtime. So when on team is on the attack, if they screw up, then the other side has a good opportunity to score. Imagine 2-on-2 on the soccer field!

  7. Bob Smith:

    >At the end of two hours, a soccer player is totally wiped out.

    Wonderful! That means continued play is ever more likely to result in a goal, and it rewards good management of your substitutions (late substitutes having a big advantage over their tired rivals).

  8. Ryan Cupples:

    After two hours, you think that just because they've been waiting four years for this moment, they should be able to play another two hours?

    Do you have any idea how exhausting a game of soccer is?

    As for the skill in penalty kicks; better goalies will stop kicks more often, and good players will rarely miss the net. If they had Zidane and Henry playing, I'll bet they would have suck all five.

    As for the second poster: Football and especially baseball are mind-numbing. I can watch a soccer game without alcohol. Baseball without being inebriated induces suicides. I still think the best TV sport is Hockey; none of this timeout crap that innundates basketball and football and equal amounts of action.

  9. Ryan Cupples:

    To add to the last poster:

    No, it's less likely to result in a goal. Just before, people were complaining about how few goals are scored in soccer.

    In baseball, you can easily have over 10 runs per team. In football, 20 points isn't uncommon, and basketball it easily tops 100 points! Even in hockey, a 1-0 game is quite rare.

    Switzerland, this year, shutout EVERY GAME. Not one goal was scored on them, and they still lost (due to penalty kicks). This isn't because they're really good, but rather that soccer just isn't a high-scoring game. Tired players will increase offsides ridiculously, as they won't be as aware, and remember that the goalies are pretty well rested after mostly just standing there (relative to their fellow players). Tired shots are easier to stop.

  10. Max:

    Well, I also imagine that the turnout in this particular game would have been France wins and Italy goes home, because frankly Italy sucked most of the time. They even had one man more on the field than France and still sucked...

    The penalty was a good summary of the whole world cup, the defensive-strategy and a liking for "pussy-goals" (aka. getting a free kick or penalty kick by flying beautifully on the ground and sissying around).
    I also think that video-control should be implemented for reefrees to check for fouls. Something like the penalty kick that decided the game Italy - Australia hadn't been possible that way.

    As it stand now, the worse team at actually playing soccer won and the better team lost (although I think after Zinedine Zidan's head-attack, that's somewhat fair).

  11. luispedro:

    The World Cup is not about the football, its much more than that.

  12. Frank N Stein:

    In overtime, instead of playing (as I agree they will be too tired to make it an interesting contest), they should take turns running down the field and then falling - the team whose players can roll on the ground most convincingly wins.

  13. Steve:

    What if they did the shootout before the game, so each side knew the result of a tie score while they played (a al Ryder Cup, where a the defending champ retains the Cup in the event of a tie)? I suspect that this would encourage defensive play by one side and agressive play by the other, which would change the dynamics of the game. I'm not sure this would be bad.

    I also like Frank Stein's suggestion.

  14. Ryan Cupples:

    "If athletes are getting exhausted, it just increases the likelihood that someone will score and end the game, since it is as true in soccer as any other sport that fatigue hurts defense more than offense. And this might stop teams that play a defensive game in overtime, who are clearly playing for the shootout."

    I disagree entirely. To give any offence in soccer, you need to get the ball down the field. That includes running (with or without passing it) or dumping and chasing. As I mentioned above, offsides will increase because of less concentration, and the dump and chase method will be almost useless, as the defenders can just belt it back down the field if they feel threatened.

    If the attackers need to run down the field, then it seems evident that exhaustion will slow that down.

    And, as I said before, the goalies are in far better shape by the end of a match versus their opposing team's forwards, and will be not as hard pressed to stop the kick.

    Now, as for your thoughts on hockey, I agree with you on shootouts; they're fun to watch sometimes, but they are far too common and deciding a major game with them is silly... but even in hockey, you can cycle players on and off (indeed, you have multiple lines) to prevent complete exhaustion.

  15. Highway:

    I'd have to side with those that don't think Penalty Kicks are a good way to end the championship game. I'd liken it to Wimbledon not deciding a match with a tiebreak. Sure, the players are tired, but they're tired before then, they're tired after then. What's to say they aren't 'too tired' after a single overtime? Golden Goal (Sudden Victory?) might be a better way to do it in overtime, or maybe some slight change in the substitution rules (maybe for the whole game?). But I think Penalty Kicks, like was mentioned, is most akin to a home run derby settling the World Series.

  16. bob:

    It seems to me that the real problem is that it's too hard to score goals in normal play. So why not make the goals bigger?

  17. Zoran Lazarevic:

    When a good and a poor team meet, penalty kicks are as good indicator of ability as the regular play. So penalty kicks make sense to sort out early games, especially in this sport with so few points scored.

    On everage, two goals are scored during 90 minutes of play. As the players get tired, they get less accurate and the probability of scoring goes down dramatically. The probability that extra play will settle the game is small. After playing for 180 minutes, teams would not need goal keepers, as running accross the field and sending the ball between the post would require superhuman abilities (or luck).

    Illustration: England lost to Portugal on penalty kicks because they played better part of the game with one player less, and were more tired during penalty shootout.

    Don't forget that the World Cup penaly kicks are fielded by the best players in the world. You would be surprised to see how many penalties are missed in national leagues.

    I would like to see longer extra play, which was probably squeezed by TV executives eager to start commercials as soon as the game ends. After some reasonable time, penalty kicks are the next-best indicator of soccer skills.

    (As a side-note, compare coverage of US English and Spanish speaking TV channels: Gringo channels switched to commercials as soon as the final game was decided, while the Latino channels broadcast the joy and sorrow of players for the next half an hour.)