Home » D21, Sports

An Alternative to Penalties

Posted on 16th September 2009. One Comment

Email This Comment Email This Comment

“Football’s ultimate trial: Penalties..”

pen1I look at my watch. It’s 4.55pm on a Saturday afternoon and my heart is pounding. Usual for many football fans, you might think, but the season proper hasn’t started yet: I’m at Wembley for the Charity Shield encounter (or pre-season warm-up, as it’s otherwise known) between Chelsea and Manchester United; Wayne Rooney has just equalised, and my heart is suddenly, inexplicably, pounding.

Inexplicably because, although I’d be frustrated if Chelsea now lost a match which they deserved to win, I fundamentally couldn’t care less about the Charity Shield. An enjoyable occasion, yes, but one whose import is incredibly easy to write off if lost (‘meaningless friendly’) and talk up if won (‘important marker’). So why, all of a sudden, was my pulse racing so fast?

The answer, I reflected on the train home, lay with the fact that we had skipped past extra time and had progressed immediately to football’s ultimate trial: penalties. As Frank Lampard placed the ball for the opening spot kick, I battled a surprisingly strong urge to turn away completely (indeed, my eyes were reluctantly peeping through my fingers for most of the shootout.) As Chelsea took the lead, I began to relax, and by the time Salomon Kalou stepped up to seal the victory I was positively enjoying myself, recovering completely to enjoy the procession and ensuing celebrations (oh, how different from Moscow!). Yet the emotional turmoil penalties caused, even in a relatively meaningless game, prompted me to ask just why this clinical method is so agonising? And is there a less stressful, viable alternative?

“Penalties, even within a game, are the ultimate tension builder.”

Circumstances, obviously, accentuate the power of any penalty shootout. Emotions felt within a stadium are often pen2more concentrated than those at home; watching the same end to 2007’s Charity Shield encounter between the same teams in a Welsh pub had certainly impacted my heart-rate less. There were also uncomfortable echoes of history in the encounter: on this occasion, United fans were not slow to remind their Chelsea counterparts of John Terry’s torrid night in Russia, and having witnessed this first-hand I was struck by a depressing sense of deja-vu. But this was an afterthought: the panic had struck when penalties were announced, rather than when I reflected on events at the Luzhniki stadium.

Penalties, even within a game, are the ultimate tension builder. After the initial whistle and arm extended to the spot from the referee, everything seems to happen in slow motion: the opposition players protest; the attacking team come together; one player emerges with the ball, walks to the spot, places it carefully, takes a few paces back, glances up at the goalkeeper waving his arms on the line… It’s like a scene out of a Hollywood thriller. The penalty shootout offers this in relentless fashion; when you’re at the match, there seems to be no break between spot-kicks (mainly because you have used up the pause celebrating wildly or turning to your neighbour and bemoaning your team’s ill-fortune).

Somehow, it seems invariably easier to watch the opposing team take penalties than your own. The expectation is to score: any misses are a bonus, and the greatest tension is seeing your own players stepping up, fully aware of the pressure they are under. That pressure acts like a glaring spotlight, thrusting each player under the scrutiny of all present, and occasionally that of hundreds of thousands of fans at home. The responsibility always lies with one individual for the loss: few fans could list the starting line-up for England against Germany in the Euro ’96 semi-final, yet all would name Gareth Southgate as one of those players. John Terry’s sense of personal responsibility at missing the fifth penalty in Moscow, despite it not even being the losing spot-kick, was enough to prompt him to release an official apology for letting the fans down.

“…the most intelligent ideas focus on achievements in previous match play..”

pen3With all their focused tension, isolation, pressure and guilt, it is no wonder that penalties remain hotly disputed as the chosen method of deciding a result. But is there a viable alternative? Several have been tried throughout the years, from the most basic to the more complex. The initial method of separating teams after replays was a coin toss: personal responsibility, check; complete luck and no footballing skill required, check. Consigned to the rubbish bin for obvious reasons, we move on.

Perhaps the most intelligent ideas focus on achievements in previous match play. Writing in the Guardian newspaper in 2006, Richard Williams equates penalties with ‘a public flogging in the market square’ and proposes instead that ‘the winner of a drawn final is the team with the greatest number of victories in the earlier rounds of the tournament’. In the case of a ‘winner progresses’ competition such as the FA Cup, overall goal difference from the rounds would be brought into play. However, the disadvantage of such a method is similar to the objection raised to ‘golden goal’ theories; one team starts the match knowing that they are ‘ahead’ in the event of a draw, thereby potentially changing the tactics and play of the final, which should theoretically be a stand alone contest unaffected by other considerations. Perhaps a mix of lottery and match stats could be the answer: randomly select a key element of match play, such as most shots on target, most corners or fewest cautions, and then award the win accordingly to the team that scores highest. This at least bases the result on a performance element, with the random factor reducing the likelihood of teams solely concentrating on one element of play in the final ten minutes, freeing them to play their normal game.

However, such a system downplays the fact that penalties are separate because the teams are undividable; they are in pen4themselves an acknowledgement of both teams’ achievements in drawing a match. Would the use of match performance stats undermine the very status of the draw, leading to all matches ending in a win or a loss even in league campaigns? Possibly not, and to my mind it’s an alternative worth considering. Yet, having come full circle, there remains something attractive in ending a high-stakes draw with a more exciting method than an announcement of who won the most corners. Penalties still show some skill; they can be practised and improved (Chelsea’s Frank Lampard hasn’t missed a penalty in over three years), and most importantly they call upon players to perform in situations of high tension, which is what top level football is all about. Just don’t ask me to watch them, that’s all.

Vicki Sparks

One Comment »

  • Tom said:

    I completely agree, a huge part of top level sport is how the players/athletes etc cope with the pressure when they’re on the brink of victory.

    If Lampard hasn’t missed a penalty in over three years does that mean the last one he missed was at the World Cup? If so, that demonstrates exactly why penalties are so fascinating; no one can predict how each player will react in certain situations.

    So yes, I am in favour of penalties…I just really wish England were better at them.