FIFA World Cup – Penalty shootout: Football’s great leveller

12 months ago Marcus Mergulhao | TNN 0

Football is a team game, yet why are penalties, or tiebreakers, all about the individuals? To understand the curse of a tiebreaker in football, try reaching out to Roberto Baggio or even David Trezeguet.

Baggio was Italy’s hero at the 1994 World Cup in the United States when he dragged a below-par Italian side to the final against Brazil and then stepped-up to take a decisive spot kick which would have kept Italy in the contest. For someone who had made goalscoring look so easy all through the tournament with five goals, Baggio discovered that shooting from the spot was an altogether different task. He blazed his penalty over the bar, just like his captain Franco Baresi before him, and an equally woeful Brazil celebrated their record fourth World Cup triumph.

Trezeguet also suffered the same fate in the 2006 final for France as he missed his penalty and Italy converted all five to take home the World Cup. Unlike Baggio’s failure in the heat of US, Trezeguet’s life, at least in the public eye, was not as miserable. Fortunately for him, his failure was overshadowed by Zinedine Zidane’s head-butt on Marco Materazzi during the game.

“Whatever anyone may say, tiebreaker is a lottery. There is no defined method either for a player to take a penalty, or for a goalkeeper to make a save. It’s so unpredictable that you sometimes wonder if there is no other way to break a deadlock,” former India captain Bruno Coutinho, reflects on the method and madness of a penalty kick.

Until the 1970 World Cup, teams tied after 90 minutes of regulation and extra time, were forced to settle for a winner with a simple coin toss. Whatever the occasion, a toss of the coin was enough to hand you victory, like when Italy laughed their way to the final of the European Championship in 1968 ahead of the Soviet Union. Two years earlier at the 1966 World Cup, Soviet Union had proved a goal too good for Italy, but this time around, a toss of the coin left them in tears.

1982

Surely a toss of the coin is an even more cruel way to decide the winners.

“There must be some innovations in football. If shooting from the spot is too simplistic a way of deciding the winners, Fifa can try something different,” says Coutinho, who rarely missed a penalty in his lifetime, although he admits, nobody could guarantee that he can convert a penalty, particularly when he is up against the goalkeeper who has everything to win and nothing to lose.

Coutinho’s suggestion includes shooting from 30 yards away straight into the goal. “It might look simple without a goalkeeper to stop you, but try doing it,” says the Arjuna awardee, renowned for his shooting prowess.

At some stage, IFAB, the independent guardian of the Laws of the Game in football, would have considered several other methods to decide the winners. Some have suggested a one-on-one dribble to the goal, as games like field hockey and ice hockey have tried where skilful players can provide for plenty of entertainment.

A recent inclusion is the ABAB formula, aimed at being fairer on the team taking the second penalty. But despite the team taking the first kick in each pair of kicks alternating, tiebreakers are still kind to some, and cruel to others.

“Why is there a need to change the tiebreaker system?” asks Renedy Singh, former India midfielder and once the team’s established penalty taker. “The tiebreaker is a test of equals. For 120 minutes, an underdog tries with all his might and in the tiebreaker he is as confident as the stronger opposition. The underdog deserves an even chance at glory. The tiebreaker is a great leveller where the greatest players are as vulnerable as the lesser mortals,” he points out.

Despite what Renedy says, some teams, and players, do enjoy the upperhand in penalties. At the highest level, Germany, for example, have gone to penalty shootouts four times in World Cups and emerged winners in all four, scoring 17 penalties in 18 attempts. Their success from penalties is unrivalled, and unlike England – psychologically scarred from failures – the battle is not lost even before it begins. But it is the Dutch teams – missing at Russia 2018 — that is often considered the unluckiest of top teams in penalty shootouts.

If a penalty is a crushing burden on the taker, there is the aspect of the goalkeeper too. “It’s all about the state of mind, says former India goalkeeper and captain S Brahmanand. “Taking and saving penalties is a courageous task. If you stay focused, you will end up as the winner,” he says simply.

Renedy advocates a calm mind, although he agrees not everyone can stay as calm as Andrea Pirlo and Zinedine Zidane, both of whom tried and succeeded in doing a Panenka. Brahmanand suggests you keep your eyes on the ball, and not the player, while trying to save one.

But, like the Germans might tell you, there’s another element to it — Preparation. With the use of technology there’s extreme scrutiny on every move and penalty-taking isn’t an exception. And in this goalkeeping coaches have come to play a huge role. In the 2006 World Cup, German keeper Jens Lehmann guessed correctly in deciding which side to dive every time in trying to save the shots of Argentine penalty-takers in an epic quarterfinal. In the process, he ended up saving two penalties, but he was prompt to give bulk of the credit to Germany’s goalkeeping coach, Andreas Kopke. Lehmann said later in an interview that he was handed a slip of paper by Kopke whose research before the game told him which side the Argentine players would take before the shoot-out.

Typical of their approach to preparation, the Germans always expect a penalty shootout once the knock outs arrive, while there are some teams who just do not give them that much importance, lending further credence to the notion that you cannot influence a lottery, it’s all down to luck. Whatever argument you choose to side with, truth is whenever a penalty shootout appears after an epic 120 minutes of football, the whole world sits down to watch.

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