The lottery of a shootout is no way to settle a game
It happens at every major football tournament, without fail. At least one team, usually England, is sent packing by the cruel lottery that is otherwise known as a penalty shootout.
Sometimes these shootouts are decided by a flash of heroic brilliance from the outstretched glove of a goalkeeper. But they are just as often resolved by the howling error of a man with shredded nerves.
Portugal became the second team to suffer that fate at Euro 2012 yesterday morning, losing on penalties after holding world champions Spain to a goalless draw for two hours of football.
You have to feel for the Portuguese, who have once again failed to win a major trophy, yet still cannot find a way to deflate Cristiano Ronaldo’s ego. As competitive balloon racers will tell you, it is not often that a team can genuinely claim to be weighed down by hot air.
Of course, the English nation has been weighed down for decades by a long and colourful history of spectacular failures at the penalty spot. The Poms were forced to watch in horror as history repeated itself on Monday morning.
We all enjoy mocking the English, and their recurring humiliation is almost reason enough to fall in love with the penalty shootout format. But it really is fundamentally unfair to decide a football match of any significance with such a lottery.
It is true that there are few moments in world sport more dramatic than the shootout. Every Aussie remembers John Aloisi’s strike to bury Uruguay and send us to the world cup in 2005. The whole nation was on the edge of its seat that night.
Much of the planet was similarly spellbound as the world cup final between France and Italy went to penalties a year later.
As a spectacle then, the shootout format could legitimately be labelled a success.
Spare a thought for the losing side though. After having matched their opposition on the pitch for two long hours of football, the losers must see their dreams of glory crushed by what is effectively the flip of a coin.
Advocates of the shootout would argue that players get tired if they are left to fight it out on the field for too long. This increases the likelihood of an injury occurring.
But the game can only open up as fatigue sets in during extra time, making it easier for either side to score. FIFA should implement a format that will take advantage of this fact.
Footballing elites would undoubtedly be shocked and offended by the suggestion that they should model their beautiful game after an ugly, crass sport like rugby league. But the golden point format adopted by the NRL in recent years would work perfectly for football.
The penalty shootout should be replaced by a period of “golden goal” extra time, in which the first team to score wins. This format ticks all the right boxes for fans, players and even the game’s administrators.
Hundreds of informal football matches among mates have taught me that there is nothing more exciting than “next score wins”. On the world stage this format would energise crowds and players alike. The suits in charge should jump at the chance to see that happen.
Even more importantly, the hollow stench of unfairness that hangs over every penalty shootout would become a thing of the past. Players on the losing side would have to acknowledge that they were beaten fair and square.
Winning fans could feel greater satisfaction in the knowledge that their victory was truly deserved, not stolen from their opposition by the whims of fortune.
To decide the biggest games in world sport with the lottery of a penalty shootout is nothing short of ridiculous. Hand the ball back to the players, and let them play.
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