Big World Cup matches are liable to be decided on penalties. But are they really the best tie-breaker? Patrick Barclay has a better idea ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Summer 2010
In football circles it is the truth that dare not speak its name. The penalty decider—don’t call it the “shoot-out”, for this is a game, not a matter of life and death at high noon—is often better than football.
Unlike football, it is never boring. It always produces an outcome, so the objective of the match is achieved. It is so cruel that you feel the shame of the motorist ogling a crash scene. But watch it you do, rapt, to the exclusion of all else; it is only a matter of time before spectators follow the habit of the penalty-taker’s team-mates and cling to each other for support.
It is a rare goal that has such an effect—and, as Jasper Carrott observed when he heard that Glenn Hoddle had found God—a most extraordinary pass. Nor can the purist wholly disparage the penalty decider on the grounds of its cruelty, the random nature of which has seen such gifted technicians as Michel Platini, Roberto Baggio and David Beckham fail to execute the apparently simple task of beating an unprotected goalkeeper from 12 yards. For football has always been the least exact of sporting sciences.
Yet the penalty decider seems to impose too great an obligation on the individual. In the 2006 World Cup, England faced Portugal and Jamie Carragher took a kick. He strode to the spot, plonked the ball down, retreated briefly, advanced again and clipped the ball into the corner of the net. Immaculate. But he had not waited for the referee to whistle.
Taking the kick again, Carragher was brave enough to switch to the other corner. The goalkeeper, Ricardo, did the same. Even so, the kick was only half-saved. The ball spun off Ricardo’s body, hit the crossbar—and bounced out. England lost. But there had been too much devil in the detail.
The penalty decider was sanctioned in 1970 because people were tired of the other ways of settling drawn matches in knock-out competition: everything from replays to the tossing of a coin. It has since become so popular that the game itself sometimes seems to verge on the status of an anachronism, like county cricket in an age of sexy slogging for the masses.
It is better in that sense. It is to football what the orgasm is to sex. I still detest it because it insults all that goes into the game. Take Barcelona: they have put thought and courage into developing the world’s most admired footballing philosophy. Only to run the risk of getting the thumbs-down in a cheating contest, as penalty deciders often are, because goalkeepers tend to move forward unpunished from their line.
It was not just an Englishman’s disappointment that caused Pete Davies, author of the excellent “All Played Out”, about England’s World Cup campaign in Italy in 1990, to dismiss their defeat by West Germany in scathing terms, remarking: “The penalty shoot-out’s a heartless piece of ersatz TV drama.” Twenty years on, he told me that the Germans had been worthy winners; all he objected to was the slight on the preceding 120 minutes of vibrant endeavour.
So what is to be done about it? People come up with the silliest ideas. Ideas worse than penalties, such as reducing the teams to five-a-side for extra time, as if it would make any difference. Defenders would still defend, and be in a majority; attackers would be more tired and therefore easier to frustrate.
There is, however, a method that would not only observe the spirit of the game but enhance it. That is to abolish extra time, count the fouls committed by the two sides, factor in red and yellow cards, and hand victory to the lesser offender. For the best part of 30 years I have been unable to see the arguments against this. The most persistent is that players would dive to incriminate the opposition, but a dive is itself an offence, and a yellow-card one, so the peer pressure against cheating would actually increase and the referee’s job would become easier. Tactical fouling might also recede, along with shirt-tugging and every other substitute for tackling that has flourished since hacking down forwards became outlawed in the early 1990s.
When Pete Davies reappeared recently to launch the film based on his book, “One Night in Turin”, it was a pleasant surprise to obtain his support for this idea (most people in football are arch-conservatives). “Without wanting to sound too precious about it,” he said, “there should be a moral dimension to football—and this would produce more honesty. One of the great things about that semi-final was its spirit of honesty.”
Quite. The penalty decider, which ended with Stuart Pearce having a shot saved and Chris Waddle ballooning over the crossbar, let it down. I have never established which side committed the fewer fouls; England did go home with the fair-play trophy, so that gives us an idea. But it doesn’t really matter who won. It was the humbling of Pearce and Waddle on a night of heroes that football should have avoided.
DID THE BEST TEAM WIN?
1986 World Cup quarter-final
After 120 mins: France 1 Brazil 1
After penalties: France 4 Brazil 3
NO: France’s aesthetes contributed to a connoisseur’s fantasy, but an underrated Brazil monopolised the chances, including a missed penalty in normal time.
1991 European Cup Final
After 120 mins: Red Star Belgrade 0 Marseille 0
After penalties: Red Star 5 Marseille 3
NO: Both sides had swaggered to the final, but Red Star lost their nerve and unashamedly played for penalties. A befuddled Marseille were rendered impotent. The football world gently wept.
1994 World Cup Final
After 120 mins: Brazil 0 Italy 0
After penalties: Brazil 3 Italy 2
YES: An exhausted Italy played from memory—which meant caution and catenaccio. Brazil, though under par, hit the post and deserved to win. Chiefly because they tried to.
2004 Euro quarter-final
After 120 mins: Portugal 2 England 2
After penalties: Portugal 6 England 5
YES: The old story of English penalty misery had a twist: this time there was little glory after a cowardly, negative performance. Portugal had 61% of possession and 35 shots at goal.
2005 FA Cup Final
After 120 mins: Arsenal 0 Man Utd 0
After penalties: Arsenal 5 Man Utd 4
NO: United pummelled an unusually negative Arsenal. The Germanic perfection of Arsenal’s penalties suggested they had been practising—as did their tactics in the previous 120 minutes.
(Patrick Barclay is chief football commentator for the Times. "Did the best team win?" was compiled by Rob Smyth. See also Tim de Lisle's piece "How did sport get so big?" and Laura Spinney's piece on an anarchist's approach to football. Paulo Coelho is also a football fan.)