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Notes on Penalty Kicks and Other Neuroses

I deplore the penalty shootout

Quinn Rooney/Getty Images Sport

These are terrible times in which the “beautiful game” can be reduced to Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Not since the summer of 1914 has the world had such reason for anxiety and neurotic behavior. I am referring to the dreaded penalty shoot-out that threatens to consume the progress of our World Cup now that it has reached its knockout stages. Famously it is the goalkeeper who is alleged to be anxious over the penalty kicks. But in truth we are seeing great and brave players hiding from their coaches in the huddle and begging to be excused the nightmarish duty.

First the facts: at a distance of twelve yards from the goal, the ball is placed on the painted spot. A designated player on the attacking side then takes a “penalty kick” for which a goalkeeper must be on the goal line, able to move sideways but not permitted to advance beyond the goal line. This is done with five shots a side, and then more if a tie prevails.

Of course, this is not a penalty kick. That liberty is awarded for a piece of foul play by the defense in the 18-yard box or what is called the “penalty area.” It carries an undertone of guilt and retribution, enough to sustain the wisdom of dads teaching their kids to play that, “No one should ever miss a penalty kick.” Unless they have to take it. In fact, statistical observation over the years suggests that 70 percent of penalty kicks result in goals.

There is no guilt or retribution in the causation of shoot-out penalties. They are nothing but a device for concluding a match that has already had overtime but fears extra overtimes because the lads may wilt in the sun or because the television viewers may grow bored waiting for “sudden death” (as applies in many other sports, including baseball and hockey). So the shoot-outs are excruciating and loathed experiences for players and team support, but they provide an artificial air of crisis for casual viewers.

Note: the goalkeeper cannot lose. Their melodramatic tautness suggests the opposite. But even a plainly out-of-shape and out-of-talent keeper, like Brazil’s Julio Cesar, may become a sobbing hero if a flung foot or an inadvertent private part happens to block a shot, or if some hitherto slayer of the moving ball misses the goal entirely from twelve yards. The striker of the ball cannot win. He can do a David Luiz, and run up as if taking a 35-yard free kick at Stamford Bridge on a windy day, and trust to sheer power and boyishness. But Luiz is a notably un-neurotic spirit (which may be why Mourinho let him go). A player may never quite recover from missing the gaping goal entirely. If he scores, he is forgotten in a moment—those goals don’t count in career statistics.

Needless to say, the shoot-out kick is a great test of nerve. Neymar has fashioned a very eccentric, confusing run-up, in which he does not quite stop (that is not permitted) but where the vagaries of his advance are calculated to disarm a keeper, as if he was trying to stare down a cobra. It was observed in the shoot-out with Chile that the referee, Howard Webb, spoke to Neymar after his successful shot, as if to indicate that Neymar was close to breaking the “spirit” of the shoot-out. (Webb was a policeman once and he may be frustrated by the legal cunning of some players.)

What can the goalkeeper do? Sixty years ago, in learning the game, I was told that the keeper could not move until the ball was struck. That strictness has been by-passed now, and some goalkeepers are a whirl of arms, while dancing side to side. Now, that agitation can be providence for the striker, for nothing sharpens his strategy or his confidence more than knowing the keeper’s weight and balance are going in one direction. It is in that knowledge that some successful penalty shooters aim directly head-height at the space where the goalkeeper should be.

But the keeper does not have to stand in the middle of the goal. A wise tactic is for the keeper to stand half a step away from the center. That makes the shooter greedy for that extra space. But that gives the keeper the more confidence about diving in that direction.

Alas, the shoot-out has exacerbated a kind of gamesmanship that must detract from the beauty we all aspire to. This arises over the awarding of a penalty in the general run of play. Against Mexico, very late in the game, Arjen Robben did one of his spectacular, spreadeagled sky-diving falls in the penalty area. That penalty call determined the match, and Robben—who is in the Suarez class as a player of brilliance possessed by a relentless outlaw soul—admitted that he had flopped earlier in the game, but not at that critical moment.

The range is wide here. There are penalties over which not even a Suarez has room for dispute. And in the hurly-burly of goalmouth action there are moments when the lethal athletic skill of some players is more theatrical than sporting. (Let us agree: such moments and attitudes run through the game.) There is a case for saying that Robben should never be awarded a penalty again (I think his falling over would soon cease) just as Suarez should only play after all his teeth have been extracted. It could be that minus les dents his balance would so improve that he did not have to reach out to steady himself on an Italian shoulder.                    

Our beautiful game is played by geniuses who may be liars and scoundrels. I deplore the penalty shoot out. I long to see some kind of sudden death restored to the game—suppose we did it with each team compelled to withdraw one player every two minutes. Imagine a situation with two empty goals (that lovely naked finale in hockey) and just Suarez and Robben having at it like gladiators.