Friday, May 23, 2008

Pondering Penalties aka PK-47

Roberto Baggio Missing during the Penalty Shootout won By Brazil to decide the 1994 World Cup Final at the Rose Bowl.
David Batty missing during the penalty shootout won by Argentina in the 1998 World Cup round of 16 in Saint-Etienne, France.

As suggested in the comments of this excellent discussion of penalty alternatives here; the most realistic adjustment to the way soccer games are decided may well be moving the spot back from which penalties are taken.

Currently, penalties are taken from 12 yards out. The goalkeeper, technically, must remain standing on the goal line until the shot is taken. In reality, it should be next to impossible for a world-class player, particularly the strikers and midfielders who primarily comprise the first 5 chosen for a shootout, to miss; which, by a wide margin, they do not.

One study, summarized here, revealed that 82.7% and 84.6% of all penalty kicks during shootouts were converted at the Copa America and European Championships, respectively.
Mostly, one can imagine, the only reasons for missing such easy shots are intertwined: nerves and mistakes. Tellingly, the same study reveals that on the biggest stage, the World Cup, the conversion rate is only 71.2%. Adding further support for nerves being the biggest determining factor, the conversion of sudden-death kicks-those taken after the first five have been shot-is 64.3%, as opposed to an average rate of 80% for the first five kicks.

If kicks were taken from farther away, such as 18 yards away at the edge of the box or further, goalkeepers would have more time to make a save, fewer shots would be converted and more skill would be required. This method might have the added benefit of encouraging more attacking play during extra-time as teams might be more prone to go for goal if they knew that penalties were not so easy to convert.

While there is some merit to the method Major League Soccer used at its infancy, namely allowing players to run at the goal from 35 yards out, simply moving the spot of the penalty farther away should be sufficient to bring some balance to the battle between goalkeeper and striker while still maintaining the insane drama and quick resolution that the current format provides.

What's most important is that alternatives to the current penalty shootout are being discussed more frequently. Sepp Blatter himself is on the record as wanting a better solution to World Cup games. As shootouts determine more and more big events, the clamor for change will only increase.

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