Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Penalty Shoot-outs in the World Cup Finals

Sepp Blatter’s recent admission that, at least for the final itself, the penalty shoot-out is a blight on the world’s greatest sporting event is to be welcomed. The shoot-out is generally unpopular with fans, feared by the players and widely recognised as an unsatisfactory method of settling drawn matches after extra time.

FIFA has previously stated that, despite its flaws, the shoot-out is preferable to any of the replacements put forward. This article explains the faults with some of the more common suggestions and proposes an alternative that is fair, promotes positive football (in the group as well as the knockout stage), should prove popular with players and, most importantly, requires no changes to the laws of the game.

Leaving aside the discredited “Golden Goal”, solutions to the problem of knock-out matches which end in a draw can be usefully categorised into three broad groupings. These could be called "Additional Contest", "Supplementary Scoring" and "Previous Record". My suggestion is of the third type but I will first review the fundamental problems with the first two.

“Additional Contest” methods depend upon some form of (usually) football related contest occurring after 120 minutes. As well as the penalty shoot-out, the most commonly mentioned are a revival of the US style 35 yard run by a forward against the goalkeeper and some sort of mini-match involving a smaller (and perhaps reducing) number of players and/or rule changes that will allow goals to be more easily scored .

There are two drawbacks common to all methods in this category. Firstly, whatever the skill involved, such contests are an inadequate substitute for actually playing football under the established laws. The second problem is rather less obvious but no less critical. Paradoxically, the more skill based the contest, the greater the incentive for lesser teams to rely on it as a method for progressing. The phenomenon of one, or occasionally both, teams "playing for penalties" is not unusual, leading to less than riveting periods of extra time. The more a team perceives that it has a relative advantage in the contest, an advantage that can be increased by practising specifically for the contest, the more likely that they will play cautiously in the normal and extra time. The perceived random nature of the penalty shoot-out is actually a point in its favour here. Efforts to find the perfect post 120 minute decider are, therefore, misplaced - the "fairer" the contest, the more detrimental effect on the match itself.

"Supplementary Scoring" solutions propose taking some measure of performance during the match and using it to decide which team should go through. The most commonly suggested is corners won, though free kicks, offsides, possession and yellow cards have their advocates. Edward De Bono, according to his website the world's leading authority in the field of creative thinking, suggested recently that the number of times each goalkeeper touches the ball is the most appropriate gauge.

The trouble with proposals in this category is that, although in a normal game of football, such measures may be a fair indication of one side's dominance (or superior fair play), any match played under the revised rules would cease to be a "normal" match. An alternative method of winning the match has become available, which will inevitably affect how the game is played. Under Dr De Bono's suggestion expect to see accurate but weak shots from 50 yards every few minutes. Similarly "corners" will lead to players dribbling to the flag while defenders keep their distance and "possession" to keep-ball in defence. A team may not have the direct ability to affect their opponent's disciplinary record but, if this is chosen as a deciding measure, we can be fairly confident that we shall see an increasing level of diving and other play acting.

Football is the world game because of the simplicity of its laws, including its scoring system; any rule changes challenging the primacy of the goal and allowing teams to win in any other way than scoring should be rejected. (As should, of course, any suggestion that a subjective opinion on match dominance has any role).

There has been some genuine lateral thinking on the subject, from those realising that football matches are generally more exciting once a team goes into the lead (how many times do we hear that a game "needs a goal?"). The suggestion of creating an imbalance between the teams after 90 minutes - effectively awarding half a goal at this stage - has merit. Taking the penalties (or holding another contest, or indeed just tossing up) before the extra half hour is not as daft an idea as it initially sounds; the team losing the contest would know that they could still progress by winning in extra time, and an exciting extra half hour could be expected as one team would always have an incentive to attack. However, just about any contest held at this stage not involving a coin would create an unwelcome break in the actual football. More importantly, there would be a detrimental effect on the match towards the end of the 90 minutes as teams sat back, waiting to see whether they gained the advantage.

The solution lies in recognising that it is the rules of the competition rather than the laws of the game that require amendment. The format of the World Cup has varied between tournaments, but, since 1986, has consisted of a group stage followed by an entirely separate knock-out second stage. Using the performance of the teams in the group stage - "previous record" - to decide matches finishing level in subsequent rounds has been rejected for three reasons.

Firstly that, because teams were placed in groups of varying strengths in the earlier stage, it would somehow be "unfair" to teams surviving a difficult test to be handicapped subsequently. This argument should not be dismissed completely but is hardly decisive, after all many teams that would have survived easily in lesser groups will be going home after the first stage; there is always a place for the luck of the draw.

The second argument is that the team with the advantage before the game would be encouraged to play defensively and pick its side accordingly, making for a dull game. However, dull games are not encouraged by an imbalance, real boredom sets in when one team decides that a draw is the best it can get, and the other team is disinclined to attack because of a fear of being caught on the break. This scenario is common under the current rules but impossible where one team always knows they are out unless the stalemate is broken.

Furthermore, a team will only find itself in the advantaged position by performing relatively well in the previous rounds - a continuous policy of playing to draw is not a viable strategy. A welcome secondary effect of "previous record" is that teams always have an incentive to maximise points from the first stage, as they know that it may make the difference in their later ties. Currently teams qualifying after two group matches may field a weakened team for their third, possibly distorting the finishing order.

Selecting an ultra-defensive team is always an option for a team with the advantage but could leave them ill-equipped to respond if they were to go behind. In addition, there is no reason why the "previous record" criteria should be restricted to the group stage; playing to go through by drawing could thus be further discouraged by ensuring that a team progressing in this manner forego the advantage in subsequent rounds.

No great insight is required to imagine the psychology of a match played under such conditions. Often, the final match of the group stage produces a situation where one team needs a draw and the other a win. The Brazil v Italy match in 1982, often cited as the best World Cup match of the last thirty years but often incorrectly described as a "quarter-final", was a case in point. Of course this could well have been a great game under different circumstances, but it is certainly arguable that the 1994 final between the same countries would have benefited considerably if one of the teams knew they had to score to survive.

The third and best reason given for rejecting the previous record method is an aesthetic one. It just seems "wrong" that two teams should go into a knockout game with one of them holding an advantage, and that the build up to such a game will be adversely affected. I have some sympathy with this feeling, particularly when it comes to the final but consider that it is easily outweighed by the arguments in favour of this method. A team lifting the trophy without winning the final game may mean a slightly unsatisfactory end to the tournament, but far less so than what happened in 1994 and this summer. If the final was the only possible match in the tournament that could go to a replay it may be that, as Mr Blatter seems to be suggesting, FIFA would consider allowing one, with "previous record" only being considered after the second game.

I detail below my version of a workable “previous record” system. The basic arithmetic should not obscure the simplicity of the situation facing teams before a match outside the group stage. They know that a draw after 120 minutes will lead to either themselves or their opponents progressing; they know the advantage will have been decided using records in the tournament to date; and they know that if the advantaged team progresses without winning the match it is likely to count against them in subsequent ties.

GROUP STAGE - as present, including deciding the pairings for Round 2.

ROUND 2 - 30 minutes extra time played if level after 90 minutes. If the game is still level then the team with the best "previous record" from the group stage progresses. Previous record is judged on points, goal difference, goals scored.

QUARTER FINALS - As above but previous record also includes the result after 90 minutes of the Round 2 matches. Therefore a team with seven points from the group stage who won their Round 2 game in extra time will now have eight points, and would be considered to have an inferior previous record to a team with six points from the group stage who won in Round 2 without requiring extra time (and consequently had a total of nine points). However if a team, because of its previous record, progresses from Round 2 without actually winning the match after either 90 or 120 minutes, it will be judged to have an inferior record to opponents who won their 2nd round game irrespective of the relative points totals.

SEMI FINALS - As above, but with the first 90 minutes of the quarter final games also included when assessing the teams’ records. Again, progression without winning the match in either of the previous rounds hands the advantage to the opponent (if both had benefited then points are decisive).

FINAL - In the event of a draw after 120 minutes (or 240 if a replay is an option) then previous record decides the winner - points from the group stage plus those gained from the first 90 minutes of the three matches played subsequently, unless one of the teams had previously progressed without winning.