By Kim DeRaedt
For those of you with poor memory, let me provide a brief refresher regarding the 2006 World Cup. The tournament was staged in Germany. France and Italy competed in the final. Knotted at 1-1 at the end of 90 minutes, the teams appeared to be evenly matched. Tired from the month-long competition and bearing in mind FIFA’s Fair Play ideals, the referee blew the whistle and the sides agreed to become co-champions. Fans in attendance and citizens of both countries were elated as Italian captain Fabio Cannavaro and French foreman Zinedine Zidane each grabbed a handle and hoisted the Cup into the air. For the next four years, the trophy rested in Italy for three months before being transported to France and the pattern persisted. Everyone lived happily ever after.
Then there’s the non-fiction version of the 2006 World Cup Final. Knotted at 1-1 at the end of 90 minutes, overtime did nothing to budge the score. Penalty kicks followed. The ball was placed 12 yards from the goal. Five Italians scored; three Frenchmen converted their attempts. Five is greater than three, Italy won, and that’s all she wrote.
Let’s cut to the chase. Anybody who has been around soccer long enough and the countless players whom have witnessed 90 minutes of their hard work be deflated by a swift strike from the spot know that penalty kicks can be a sour way to determine a winner. To American sports fans: Like it or not, soccer (usually) permits ties. After all, a goal is a little more valuable than a measly 10-foot jumper that occurs umpteen times during a basketball game. However, sometimes a winner must be determined as is frequently the case in tournament play. It can be, and is often, argued that penalty kicks are an abrupt, unskillful, and luck-based manner to conclude a match. If penalty kicks are so wrong, the question begs, what is the right way to crown the victor?
Not: Forget the statistics, studies, and Nano-second analyses. The bottom line is that during a penalty kick the goalkeeper has only the “splittest” of split seconds to react to the shot and typically must read cues from the kicker in advance. Even then, little to nothing can be done to prevent well-placed, hard-struck attempts. Guessing is always an option and luck comes into play, but “luck” is no way to determine a winner whether it be for the World Cup championship or the North City Soccer League crown. What’s more, it isn’t the most spectator appealing affair. While penalty kicks earn points as far as suspense and anticipation, the kick is in the back of the net before a fan can blink. Sure sports are uncertain and of course they are meant to be risky, but not all players and supporters are wild about the Vegas-like ending.
Hot: Ah hah! The solution that so many supposedly ingenious soccer fanatics have devised (in its various yet similar forms): Have each team take off a player after “X” minutes until one team scores or immediately drop to an “X” vs. “X” format for a designated time period and then continue reducing men, etc. It’s great in theory for several reasons. The strategy of the game remains intact. It’s feasible; it’s fair. It’s…far out?! Yes, it’s a little too optimistic for those seeking radical change or fairness reform. Sure soccer has seen its share of rule changes throughout its centuries of history, but this is one rule that is not about to succumb to critics’ pressure. We may see the introduction of goal line technology, but we won’t bear witness to a player-reduced, Golden Goal format any sooner than we see the offside stipulation relinquished. Soccer is a storied sport, and penalty kicks are one of its trademarks.
Why Not?: If we can’t take away penalty kicks, why not improve them? Believe it or not, America and the NASL and MLS once introduced a novel idea to the game. Although now abolished, a hockey-style shootout was formerly in place whereby a player stood 35 yards from the goal and had five seconds to score past the goalkeeper. Why was this idea ousted? Well, MLS decided, and with good reason, that regular season games could end in draws. Likewise, the concept was “too American” and shunned by the global soccer community that claims superiority over America’s presence and impact in the sport. What’s so wrong with it, however? Or at least, what’s so wrong with it that isn’t wrong with penalty kicks as well? A hockey-style shootout would spice things up just a bit and require a tad more skill, a smidgen more strategy. It wouldn’t be a complete overhaul that gave soccer’s traditionalists a heart attack or sent FIFA into pandemonium.
It’s all about baby steps, something US Soccer knows all too well!