Putting Shootouts on the Spot: Why I Love Penalties

Love them or hate them?

Penalties: sport’s version of Marmite. Some people think penalties provide drama, excitement and the ultimate test of a sportsperson’s mettle under pressure. Others think they are cruel, unfair and should be replaced with another method of determining a winner. Most sports fans will have witnessed their team both win and lose via a shootout at some point. England football fans have only ever actually had one shootout victory to celebrate (against Spain in Euro ’96), so it turns out we really are rubbish at penalties. In case you were wondering, I am a Marmite fan both in relation to toast and penalty shootouts – despite my Englishness. I’ll now attempt to persuade even the haters out there why Sepp Blatter is wrong (shocking I know) to describe penalties as “a tragedy”.

In a seemingly insignificant weeknight League Cup tie last week, it took 30 penalties to separate Liverpool and Middlesborough. This equals the record for the highest scoring penalty shootout in the history of professional football in England. The goalkeepers may only have managed to save two penalties between them, but they did both manage to score their own attempts from the spot. I may be a Manchester United fan… but I wouldn’t have minded spending the evening at Anfield on this occasion, even if I’d had to put up with the celebrations of a bunch of Liverpool supporters afterwards. So here is the first part of my argument: penalties make things exciting, regardless of who is playing. Many people probably actually enjoy penalties more when they aren’t watching their own team take part. The point is though, penalties – good, bad or ugly – can raise a spectator’s heart rate and generate excitement even at the end of a boring game or one where you aren’t too bothered about who ends up winning.

In sport, we love heroes and villains. Luckily, penalty shootouts provide these without fail. In the end, someone will score or miss, someone will save or concede. It is a bit unfortunate that some sportspeople are remembered more for miskicking one ball than for the rest of their career put together – but hopefully the (probably) multi-million pound deal Gareth Southgate signed for appearing in a classic Pizza Hut advert a few months later cheered him up a bit.

Here’s the advert if you don’t remember it:

Sometimes the heroics and the villainy get mixed up and the fans can’t make their minds up. Tim Krul, the Dutch goalkeeper, was substituted on specifically for penalties in the Netherlands’ quarter-final match against underdogs Costa Rica in this year’s football World Cup. His two saves ultimately put the Dutch team through, but his football skills were talked about much less than his gamesmanship after the match. Whether it’s the quality of the penalties, the identity of the successful strikers or goalkeepers, or an unexpected outcome, penalties always give us something to talk about.

Ultimately, penalties are a microcosm of their sport. In football, I think it could be successfully argued that kicking a ball from point A to point B is a pretty integral part of the game. For a goalkeeper, his or her number one aim is presumably to save shots at goal. In some ways, a penalty is football in its purest form. A player from each team faces up to see who can do their job best. In hockey, the concept of a penalty shootout has been altered slightly to make it a one versus one scenario with more alternatives, more variables, more skills. The striker has eight seconds to run from the 23m line into the circle and attempt to score against the goalkeeper with whatever skill he or she chooses to use. This has changed the dynamics of the penalty shootout in our sport, but the underlying purpose of each player remains the same: score or save. I believe this is exactly why penalties are a good way to determine the outcome of a tied game. It may seem a harsh, quick or sudden way to decide who wins, but how is it any harsher, quicker or more sudden than a player scoring an unfortunate own goal or a goalkeeper making a last ditch save in the final minute to decide the game? Sport can be inherently unfair and I think penalties are far from the worst way to determine a winner. Losing is usually cruel either way, it can just feel a bit worse if you sense you were close to winning.

Don’t forget, we actively encourage the creation of outright winners and outcomes. Tennis has tiebreaks, golf has playoffs; cricket has a super over or a bowl off; whilst hockey, football and ice hockey have shootouts. American sport doesn’t even find draws in league games acceptable: there must always be a winner. We celebrate our victors with the presentation of trophies and medals. If a match is tied, we still demand an outcome. Three teams can’t qualify for a final. That’s why we have penalties. If the teams can’t figure out an outright victor in the game itself, we need a way of separating them in order to achieve this goal. Is it better to just toss a coin (as used to be done to determine a winner) or allow last year’s victor to retain the trophy in the event of a draw (as is the case if the Ryder Cup score ends at 14-14)? I don’t believe so. I think we should continue to let the players have a final chance to prove who is better at the bread and butter skills of their sport.

The thing with penalty shootouts is that they occur when players are under the greatest fatigue, the biggest spotlight and the most obvious pressure. It’s amazing how a highly capable individual can suddenly find the most basic of skills a huge challenge in this situation. I think this is the beauty of penalties. It tests the mental fortitude and the technical ability of any player. Some deal with this more successfully than others. It probably is unnecessarily brutal that the careers of some players are defined by the success or failure of one action among the thousands they have executed as part of their career… but that’s sport. In the words of Eminem:

“Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity
To seize everything you ever wanted,
One moment.
Would you capture it
Or just let it slip?”

Sport comes down to moments in time. A penalty is just one of those moments to be captured or allowed to slip away.

I’ve taken penalties (scored and missed) and watched shootouts (alongside team mates and sat in the stadium away from the field). As it turns out, my best hockey memory is probably winning a bronze medal in the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne after a shootout against New Zealand. I didn’t take one, but photos of us watching from the halfway line convey the emotions involved and can make my pulse go up a bit even looking at them eight years later. I’ve been on the losing end of penalties too. It really, really hurts. The extremes of emotion involved in a shootout are huge, but that’s also why sport is great. Good or bad, it makes us feel something and respond. Just like Marmite.

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