Paying the Penalty – time for a change?

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Last weekend’s Carling Cup final reached a sad climax, with a penalty shoot-out once again proving the difference between two evenly matched sides at Wembley.

Anthony Gerrard’s name will now forever live in Cardiff City folklore, with the defender now remembered as the player who missed his side’s most important kick, handing victory to Liverpool.

In a team sport like football, the shoot-out produces an intriguing individual contest, with the outfield player always favourite despite 120 minutes of toil on the pitch. It is, in every way, a win-win situation for the goalkeeper.

The history of penalties goes back to the late 60s, with the decision taken to replace the archaic ‘drawing of lots’, which had previously been used to decide a Euro ’68 semi-final between Italy and the USSR.

Examples of the shoot-out in domestic competitions appear regularly in the 70s, but it rose to prominence at the European Championships in 1976, when Czechoslovakia beat West Germany thanks to Antonín Panenka’s now infamous chip.

Six years later, and it was France who suffered heartache as West Germany got it right at the World Cup. Michel Platini missed the all-important penalty for Les Bleus as their dreams were broken from 12 yards.

Two World Cup finals have since been decided from the spot, with Italy losing to Brazil in 1994 and beating France in 2006. The FA Cup, the oldest domestic competition in the world, has also been decided by penalties on two occasions, with Arsenal beating Manchester United and Liverpool overcoming West Ham in separate finals.

And, this summer, penalties could again be the key in Poland & Ukraine. England will hope not, having lost five of the six spot-kicks they’ve been involved in during major tournaments. Holland are also renowned for their penalty failings, whilst Germany are seen as expert exponents.

For many though, the penalty shoot-out is a lottery. Whilst it is definitely a step forward from the ‘lots’ system, it is now passed its use-by date.

One thing we can’t get away from is that, after 90 minutes in any cup competition, a winner is needed. Why the Golden Goal, or even Silver Goal rule was abolished, remains a mystery to many.

Indeed, the Golden Goal provided drama of the highest order, with any attack potentially leading to the end of the game. Germany (again) found it to their advantage, with the winner in the Euro ’96 final. Laurent Blanc also made the difference in 1998, scoring against Paraguay in the last 16.

Ultimately, the decision was taken to stop these ideas because they didn’t create good periods of extra-time. I would argue this was because teams were scared of conceding, and knew they had penalties to fall back on.

If you remove the idea of penalties, creating a constant ‘next-goal wins scenario’ in extra-time, then teams will have no choice but to go for the goal.

Additionally, teams could be reduced to 10v10 for the first 15 minutes, and if a goal isn’t scored, then it becomes 9v9 for the following 15-minute period.

With tiring players, a scenario where the game goes on ‘forever’ is unlikely. Whilst you can never say never, the chances of a game going past 7v7 on a full size pitch would be un-realistic, as quality players take advantage of more space on the pitch.

Managers would also have the tough decision of deciding which players to remove - go for it and keep two strikers on the pitch or try and play on the counter attack. It would create an extremely interesting dynamic.

The idea that a match could become a 3v3 or 1v1 is often raised as the dismissal of such an idea. If a game did get to this stage though, how entriguing it would be to watch.

It also puts the emphasis on the team, rather than individuals, as is currently the case with penalties, going against the whole ethos of the sport.

"Maybe to replay the match if it's the final, you can't do that through the tournament because of lack of time. Maybe to take players away and play golden goal," said Sepp Batter in 2006, suggesting he too is uneasy with the role penalties can play at a major level.

And, with Blatter still holding court at FIFA, the possibility of a replacement for penalties might not be as far away as we think. Platini knows the pain of missing in a shoot-out for his country – would he be willing to put UEFA’s weight behind a change?

Other ideas have been pitched in the past; most corners, least fouls, most possession. All of which show which team has enjoyed the better of a match, but are not a fair reflection on why one team should win and the other should not.

The 'American' penalty shoot-out also adds a different dynamic, in that players have a limited period of time to dribble the ball towards the goal and score. Again though, it generates an individual challenge rather than the team element.

It seems that the only way to keep a team game just that, is to scrap any form of the shoot-out though.

For the good of the game, it’s time to do things differently.

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