Penalty shoot outs: Why they are more than just a lottery
There was one slightly annoying comment which detracted from the all round fun on Wednesday night. A small blot on an otherwise wondrous couple of nights. A bit of a bollock twister or nipple pinch, which only evoked the widely anticipated rolling of the eyes.
According to ITV, and many other broadcasters from which we digest our football fix, penalties are all down to luck. The common way of phrasing this is that penalties are a mere ‘lottery’. Now, if Jose Mourinho and Jupp Hynckes were ordered to sit crossed legged in the centre circle as the rotund Michel Platini sauntered down from the rafters with a novelty oversized penny, and whoever guessed rightly heads or tails would be sent into the final, then one might accurately describe that as a lottery. But not penalties.
Why not ask Cristiano Ronaldo, who has missed arguably the three biggest penalties he has ever been called on to take in two Champions League semi-finals and a final? Is it ‘luck’ then? No, it’s a cocktail of nerves, technique, precision and concentration. If ones testicles wither like that of Gareth Southgate, then you have no chance. If they are strong and bulbous in the stereotypical German way, like the brilliantly named Bastian Schweinsteiger, then you have a great chance.
Labelling them as mere ‘lotteries’ does a disservice to those players who are able to technically fine-tune an accurate kick of the football while tens of thousands of fans are screaming at you with millions watching at home, all with the added hindrance of knowing that this kick could send you into the biggest club game of your career – a chance which may never present itself again.
Just ask Zinedine Zidane, who netted penalties in both the semi-final and final of the 2006 World Cup – and vomited before his spot-kick against England in Euro 2004 - whether penalty-scoring is down to pure luck. Any player can miss one which only proves my point; the wrong position, technique or butterfly-ridden stomach can condemn you. It really is an art.
Yet another cliché which admittedly is subjective, still annoys me. The idea that ‘we don’t want to see penalties decide a game’. Sorry, but if two 90 minute legs and 30 minutes of extra time - 210 minutes in total - cannot separate sides, then sudden death is a logical finale. The way commentators arrogantly believe they speak for everyone is insulting, yet more so is the comment itself. And I am sure I speak for many fans who savour, bask and prance nude in the living room to the buoyant drama of penalties. They are so ... alive.
Football games are enjoyed and lapped up for their drama, we all agree. And penalties are the grand finale; the ultimate conclusion; the hair-raising spectacle to the showpiece we have just enjoyed. Almost like an all-important encore. Just think of the garrulous and voluble Jose Mourinho, who chops and changes tactics, formations and doesn’t just attempt every trick in the book - but writes a whole new chapter – kneeling paralysed by nerves and hope.
You se, nobody is exempt from the power of the penalty; not the mahogany skinned Ronaldo, the arrogant Mourinho, your heroes or your enemies. They are fallible, vulnerable; found out by a lack of nerves or a poorly executed shot. It all happens so fast nowadays: the hope, annoyances and drama of a 90-minute football match is played out within 10 spot-kicks. The power of the penalty rouses or condemns; makes or breaks. It can be your best friend, your wild lover or akin to that kid in school that you were made to sit next to ... the one that smelled of urine and would probably end up being on Crimewatch after finally losing it.
Roberto Baggio and Lionel Messi have all fallen victim to what on paper is simply 12 yards and one boot of the ball, but which psychologically and technically is so much more. The goalkeeper mind games, the fact that players often have to put themselves forward like sacrificial lambs in a 1970s horror film ... even the decision to go low and risk the keeper saving it or go high and skewer it onto the distant rooftops of Jordan like Sergio Ramos.
Penalties epitomise a theme of football: fine measures are always present. Such small details like an unnerving word in the ear or a scruffy piece of mud on a stud can make you a hero or a villain. The long walk to the spot; the overtly dramatic voice of a commentator as John Terry hits his chance onto the post. The fan experience is a blistering thrill almost unmatched; it hits you fast and hard and viciously – it doesn’t stop for sentiment or feeling. We all know what it’s like to lose on penalties; pure dismay. Which makes it all the more sweeter when we finally triumph. They are a mental journey that even though may spit me out, I cannot help but enjoy.
A wise man once remarked that football is a ‘dreadfully simple game’; it is. Yet often the game is overcomplicated and blurred within bad fouls, brilliant eye-poking from Mourinho and off-field gun-ho agents with the spice of a few fabricated quotes thrown in. And while I do have a fondness for some on-field handbags, penalties are where these distractions fade to black. No bull. No hyperbole. No real excuses apart from the entirely wrong ‘lottery’ one. It all unfolds right NOW and it is simply gloriously paced. The drama is short yet squeezed of every drop of emotion and dashed hope, and them unpredictable joy.
So next time you hear Mr Peter Drury and his arm-long list of 14-letter words lament the inevitable penalty shoot-out – or say they are down to luck - just think of the drama, expert nerve and skill you will savour. For often football games won’t come to a tastier - and more complicated than cliche-expelling commentatators would like to admit - conclusion than a 12-yard kick between two white posts.
Calling all football fans. Do you agree with Jack? Are penalties the most exciting way to end a game or are they a mere lottery? Do you have any alternatives on how to end a game after 210 minutes of action? Whatever your view, we'd love to hear from you.