Thursday, September 28, 2006

Pay the Penalty

The Dickensianly-named FIFA President Sepp Blatter has vowed to rid football of penalty shoot-outs, which he has described as a 'tragedy' (Herr Blatter has a similar concept of the tragic to the Bee Gees, then). Thankfully, like almost all of Blatter's plans for football (remember the skimpy lycra shorts for women footballers to attract more fans?) this will come to nought. Blatter's predecessor Joao Havelange was an unattractive figure at the best of times but even the withered old Brazilian reactionary did not announce his own senile murmurings to the press as FIFA policy.

As for penalty shoot-outs being unfair, can we please put to rest once and for all that clichéd misconception? Shoot-outs are not a lottery; the better and mentally stronger side over 120 minutes usually wins. Take a look at the teams that consistently win shoot-outs in major tournaments: Brazil, Argentina, Germany, teams that display a mental toughness and play to their strengths. Now consider the less successful teams: Holland, England, Italy (with one or two exceptions including this year's World Cup final), Spain, bottlers for the most part and who usually get their excuses in early in advance of being knocked out. Pick at random a few celebrated shoot-outs in history: 1982 France-Germany 3-3, great game and Schumacher should have been sent off but Germany deserved the win after coming from 3-1 down in extra time; 1986 France-Brazil 1-1, another superb contest but France were the better side and even managed to carry a missed penalty by Michel Platini; 1986 Steaua Bucharest-Barcelona 0-0, the worst Champions' Cup final ever, and Barça, managed by Terry "you can't practice penalties" Venables miss all four of their spot-kicks to compound their dreadful display; 1998 Holland-Brazil 1-1, yes, Holland were the better side but with a record as bad as theirs you should know better than to wait for a shoot-out against Brazil.

The alternatives that have been offered are risible, such as Blatter's suggestion that players should be taken off one by one in extra time. As if that is going to make the game either more attractive or more interesting. Or fairer for that matter either. The golden goal which has been consigned to history for major finals is far more unjust than the penalty shoot-out. Just ask the Czechs in 1996, or the Portuguese or the Italians in 2000. And in no case did this measure stop teams playing for a shoot-out. If a team cannot win over 120 minutes then there should be no special sympathy extended them. Winning a tie at spot-kicks from twelve yards is as much a part of the professional game as winning five-goal thrillers and should be treated professionally. Today's footballers should be reminded how European Cup ties were decided in the 1960s: by a toss of the coin. I do agree with Blatter on one thing though: the World Cup final should be subject to a replay, there's no reason it can't be done, with all the attendees at the first final entitled to buy tickets for the second game.