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Penalty Shootouts – There Is An Alternative

In the aftermath of another big game being decided in a penalty shootout, I think it is about time to introduce an alternative involving more skills and less chance. Despite its appeal for drama and excitement, and regardless of the experience and skills of the players, a penalty shootout is merely a series of random shots in the dark by actors forced to take a stab at threading the needle after 120 minutes of exhaustion.

Penalty shootouts were introduced on the big football scene around 1970. Before this, games where a winner was required could lead to a replay of the game, or even a coin toss. Although replays are still occurring in some competitions, such as the FA Cup, they are not feasible considering the tight schedule of modern football. Although clubs would most certainly welcome the idea of filling the stadium an extra time every now and then, it would not be feasible with the large number of international games taking place.

The attempts by FIFA to introduce the sudden death in extra time, naming them “golden goal” and “silver goal”, failed miserably. Although the intentions were to encourage attacking football and rewarding goals scored during regular play, the result was that teams more than ever before became overly cautious, fearful of allowing a goal rather than enforcing one, knowing that at least a few minutes away they would have roughly a 50% chance from the eleven meter spot.

Although I certainly agree that a match needs to be decided on its designated date, I think that a penalty shootout is not the answer. I will be the first to admit that a shootout holds a high level of excitement, whether you have any connection to any of the teams or not. When your team wins on penalties, it is the sweetest of wins. When your team loses on penalties, you still know that the team fought well and went down with their boots on. Some would also argue that a penalty shootout is the goalkeeper’s chance to stand in the spotlight. A goalkeeper blocking the last penalty shot becomes an instant hero. In the same second that the Manchester United goalkeeper van der Saar blocked the shot from the Chelsea shooter Nicolas Anelka in the Champions League final, a hero was made and a scapegoat was appointed. Letting penalty kicks decide a game is nothing less than forcefully causing a player to make a mistake, one that have broken many fine players and haunted them for the rest of their careers.

My solution is to let the game being decided on the field, with a goal – a sudden death, but with a modification. After 90 minutes in a game that needs to appoint a winner, each team removes one player each at progressive intervals. For instance, with five minute intervals both teams take one player of their own choice off the field, so that after 95 minutes the teams play ten against ten, after 100 minutes they play nine against nine, and so on. With the increasingly open spaces, eventually there would be a goal. Today games are played 120 minutes in order to try to enforce a goal. With this system, after 120 minutes the teams would be playing five against five, i.e. one goalkeeper and four field players. It would be extremely surprising, even unlikely, that this would not have resulted in a goal.

Football being one of the most conservative sports of all, it will be difficult to change the concept of the penalty shootout as a solution when a game needs a winner. The unwritten rule for changing a rule of the game is that it must be changeable for everyone, regardless of level and location. I think that this sudden death method would be a very realistic substitute. I cannot imagine any game where an official, possibly the referee him/herself, would not be able to keep track of five minute intervals and the number of players on the field.

I do realize that this would change the game as we know it. For the better I say. Today less-skilled teams can defend themselves to a penalty shootout, as their only hope to win. Instead of even trying to play attractive and attacking football, their tactics is to play on the result and do what they can to prevent the opponent from playing. With this sudden death system, that would no longer be an option. Coaches would have to re-invent their way of thinking beyond 90 minutes. Maybe they would encourage technical players with the ability to challenge in a one on one situation. Maybe they would bring on players with great stamina. Others might consider tall players the solution. Either way, it would be a different game, but with one crucial difference; the idea of the game to score more goals than the opponent would regain its status.

Although watching the genuine happiness of a player that has just put the winning penalty in the net, or the goalkeeper that has just blocked the last shot is a true joy, I would rather see it being played out on the field. Would you not rather see David Beckham hit a perfect cross to the striker up front to score the winning header than to see him shoot the penalty shot over the crossbar? Would you not rather see Cristiano Ronaldo in an amazing dribble campaign than to see him choke on the penalty spot? Would you not rather see Lionel Messi in a spectacular breakaway than to see him hit it from eleven meters? Would you rather not see John Terry head the ball in the far corner of the goal than to see him slip on the spot and hit the ball in the post? Would you rather not see Edwin van der Saar make a brilliant save from a Ronaldinho free kick and start a counterattack than to block a lame shot from a player under severe pressure? I certainly would.

Christian Celind for SoccerNews.com

Sun 25 May, 2008
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  1. Patrick says:

    I was sceptical at first, but the more I play out theoretic scenarios in my head, the more and more I like this idea. I can picture it: Henry, Messi, Eto’o, and Ronaldinho vs. Raul, Robben, Van Nistelrooy, and Ramos, or whoever you would like to see. It certainly would involve more skills than the lottery we call penalties. Just picture your favorite player on an amazing run, outclassing his fiercest rivals and slipping the ball into the net. Much better than spot kicks. Unfortunately I think not many people will get behind this idea, least of all Blatter and Platini. Still, cool to imagine.

  2. ricardo says:

    okay…have you ever played soccer in your life….what kind of an idea is that…to take out players every five minute….that is the dumbest idea in the world…the game is fine the way it is….shooting a penalty kick after 120 minutes takes skill…that is why they do shootouts….to see who still has skill after 120 minutes….and instant replay is a joke…this game is for human and not for a machine to decide its faith, the game is perfect the way it is. when i read your article and the idea of taking players off is lame…i cant believe you actually said that….idiot….

  3. Van Basten says:

    I think the idea is def. worth considering since the whole idea is to make ET more exciting. Sure, penalties are exciting as hell too, but until you get to that stage during ET, it’s a lame duck performance imo.

    I would say give it a try at a local competition level first to see what the response would be.

  4. It’s a great idea and something that I’ve been suggesting for a long time as well.

    My version is a bit different though. No sudden death. After 90 minutes, we start a series of 10-minute sessions at the start of which one player is taken off for each team. Whoever is winning at the end of a session is declared the winner.

    This allows teams to stick to their natural game (instead of quickly being reduced in numbers) and still opens up space for teams to attack and score goals.

    It’s grueling though, and because of this I’d also allow one substitution at the start of each session, until the bench is empty (so a max of 4 ‘extra’ subs would be possible).

    Penalties are there so that players don’t kill or injure themselves by playing for more than 2 hours. By allow them to freshen things up we can then have them play longer.

    In this scenario, at the start of the 121st minute (the 4th session of extra time) you’d have a 7-a-side game with 4 fresh players. Open play, fresh legs and plenty of opportunities to score.

  5. Christian Celnd says:

    Thanks all for the creative feedback. Maybe except for “Ricardo” who thinks the game is perfect as it is. Since the rest of us know that this is not true, let’s disregard his comments. I like the idea of fresh legs being allowed after 90 minutes, good idea. I also think it should be tested on a local level at first. I think I’ve read that Sepp Blatter is not a big fan of games being decided on penalties, so with creative ideas like these, maybe the game will develop for the better in a near future.

  6. I would not trust Sepp Blatter near a football, let alone the game itself.

  7. John says:

    Admirable, but things to think about…

    We need to think outside the square here, which again you have, but having played at a relatively high level in the old Australian National League and being a certified fitness instructor, it is counter productive on the whole.

    1. There is a certain excitement around the penalty shoot out. It takes immense skill and concentration from both an outfield player and goalkeeping perspective. Apart from this, there is a certain, dramatic essence to the penalty shoot-out, that gives the game a triumphant and tragic ethos…it also looks great on a headline, so media creators such as ourselves can entice people to read our blogs, and websites etc, and fans have much to talk about for many, many years…

    If we take this edge out of the game, we lose a large amount of mind share with the viewing public. Do you really want to view a game that goes on infinitely…dropping off key players from the field and reducing the number of players until a final result is played out? I’m sure no true football fan would want to go through this process, or even fork out their hard earned cash to view something like this.

    2. We are already seeing a sharp rise in the amount of injury in players plying their trade at the higher echelon of football. This comes down to the amount of games being played throughout the year at club and national level, and also the added mental pressure and prolonged training cycles being added into the training year. Do we need an increase in intensity during the competitive match?

    Usually, small sided games can be much more intense than playing the game on a whole field. I’m not sure if you are suggesting that the remaining field players would need to run the whole length of the field (this again adds to the demands on the players mental game and physiology)?

    It takes a very long time for the body to recuperate from prolonged bouts of exercise, and the reason so many players are succumbing to injury is that with all the sports science in the world, we can certainly enhance the players ability, and aid recovery, but injury, fatigue and depression (all a part of over training and prolonged bouts of intense activity) becomes a reoccurring and prolonged symptom and hinders overall performance throughout the season. So again, why add to the amount of intensity during a competitive match?

    So, although your idea has merit, it does not make sense from both an entertainment perspective, nor does it make sense from a sports science perspective. Penalty shoot outs have merit, are a true test of skill and add value to the game beyond the field.

    Just my two cents…


  8. Christian Celind says:

    Hi John,

    Thanks for your feedback. I always welcome constructive and informed criticism like yours.

    However, I don’t agree with it for the following reasons:

    – The excitement around the penalty shoot out is unarguably extremely high, and have a certain entertainment value. However, it’s designed so as to single out one player and make him/her the scapegoat for a club or a country. This is a huge mental burden for the players, and can linger on for the rest of their lives. Off the top of my head I can name a few elite players who refuse to take penalties, forcing other players to “volunteer”. Did you know that Chelsea’s Essien would take a penalty shot only with a gun put to his head? He once missed one from the spot, which put his mother in the hospital. According to the rules, he would have had to take one in the CL final had it come down to a few more rounds. I would prefer to see it being battled out without that mental pressure.

    – I think that my suggestion would create just as big headlines as would a shoot out. An amazing solo campaign or a winning goal from the halfway line could be just as attractive for media and fans as would an 11 meter shot if you ask me.

    – The whole concept is based on increasingly bigger open spaces for the players, so the idea is that the whole field is used. You’re absolutely right with your comments about the physiological aspects, and I don’t doubt your knowledge in the subject. It would definitely be an extra burden for the players that would stay on the field. But, how many games do a team play that goes to extra time every season? Five or less I’d say. And this only for the more successful teams, i.e. the teams that already have the best trained players.

    I like Ahmed’s suggestion of allowing extra substitutes in extra time. This would relieve some of the stress on the starting players.

    – Furthermore, with my suggestion, after 120 minutes (which is when a normal extra time period ends) the teams would play five players against five, i.e. one goalie and four field players in each team. If you consider the open spaces that these players would have at their disposal, you can probably imagine that there would be a goal long before that. Trust me, the games would not go on infinitely.

    Again, thanks for your two cents, and feel free to comment on my comments.


  9. mike says:

    Quite frankly, it’s an absurd idea.
    Football is a simple game played with simple rules. To introduce a system where the rules change and become more complex at the end of the game than in the previous 90 minutes minutes is unworkable.
    You seem to overlook the fact that ‘luck’ plays a major role in deciding the outcome of various fixtures over the course of a season or a tournament : The ref had a bad game, half the team was out through injury etc.
    How ironic then that the one time luck is not involved is during the penalty shoot out. You miss or you score. The referee is hardly involved ,there is no hiding place, you against the keeper. Players will always miss because of a fantastic save ,lack of technique or usually, loss of nerve. Nothing to do with luck though.

  10. ethan power says:

    like the idea but its a little absurd, 4 on 4 with a keeper come on on that huge field! like i said like the idea but maybe could use more thought

  11. Aaron says:

    Interesting idea, probably a bit too radical for many, at least at first, but the theory seems sound and there would certainly be more space and more goals. Sorry, didn’t read all the other comments so someone could well have already said this, but that idea might be tenable without the sudden-death portion.

    There are many scenarios that could be played out here including varying the number to players removed, the time between removing players, possibly even changing the size of the field to accomodate a faster paced game. I doubt it would happen, but can you imagine 6v6 on a full field? That seems like it might be a little too slow and teams could resort to ultra-defensive tactics……………oh, right, they already do that.

    I don’t like the penalty system either; however, luck and the human element is a big part of the game, often the part that creates the talking points, and pk’s are certainly a talking point if an anti-climactic one. However, there is something to be said for seeing, say, Fabio Grosso make a PK while the more attacking Baggio or Beckham miss one.

    Anyway, it’s good to see someone making an effort and this idea is better than any other’s I’ve seen or heard in the last 30 years. Good stuff Christian, keep it up.

  12. Diego says:

    Interesting idea but would never work. There is no way that this idea would fly with smaller less skilled countries or even with a country like Italy. The Italian style of soccer is defend first and score second. With this idea it puts scoring ahead of defence( which a few more goals would be nice) but it in no way rewards a team like Italy that generally play great defence. That is also the beauty of the penalty kick. It gives countries such as Sweden, that have good players but are not stacked such as a Brazil, a fighting chance. If a less skilled team can go 120 with out being scored on then give them a chance and reward them for playing good defence. If a team with skilled played that is so much more skilled then there opponents then they should have no problem with hitting one in the back of the net from the spot. That is what makes soccer a beautiful sport. There are no real complicated rules. Just two teams, a pitch, two goals and a ball.

  13. The Mighty Hammer says:

    By far, the most far fetched, and obsurd idea i have EVER come across. I have heard many dodgy ideas in my life, but by far, this takes the cake. Football is played with simplicity, that is what sets it apart from all others and makes it what i like to call “sacred”.

    Panalties show the true skill of both keeper and kicker. It is much harder to fool an exceptional goalkeeper or block an exceptional shooter, than it looks.

    With ideas like this, it will not be long before the coaches have the ability to stop the clock and have an official review an offsides call, or the reason for a booking.

    And if this new idea does come into affect(GOD FORBID), if at any time the keeper moved out of the box, there would be an immediate goal from a great distance. I know of MANY players who can put the ball into an empty net from midfield, i myself can do it.

    I would rather see a game decided on penalties, than one decided on an unnattended goal.

    Long live the game.

  14. mike kearney says:

    Not bad idea mate. champions league final wouldv looked a little something like this.

    Chelsea… Cech, terry, essien, lampard, joe cole
    Man Utd… van der saar, Ferdinand, Giggs, Ronaldo, Tevez

    wudv been exciting… especially cuz you know then chelsea wudv buried them way before it even got to this point tho.. haha!!!

  15. Arinze says:

    Sounds like a good idea. Until you factor in that the 5 or 6 players left will be running the WHOLE 110 yards x 75 yards chasing the ball and this would most certainly cause multiple fatigue related injuries.

  16. Alex says:

    I’ve seen an indoor soccer tournament playoff game involve this exact rule. It was really entertaining and it was back and forth like you’ve never seen before… chance after chance after chance. However, the players were getting extremely tired very quickly, even though it was on a small pitch.

    On a professional sized outdoor pitch, the room available would be too vast, and starters would never be able to play a full match. Based on this reason alone, if a game can go until 120 minutes resulting in a 5v5 situation (or something), a true professional football player should be able to complete a match to its entirety. This new rule would essentially result in most professionals not being able to do this, which would be a tragedy. Imagine the best player in the world incapable of playing a full match into extra time whilst being incredibly fit!

    A lot of people don’t give a penalty shootout enough credit. As mentioned previously, it is a test of skill, stamina and class. Being able to step up to the ball and smoothly execute a nice shot requires utmost class, say for a Champions League Championship match. This beautiful yet simple part of the game at all levels should remain intact.

    Lastly, penalty shootouts allow weaker teams a fighting chance of playing defence against a power house team (say Chelsea or Real Madrid, who each spend a rediculous amount on their players that other teams can’t come close to matching).

    An interesting idea for indoor tournaments at the local level, but for professional club or national teams on a full sized pitch, it is too strenuous.

  17. MC says:

    I submitted a similar idea last year to the Football League in the UK, with a little twist. I proposed playing extra time in 10 minute segments, switching every 5 minutes to account for unfavorable wind conditions, with no golden goal. At the conclusion of each 10 minute segment, teams would remove 2 players each. You would certainly figure that teams playing 7v7 during the segment from minute 110-120 would create plenty of scoring opportunities. It would create interesting post mortems about coaching decisions, would the Italians pull their strikers, would the Netherlands pull their defense, etc.

    The FL responded, “Thank you for your communication, the content of which has been noted. Such suggestion would however require a change to the Laws of the Game and this would therefore be a matter for FIFA’s International Board who are responsible for the Laws. We can advise that similar suggestions have been put forward in the past but never found the necessary support.
    Thank you for contacting The Football League. ” Blah blah blah.

    If FIFA wants to keep penalty kicks one other thought worth considering would be to move the spot that the kick is taken back to the edge of the area. That way both the shooter and the keeper would be on equal terms. Today a shooter in a penalty shootout that doesn’t score or hits the post like Terry did, will carry that stigma for the rest of his/her career, and the keeper typically has to “guess right” in order to save a goal — which is certainly fair in a penalty situation — but a silly way to end a game. Moving the spot back would be a much fairer test of skill for both the shooter and the keeper and still provide plenty of excitement for everyone concerned.

  18. AJ says:

    Although a very interesting idea, it would never work. A 5v5 situation at the end of 120 minutes is almost impossible on a big field and teams would continue to defend first in order to rest their players.

    I have no problem with penalty kicks, but if the rules had to change, I like the idea of moving the spot back. So far, that idea makes the most sense.

  19. CR says:

    wow, very creative idea. I am embarking on project work, a sch assignment, and i happen to be doin on “e modernisation of football”. This proved to be one useful article for me. Thanks a lot! The idea of reducing players was quite similar to the idea our group has came up with.. it is such a coincidence.. anyway, i am lucky to have chanced upon this. =D

  20. Kuen-Wah Cheung says:

    t’s great that you have an idea that:
    a) relates to what happens within the actual match to decide.
    b) is more team orientated than penalties
    c) rewards attacking play
    The biggest downsides to this alternative is that if you keep removing players:
    a) you might get the farce of 2 v 2 on a giant football pitch, and players exhausted to a standstill
    b) it will reward teams that are lucky enough not to suffer injuries and able to make fresh substitutions late on
    c) heightened risk of exhaustion leading to injuries and lack of freshness for the next match
    The alternative to penalties I like best is keeping a ‘woodwork score’ – so if a team hits to post or crossbar, they get a woodwork score, and after extra time if the game is level the team that has hit the woodwork most wins. Of course, you’d have to define things such as a shot that goes in off the post only counting as a goal, and that if it hits crossbar then post, that only counts as one. it has all the three advantages above and unlike a corner count, possession count, foul count etc, you couldn’t really play for it (as you might as well go for goal rather than post if you can shoot).

  21. Glen says:

    Great Idea but never gonna happen. Unless of course, the current FIFA president Sepp Blatter steps down and a more professional one comes in.

  22. nick girolami says:

    why not simply make extra time last another 15 mins ( 2 periods of 22. 5 mins each) and reintroduce the golden goal for this ? the extra 15 mins would make it more probable for a game to be settled since the thought of 45 mins of sudden death would make even the less talented teams who previously relied on penalties try to win it in normal time! if after sudden death extra time there is still no winner then try the american system of an attacker having 5 seconds to score against a goalie. this as a last resort clearly involves more talent than penalties.

  23. theman says:

    This idea is far too radical for what Pele coined as the ‘beautiful game’. Football is no hockey or gridiron, basketball. It is played worldwide and is far more popular then any other sport, a decision such as this will affect the game all across the world form the grassroots level up all the way to the elitist FA cup, world cup level. Football is a game of possession, of passing, controlling the ball and moving it from one end of the field to the other all in the hope of creating scoring opportunities. The team who scores more is the victor. This is why sometimes in football the team with less possession, and scoring opportunities may win. This is what i hope to see when i watch a game of football. By eliminating players in extra time it will turn the game into something it is not. Many of these ideas, mind you were brought in by Americans, Australians and many other non-footballing nations. Lets keep the western Americanization out of football and leave it for what it is -the beautiful game.

  24. teaman says:

    I believe a corner kick competition is the best alternative. Each team takes turns attempting a corner kick, using a different kicker for each attempt. The kicker must kick the ball from the corner into the penalty area (no short passes to nearby teammate). The referee chooses which goal to use, but the kicker chooses from which corner to attempt the kick. To prevent a frenzy/injury by players desperate to win, a minimum of 2 players from each side must be positioned outside the penalty box before the kick is taken (not counting the kick taker). The turn ends when either 1) a goal is scored or 2) the defence clears the ball from the penalty box, or 3) the kicker fails to send the ball into the penalty area.

    The advantage is that corner kicks are already a regular event in football matches and the entire team is involved, rather than just kicker vs goaltender as is the case in PKs.

    If the concern is that it may be a long time before there is a score, then perhaps limit the corner competition to a certain number of attempts per side. Or if the concern is the risk of injury to tired players who have already run around for 90 minutes, perhaps use the corner competition in place of extra time itself.

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