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 Ã¢â‚¬Å“golden goalÃ¢â‚¬Â and Ã¢â‚¬Å“silver goalÃ¢â‚¬Â, 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