England 0(4)-0(2) Nigeria (Photo: Getty Images)
England 0(4)-0(2) Nigeria (Photo: Getty Images)

OPINIONSportsAugust 9, 2023

Why do penalty shootouts even exist?

England 0(4)-0(2) Nigeria (Photo: Getty Images)
England 0(4)-0(2) Nigeria (Photo: Getty Images)

The Fifa Women’s World Cup has officially reached the ‘penalty shootout heartbreak’ phase. There must be a better way, writes Mad Chapman.

Before I went to bed on Monday night, I thought “I wonder how the England vs Nigeria match is going.” It was bedtime but I wanted to see who had won, so I put it on. It was 0-0 and extra time (30 minutes) was about to start. “Ah shit, here we go again,” I thought.

On Sunday night, the defending champions USA tumbled out of the World Cup after losing on penalties to Sweden. The Americans had dominated possession and territory but that didn’t matter. The score was 0-0 after 120 minutes of regulation play so it went to a penalty shootout. (As an aside: two full hours of play is too long, but that’s for another column.) 

In the penalty shootout, Megan Rapinoe missed. Megan Rapinoe is arguably the most famous female football player in the world, thanks in large part to her advocate status for women’s and rainbow rights, and this was her last World Cup appearance. She missed, others missed, the USA lost, and many took great pleasure in their misery.

Less than 24 hours later, a penalty shootout happened again. In the England vs Nigeria shootout, the two first kickers missed in the exact same fashion. Then Nigeria missed again. England won, after playing 30 extremely defensive minutes with 10 players thanks to an avoidable red card to Lauren James midway through the second half. 

Sweden deserved to win. So did England. But I couldn’t help but think: what an absolutely cooked concept! 

James McOnie has written about this for us before. In his 2021 plea, McOnie proposed that penalty shootouts be abolished after England lost on penalties in the final of the Euros, with more than one teenaged player not scoring their shot. It’s inhumane, McOnie argued. Why not do what they do in touch rugby and reduce the number of players on the field until someone scores? I’d welcome that approach. It allows players to continue playing in the way they have all game, but with the chances of scoring increasing at regular intervals.

Because there’s really nothing as cruel and unnecessarily stressful as a football penalty shootout. Let’s paint the picture:

  • Penalties are relatively rare in regular play. When they do happen, there are a select few players on each team who hold that responsibility.
  • The skills required to score a penalty during a shootout are different to those required to play football for 120 minutes.
  • Players must walk up to the mark from halfway, then walk back after their shot. That’s a long 40-metre walk of shame for those who miss. Why?
  • Those who do miss will never forget that they missed, nor will their fans. 
Megan Rapinoe (Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

There are sudden-death options in most sports. Basketball just keeps playing extra time periods – usually five minutes – until one ends with a winner (ideal). Rugby has overtime and then golden point, which certainly angles teams into new territory (drop goals) but still allows for regular play. Cricket had bowl-offs for a while but ties are so rare in cricket that something that ridiculous almost feels appropriate. Now we have super overs, which is closer to regular play and makes more sense. Field hockey would be the closest to football in that draws are a regular occurrence. But at least with hockey shootouts the players are allowed to dribble up to the box and the keeper is allowed to move beyond an arbitrary guess dive. 

What confuses me about football penalties is that they use a mechanism to decide a winner that can be completely at odds with how the whole match was played. USA had far more opportunities and looked more dangerous the whole match. Sure, you could argue they deserve to lose for failing to convert those opportunities, but the fact that a team could play 100% defence and zero offence and have an equal chance of winning on penalties doesn’t feel right. 

Last night, one of England’s star players was red carded. Were the sudden death option to reduce player numbers on the field, that decision would have proven more and more costly – eight players vs seven, for example, is a far greater advantage than 11 vs 10, especially when the game doesn’t stop until somebody scores.

In the final minutes of a close match, attacking play should be rewarded. Instead, most matchups end up with one team simply trying not to lose in order to have the slate wiped clean once it goes to penalties. It doesn’t make any sense!

Before you email to say that I simply don’t understand the thrill and pressure of penalty shootouts as a player, I will disclose that I was once a goalie. I played a lot of sports and being half-decent at basketball, rugby and throwing the javelin combined to make me quite a good keeper. 

I knew about the pressures in those last moments of a sports match: I felt immense pressure on the basketball court in overtime (I once watched my 12-year-old teammate take two free-throws in the final seconds to potentially win us a national championship and miss both); I experienced firsthand the terror of a super over. But guess what: penalty shootouts were the least pressure I felt as a goalie. Why? Because no one really expects the goalie to be able to do anything. Penalties aren’t shots that are expected to be saved.

I knew that if I could save even one goal, or be annoying enough that they missed entirely, I’d be a hero. And if the other team scored all five (as the odds would suggest), then that’s perfectly normal and we carry on. 

And that’s my real problem with penalty shootouts. To have games decided by a process that relies less on players performing excellently and more on players failing spectacularly feels backwards. It diminishes the satisfaction for those who win, and adds unnecessary humiliation to those who lose.

Keep going!