As everyone but FIFA already knows, penalty shootouts are an appalling way to end a football match. They provide expedient finality; but they are distinctly unsatisfying. After watching France dominate Italy for the better part of 120 minutes (the 90 minutes of full-time, plus 30 minutes of extra-time), only shameless Italian partisans could have been happy to watch Italy lift the 2006 World Cup on the basis of a shootout.
FIFA has always argued that the game must end at some point, and that the players cannot run indefinitely. As anyone who has played 90 minutes of competitive football can attest, it is wonder that the players have anything at all left for even the first half of extra-time. Still, it seems absurd to decide a match based on a device that has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the team play, or even with the match itself.
In 1993, FIFA implemented the “Golden Goal” to decide extra-time wins � a sudden death rule giving victory to the team that scored first. FIFA killed this device in 2004 when it felt that too many teams were hanging back, playing eleven-men-behind-the-ball defensive football, and attempting to see extra-time through to a scoreless end. The reason for this frustrating tactic, of course, was the looming presence of the shootout. If Germany were to have penalty shootouts with England, for example, Germany would win 100 times out of 100. What incentive would Germany have, in this example, to play a competitive extra-time, when pressing forward for a goal might expose them to a goal in counter-attack? (This example assumes that England are capable of putting together a credible counter-attack, an admittedly fantastic scenario. Humor me.) The problem wasn�t the golden goal rule itself; it was the failure to get rid of the penalty shootout.
When Sepp Blatter, President of FIFA, comes up with ideas to alter the game, they are usually cringe-worthy. (Anyone remember his suggestion to expand the goal size because goalkeepers were �getting bigger�?) But suddenly, he seems to have come to his senses. Yesterday, Mr. Blatter announced that FIFA will study the possibility of eliminating the shootout in time for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. “When it comes to the World Cup final it is passion and when it goes to extra time it is a drama. But when it comes to penalty kicks it is a tragedy,” he waxed, only slightly botching the extended metaphor. For good measure, he followed up with a statement George W. Bush might be proud to have uttered: “Football is a team sport and penalties is not a team, it is the individual.” Anyway, I’m pretty sure he’s trying to say that the penalty shootout concept sucks.
I don’t see why this issue has been so vexing for so long. There is an easy way to get rid of the penalty shootout, and allow tournament matches be played to conclusion without losing players to heart failure. FIFA need only look toward modifying its needlessly restrictive substitution rules.
According to the laws of the game, only three substitutions can be made in the course of a FIFA tournament match. It doesn’t matter whether these are made in the first minute of regulation time or the final minute of extra-time; three is all you get.
I would propose the rules be liberalized to allow additional substitution at the end of full-time. Let’s permit teams to swap two or three additional players in each 15 period of extra-time. The substitutes’ bench could also be expanded from its current size of seven players, which would allow teams to carry multiple goalkeepers but still put fresh legs in most of the outfield positions in the case of extreme marathons. New extra-time substitution rules might also allow players who have been previously replaced to rejoin the match.
More permissive extra-time substitution rules would not only allow important football matches to be decided by open-play, they would improve the quality of extra-time football by allowing teams to replace exhausted players with fresh ones.
And there is one more thing that FIFA could do: send off any players who collected yellow cards during the normal period of play. This would both open up the extra-time and promote fair-play by increasing the cost of committing a bookable foul. A yellow card shown during an extra-time period would not result in immediate ejection for the offender, but they would find themselves on the bench, with their team a player down, at the start of a subsequent extra-time period.
Do you like the golden goal rule? If so bring it back. If not, don’t. But by all means, lose the damn penalty shootout! It is really not that tough to do.