IN 1976 the final of the European Championships (the 16th instalment of which is currently being played across the continent) was settled by football’s most famous penalty. After 120 minutes’ playing time had failed to separate Czechoslovakia and West Germany, the match went to a penalty shootout, the first time it had been tried in a major tournament. With the Czechs already ahead 4-3, up stepped Antonín Panenka. Feinting to put the ball into the corner, and waiting until the German goalkeeper had dived full-length to his left, the Czech midfielder delicately—daringly—chipped the ball into the centre of the goal, securing the title for his country. To this day spot-kicks taken (and often missed) in this fashion are known as “Panenkas”. Penalty shootouts such as the one in 1976 are memorable, nerve-jangling spectacles. But are they a fair way of deciding a football match?
Their format is simple. If, in a knockout tournament, two teams remain tied after the regulation 90 minutes and then 30 minutes’ extra time, the match goes to penalties. Each side chooses five players to take alternating spot kicks, with the team that scores the most winning. If they are still tied, the remaining players take turns in a sudden-death competition. The pressure can get to even the most revered footballers. In the World Cup final in 1994, for example, Roberto Baggio (pictured), Italy’s superstar forward (and a famously meditative Buddhist), blazed his side’s fifth penalty over the bar, handing the title to Brazil. Indeed shootouts are such levellers that they are often described as lotteries. Studies have found little evidence that they favour better sides.
There are two ways to come up with a fairer tie-breaker. The first is to improve the shootout format itself. When teams take alternate attempts at goal (ie, ABAB), the team going first has been proven to have a significant advantage. It wins around 60% of the time, according to a study from the London School of Economics. That is probably down to the psychological pressure on the players shooting second, who must often score to keep their side’s hopes alive. (The decision on who goes first is made by coin toss.) FIFA, football’s governing body, has trialled an ABBA sequence. This is the same format used in tennis tie-breakers. But the experiment was not deemed a success, in part because supporters found it confusing. Heaven knows, then, how they would cope with the Prouhet-Thue-Morse mathematical constant. This sequence, ABBABAAB, is considered the fairest for penalty shootouts—and many other duels besides, including playing white in a chess tournament. Experiments suggest that using Prouhet-Thue-Morse levels up a team’s chances in a shootout to around 50-50.
But an equal chance merely evens up the lottery. The second way to give the more deserving side the better chance of winning is to do away with penalties. One option is a different kind of shootout, in which players dribble the ball from the centre circle and have a set amount of time to beat the goalkeeper (sometimes an outfield defender is also added). This may require more skill than merely shooting from 12 yards. The “golden goal”, in which teams win if they score first in extra time, was tried and ditched because it encouraged defensive football from sides petrified of offering chances to the opposition. Perhaps the most compelling idea is a form of golden goal in which there is no limit on extra time, but a player from each side is removed at regular intervals (every ten minutes, say). The resulting extra space—and fatigue—would, hopefully, lead to more chances to score.
And yet for many fans, it is exactly the idea that an underdog might cling on doggedly during a match and then dump out a mightier opponent in a randomised tie-breaker, that constitutes the whole appeal of the shootout. Those unfancied Czechs who halted the West German juggernaut in 1976 set a precedent in this regard, too.