What's the Big Idea?

World Cup penalty shootouts? There's a better way to break a tie.

By Carlos Lozada
Sunday, July 11, 2010

It's dramatic but unfair, definitive but chancy, crushing but exhilarating -- all depending on which team you're cheering for. It's a World Cup penalty shootout.

When a World Cup soccer match (not counting the group round) is tied after 90 minutes of regulation and 30 minutes of overtime, the game is decided by penalty kicks. Whichever team makes more of its five shots advances; the loser goes home. So far in this World Cup, two matches have been settled this way: Paraguay beat Japan in the second round, and Uruguay dispatched African darling Ghana in the quarterfinals.

Is there a better system, something that doesn't feel like ending an NBA Finals game with a free-throw contest? Patrick Barclay, soccer commentator for the Times of London -- who says the shootout, for all its excitement, "insults all that goes into the game" -- offers a novel alternative in the summer issue of Intelligent Life magazine: "Abolish extra time, count the fouls committed by the two sides, factor in red and yellow cards, and hand victory to the lesser offender."

It's more than a sports-bar debate. Two of the past four World Cup finals have been decided by penalty shootouts, with Brazil defeating Italy in 1994 (as Italian star Roberto Baggio's kick wildly overshot the crossbar) and Italy besting France in 2006. It's impossible to know how the matches would have ended had Barclay's system been in place, because different rules would have dictated a different style of play -- and that is precisely the point.

The most persistent argument against Barclay's idea, he writes, is that players would feign falls from nonexistent fouls to incriminate opposing players. "But a dive is itself an offense, and a yellow-card one, so the peer pressure against cheating would actually increase and the referee's job would become easier," Barclay argues. "Tactical fouling might also recede, along with shirt-tugging and every other substitute for tackling that has flourished since hacking down forwards became outlawed in the early 1990s."

Should Sunday's final between Spain and the Netherlands go to penalty kicks, fans of La Roja might wish for Barclay's rules. So far in the tournament, Spain has committed 62 fouls and has earned three yellow cards, compared with 98 fouls and 15 yellow cards for the Dutch side.

Soccer may never produce peace on Earth, as some zealots proclaim. But Barclay's intriguing proposal could help produce peace on the pitch.


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