No more tie-breaking shootouts at the World Cup
By Eric Dessner MD
Originally Published in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The World Cup will have captivated the attention of 5 billion people. It’s quite possible that this incarnation of the month-long competition evoked more emotion than any sporting event in all of human history. But here’s a question no one asks: Does the way the game is played reflect humanity’s best values?
Almost everything in the game does — except for the penalty shootout. There’s too much at stake to continue to allow luck to play such a pivotal role in determining these matches. It doesn’t send the right messages about persistence and hard work. It gives us the false sense that caution, defense and luck can give us what we want.
I’m not suggesting that penalty kicks don’t involve skill. They most certainly do — Lionel Messi’s master strike against Croatia in the semifinals is a case in point. However, even the most ardent soccer aficionado must admit that serendipity also plays a major role in any penalty shootout. Does the goalie randomly jump to his left when the ball goes to his right? Or does he guess correctly by jumping to his right and save the goal?
And luck plays such an influential role in so many human affairs, already: our health, our financial fates and even our elusive search for love, are all subjected to its feathery touch. Should we let it influence the world’s most important soccer competition, too? Shouldn’t the World Cup award skill and effort, not luck, as much as humanly possible? Shouldn’t a win mean the team won by playing the game?
Precedent exists within the sport to alter the rules, when it benefits the game. Penalty shootouts are actually a relatively new phenomenon. It wasn’t until 1970 that the International Football Association Board (IFAB) adopted penalties as a method for settling a tie. Prior to 1970, international matches that remained tied were either replayed on a subsequent day, or the winner was decided by drawing lots. Twelve years later, the World Cup adopted the penalty shootout for the first time.
Hockey and tennis have also amended their overtime structures in the last few years. Both made breaking a tie more efficient, while the final outcome still depends on the players playing the game, not lucking out.
The NHL, for example, adopted a five-minute 3-on-3 format (for regular season games) to make more room on the ice and facilitate goal scoring opportunities. Only if the game is still tied do they go to a shootout. The Grand Slam Tennis Committee agreed to change the rules governing last set tiebreakers at each of the major events. Now the first player to reach 10-points with a 2-point margin wins the match.
Opponents of changing the current rules will argue that without the shootout, players would become exhausted. After running all over the pitch for so long, cramping and dehydration would become an issue.
So then why not play one regular overtime period and then take some of the players off the pitch and play to resume 7-on-7 for the second period? Or just go straight to 7-on-7. That would produce more space and more goal scoring chances.
Perhaps, if endurance were a concern, players who had substituted out of the game could be permitted to re-enter during overtime. Spectators love nothing more than a comeback story. The crowd would go crazy in support of a superstar player who had left the pitch exhausted, only to return later in the game to fight for the glory of his or her country.
The world’s most popular sporting event could better reflect our collective values if it relied more upon skill, grit and determination rather than luck to determine a winner. Wouldn’t it also serve as a better metaphor for life if it didn’t incentivize such defensive play? Shouldn’t it not just remind us to be cautious and calculating, but that life rewards risk, bold action and perseverance?
This is the subtle message that FIFA would send to everyone watching, if it steered the overtime format from penalty shootouts to something a bit less dependent on luck.
The crown jewel of the beautiful game deserves to end with a flourish that represents all of its skill and splendor.
Eric Dessner is an ophthalmologist in Brooklyn, N.Y.
First Published December 21, 2022, 12:00am by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (edited by David Mills)