World Cup Wrap-Up

I didn’t get to see either of the weekend’s games, other than about five minutes at the start of the second half of the championship, so I have very little to say. I haven’t even seen highlights, as I had to spend the morning at the hospital for an intensely boring test, and they didn’t have SportsCenter on. I have seen the infamous head-butt, though, which I have to say is a fairly unique way of knocking a guy down.

The big topic of conversation is, of course, the fact that the title was decided on penalty kicks. In fact, something like half of the games after the group play stage were decided by penalty kicks. Like most Americans, this strikes me as an intensely stupid way of deciding a championship.

The only halfway convincing argument for the use of penalty kicks as a deciding stage in games is that if the game were extended further, exhaustion would become a factor not only for the game in question, but for the next game, as well. While this isn’t entirely convincing (if nothing else, it would seem to be a powerful incentive to, you know, try to score, rather than sitting back in a defensive alignment and playing for the draw), I can accept it at the quarterfinal and semifinal stages. It really doesn’t make any sense for the championship, though– there is no next game, not for weeks or months, so why stop play? Keep playing soccer until somebody wins– either through a continuing series of overtime periods, or by going to sudden death (I’d prefer to see them play the full periods out, even if somebody scores, because that’s both fairer and more entertaining), but get rid of this penalty kick nonsense.

Anyway, that’s my take on the crucial question of how to decide tie games in soccer. Feel free to leave a comment explaining how I’m just an empty-headed American pig with no appreciation of the beauty and elegance of the penalty-kick shoot-out.

21 thoughts on “World Cup Wrap-Up

  1. Actually, penalties aren’t as unfair as you may assume. It makes both the goalie and the kicker pretty nervous due to the stakes involved. I’d say that the kicker has to be really good to get the ball through.

    However, I like the sudden death or golden goal idea because it forces both the sides to get on the offense. Although, on the behalf of France and Italy, they had rock solid defenses. It was a very even game..

    It is hard to compare this game to football because this has a greater flow than the staccato game of football. The players are always running around. After runnign about for 2 hours, they are bound to tire. They are human after all..

  2. Why not replace the penalty kick shootout with a corner-kick shootout? A sequence of corner kicks, each played out, under normal rules, until the ball is cleared downfield? This sounds like it would end the game in a finite time (what are the odds of scoring on a corner kick?), while involving the whole team and standard-issue soccer skills.

  3. I’m brought to mind tennis. They keep playing in the fifth set until one player is up by two games. A few matches routinely go over five hours in the major tournaments. It’s a hell of a lot more entertaining than huddling at the net and flipping a coin for the win.

  4. Actually, penalties aren’t as unfair as you may assume. It makes both the goalie and the kicker pretty nervous due to the stakes involved. I’d say that the kicker has to be really good to get the ball through.

    With the exception of the Swiss debacle, though, most of the kicks were good. I think kickers converted something like 75% of the kicks in the elimination rounds.

    The problem isn’t so much that one side or the other has an advantage, it’s that it’s only vaguely related to the game. It’d be like playing one overtime in basketball, and then settling the game on a best-of-ten free-throw contest. I also think it warps the play in the overtime periods, as a lot of teams get even more defensively oriented than they already are, figuring that it’s better to play for a tie and take their chances on penalty kicks than to push the offense and risk giving up a goal. Not to keep picking on the Swiss, but the Switzerland-Ukraine overtime was just ridiculously awful to watch, because neither team looked like they wanted to score.

    I’m not wild about sudden death– that’s what they do in American football, and it kind of sucks– but even sudden death is better than penalty shoot-outs.

  5. In fact, something like half of the games after the group play stage were decided by penalty kicks.

    I share your antipathy for deciding games via shootout, but actually only 3 of the 15 games in the knockout stage were decided that way – far fewer than half (fortunately).

  6. “In fact, something like half of the games after the group play stage were decided by penalty kicks.”

    Well actually it was 4 out of 16 matches. So half is overstating it a bit. 😛

    I’m with you though on the pointlessness of shootouts, and for the same reason. The problem is that you need a way to definitely end the game. As players tire and lose the ability to run, they’re more likely to stay back on defense rather than attack. That’s why extra time is so often pointless. So even Golden Goal rules don’t help much. At some point you need to come to an algorithm that ends the game in a finite time. And I’ve never heard anything more reasonable than penalties. (Technically those could go on forever too, but after the first 5 it’s sudden death, so the chances are remote.)

    One change I would recommend however is to allow 3 additional subs for extra time. That would allow coaches to bring on fresh legs and really go after the game. That would hurt less talented teams of course… but that’s only incentive to win in regulation.

  7. How about no goalies in OT?

    I’ve never seriously played the game, just a suburban parent watching from the sidelines.

  8. I like the idea of playing on and giving each team more substitutions. Teams have 21-man rosters, and with only 3 subs (and one goalie who probably won’t be replaced). That leaves them with 5 men on the bench who will never see action. (8 total subs)

    I say, play it golden-goal style and let the teams have 2 additional subs for each 15-minute overtime period. Getting more fresh legs on the field would prevent exhaustion from dragging things down, and allow the depth of the team to play a crucial role.

    It sure beats that shootout crap. It’s like the NBA finals being decided by a free throw competition.

  9. How about, at the end of regulation, they physically pick up one of the goals and reinstall it at midfield. The teams play 10 minutes overtime on a 50-meter-long half-field with no offsides rule. For every additional OT, the goals get ten meters closer together. Eventually, in the unlikely event that the score is still tied, the goals will actually make contact, forming an inescapeable net enclosure—an obvious venue for the goalie-vs-goalie cage-wrestling match which determines the winner.

  10. While I’d prefer some sort of overtime-til-the-finish, either complete periods (with additional subs), or perhaps golden goal after some time (and perhaps taking players off a la NHL regular-season overtimes), perhaps instead of penalty kicks, they could have a NASL-style shootout. In this, the attacking player starts with the ball at 35 yards out, going only against the opposing goalie, and has 5 seconds to get a shot off. I saw several of those in my younger years, and they were very exciting. Plus, they’re a little more satisfying than penalty kicks, especially with the World Cup title on the line.

  11. The problem with “keep playing until someone scores” suggestions – whether you allow extra substitutions, or take people off, or whatever you do to jazz it up – is that you still get a result that’s pretty random. For every game like Italy-Germany where there are real chances at the end of extra time, you get 10 games like England/Portugal, Ukraine/Switzerland, or France/Italy, where it looks like you could keep playing for another hour without seeing a goal. If a goal came eventually, it could be because half of one team were down with cramp (or more serious injuries), or had lost players to injury/suspension through the tournament and didn’t have subs 18, 19, and 20 to put on…
    Penalties are unsatisfactory, but they’re not a coin toss either, they’re a test of skill and nerve. Compare the penalties taken by Italy in the final to those taken by England in the quarters.

  12. They tried sudden death before (the Golden Goal), but they screwed it up. You played 30 minutes sudden death, then went to PK. Teams wouldn’t take many risks, because any slip mean you’d lost — it was seen as better to play safe and go to PKs, rather than gamble and lose.

    Exhaustion is a factor, but I’d play it like this. After regulation, 10 minutes rest, 15 minutes play, sudden death, with each side awarded an extra substitute for extra time. The rest factor should help both the exhaustion factor and the play.

    The evil overlord option is that you play 30 minutes extra time, golden goal, if none, both teams lose. Heck, I’d do this right now in the round robin phase, but I think FIFA would be very annoyed at two semi-final ties for loss.

  13. I’m with you though on the pointlessness of shootouts, and for the same reason. The problem is that you need a way to definitely end the game. As players tire and lose the ability to run, they’re more likely to stay back on defense rather than attack. That’s why extra time is so often pointless. So even Golden Goal rules don’t help much.

    I think the excessively defensive play isn’t just due to exhaustion, but also to a deliberate choice. If you just sit back and defend, the worst that can happen is that you go to penalty kicks, and if you lose of PK’s, well, it’s just one of those things. On the other hand, if you make a concerted effort to really push the ball and score, and give up a goal on a counter-attack, both players and coaches will get absolutely blasted for having lost the game.

    It’s sort of like the situation in American football with going for the first down on fourth-and-short. The negative consequences of going for it and missing weigh more heavily on coaches than the potential gains of going for the play. Coaches tend to go for the really conventional thing, because if they do that and lose, at least they went “by the book,” and won’t be blamed for losing the game.

    If soccer players and coaches knew that the game didn’t end until somebody scored, that might force them to take more risks. Or it might not, tough to say.

  14. I’m going to step tangential for a moment and talk about cognition. This concern with prolonging a game until a ‘real’ winner (that is, one who has won by dint of expertise, as evidenced by ability to score) seems to me to tie in with Bradd Shore’s excellent analyses of the cognitive structure of baseball. Shore claims that the physical structure of a baseball field – a fixed infield with a variable sized outfield – parallel its temporal structure of a game that doesn’t end until a certain disparity in score is met. Thus, coming from an American blogger, your concern might simply reflect a cultural attitude than any empirical concern with the fairness of games

  15. er, my second post contained the wrong url, please feel free to delete. the jstor link is the correct one

  16. In your not-evil-overlord version, what happens after the 15 minutes play?

    Oops, didn’t make that clear.

    The Not-evil-overlord version is you repeat 10 off, 15 on until a goal is scored. The big problem here is the enormous amount of dead time, which is very unusual for football, but the argument about exhaustion is a very real one, and the rest periods help keep the players from collapsing from such. (Diving is another problem, but one that changing the end of the game won’t really help.)

    You could run the first two periods as end regulation, 10 minutes rest, 15 play, 5 rest, 15 play, check score, then go to 10 off, 30 play golden goal, but that’s a minor difference.

    Amusingly enough, I’d take sudden death out of American football. The problem here is the nature of the game — it is vastly easier for the offense to score than the defense, thus, first possesion becomes important. In not-American football, change of possesion is much more common, so the kickoff doesn’t affect the result nearly as much as it does in American football. So, playing full quarters and checking score is better, IMHO, than sudden death, but SDO is far too engrained in American football, and ties at the end of regulation don’t happen nearly as often as they do in football — 2 of the 16 elimination games in this years world cup were won in extra time, and 4 of the 16 went to extra time and PKs. That’s 6 of 16 where regulation time ended with a tie. (11 of the 48 elimination rounds were ties)

    I note that in US Hockey, in tournaments, the rule is you keep playing 20 minute overtime periods until someone wins — and in regular play, you play one overtime period before you call it a tie. While you have much more substitution in hockey, the energy output of your average hockey player is much higher, per second on the field, than a soccer player — so much so that substitution is a key part of the game, esp. making changes when the puck is still in play. Exhaustion is a huge factor in hockey, yet they don’t see a material increase in injury in late overtime periods.

    The key, no matter what you do, is to make it so that everyone knows that they need to try and score. The 30 minute golden goal experiment was a flop, because the players knew they could just wait for the PKs. Without that limit, the players will have to try and score, and I’m convinced that once things settle out, they will try, which will make for better games.

    Indeed, if they know that they’re not getting off the field until they score, you may see less games go to extra time.

    In the round robin portion of the World Cup, the obvious answer is two fifteen minute periods of overtime, golden goal, then both team notch a loss. I’d use this in league play as well. It does mean you’ll end up with more teams losing than winning, which may seem perverse. If that really bothers you, you can fix the tables by recording it as a tie, but awarding no points, so that in effect, a tie is a loss.

    Going to three points for a win, as opposed to two, has already made this halfway happen — since a (W-L-T) of 1-2-0 would now go to goal differential with a 0-0-3 record, as opposed to having lost outright. However, in my system, a 1-2-0 record clearly wins over a 0-0-3 record, 3 points to nil.

    IOW, there are two way to avoid ties — discourage or prevent by the rules (Baseball) or not reward them at all.

  17. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with a draw, it is only a problem in the knockout stages of tournaments*. I don’t see the point of ruling out draws in the group stage, except to make football more like American games?
    The problem with endlessly extending the length of a game is that it’s not very workable in the context of a tournament, which is the only time you need a winner. If Team A and Team B meet in the semi-finals, and Team A played a four-hour marathon in the quarters, while Team B finished in 90 minutes, Team B has an enormous advantage. And it’s not really good enough to say “Well, Team A should have tried harder”. You don’t very often get games where both teams are hanging on for penalty kicks – Team A could have been trying very hard, against a team that packed the defence and hoped for a lucky free kick or corner.

    *and only really in the knockout stages of international tournaments like the World and European Cups. In the Champions League and FA Cup, where the competition is spread out over several months, there are two-legged games and replays, so games don’t go to penalties very often.

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