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The Penalty Shootout



There are many cruel and horrible things in this world that man inflicts upon himself. But in football, none are more cruel than the penalty shootout to determine the winner of a match. And, of course, the loser. Even worse when the shootout determines whether your team stays or goes home in a tournament. The most cruel, of course is when a penalty shootout determines who wins the world title and lifts the trophy, and who relives their missed penalty over and over obsessively for the rest of their lives as the loser. After 90 minutes of nonstop running, then another 30, the slightest error or the heroics of an opposition goalkeeper – just a split second – determines which players go home with tears of joy and which players go home with tears of agony. It’s literally the worst.

Does the United Nations know about this barbaric practice?

My very first experiences with football were watching the 1994 World Cup. And ironically, it was that final, the first ever decided by penalties, that cemented my love for this emotionally cruel game. It was Franco Baresi, Milan and Azzurri captain, who missed the first penalty for Italy. His goalkeeper saved the next one. Cruelly, Brazil and Italy went back and forth, each team making their penalties until another Milan player, Daniele Massaro, missed his. The Brazil player made his, and now the pressure was on Roberto Baggio, Italy’s hero of that World Cup. And he skied the ball, just like his captain had. Brazil and their fans erupted in joy, while Baggio and his teammates were inconsolable. Is there anything more cruel?

Four years later, Italy faced France in the Quarterfinals in the Stade de France. This time, Baggio went first and made no mistake. Albertini’s penalty was saved, as was a French player’s. Everyone made their penalties until Di Biagio hit the crossbar. Literally less than an inch difference and fate could have been entirely different. Yet once again, there was heartbreak in the Azzurri, and they went home, while France progressed and ended up winning that World Cup. One inch and everything could have been different. Football is supposed to be a gentleman’s sport, yet penalties are so incredibly brutal.

Exquisite joy and infinite pain in a single moment

Eight years later, in 2006, Italy found themselves in the final again, and once again, the match was tied after extra time. Even more intimidating, their opponent was France. What most remember about the match was Zidane getting himself sent off. But the players probably remember that it was decided on penalties. They stepped up, one by one: Pirlo, Materazzi, De Rossi, Del Piero, and finally Grosso… and they all made them. On the French side, Trezeguet hit the crossbar. He knew what it was to be on the joyful side of the celebrations, having successfully taken a penalty in 1998 against Italy. But this time, he and his teammates left Berlin with crushing regret, while the Azzurri lifted the World Cup for their fourth time amidst exuberant celebrations involving various amounts of disrobing, flagwaving, haircutting, dancing, and of course hugs and tears. Once again, just a teeny little inch difference, and everything could have been different. Such a barbaric practice.

The boy was a hero and a villain in the space of a few short minutes, but luckily not in competition

FIFA experimented with the “Golden Goal” about 20-25 years ago, but opted instead for an even more sadistic way to settle matches that limits the opportunities for players to run themselves to death. Sometimes, I think running one’s self to death is less cruel than the penalty shootout, where a player or a goalkeeper can become a hero or a zero in a split second, or less than an inch. On a club level, Milan fans will remember, for example, watching the unknown 16 year-old Gianluigi Donnarumma save a Toni Kroos penalty in a preseason friendly against Real Madrid and become an instant hero, only to miss his penalty, Milan’s 11th penalty in the shootout, to lose the match. What an emotional start in a completely non-competitive match.

One is a hero, the other forever marred on the World Stage

Back to the World Cup, however, there have been three teams to go home at the ruthless hands of a penalty shootout so far this year. Spain lost to the hometown underdogs Russia after 120 minutes of relentless running. The same day, Denmark went home after 120 minutes of tireless play and some heroics from a second generation Danish goalkeeper. Yesterday, Colombia were sent home after 120 minutes of often unsporting play against one-time World Cup winners and equally unsporting England. Ironically, it was one Carlos Bacca who had his penalty saved to send his country home. (Fun fact: He was the other Milan player to miss his penalty in the aforementioned Real Madrid friendly.) That will weigh on him for the rest of his life like an albatross around his neck.

Penalty shootouts are vicious and inhumane, but never so much so as on the world stage. Roberto Baggio, Italy and Serie A legend, will tell you that they define a career, even if he was able to redeem himself four years later for Italy. Few players get that opportunity at the World Cup, meaning that a split second, less than an inch one way or the other, or the luck or talent of an opposition goalkeeper redefines your legacy on the biggest stage on earth, no matter what else you do in your career. They can produce incomparable joy, but in doing so produce even more profound and lasting pain and regret for the other team. There is literally nothing more nefarious or unforgiving than the penalty shootout.


This post inspired by the music of Garbage’s “The World Is Not Enough”