Shootouts Would Be So Much Better if They Were Filmed a Different Way. Here's Proof.

The Spot
Slate's soccer blog.
June 28 2014 5:46 PM

Shootouts Would Be So Much Better if They Were Filmed a Different Way. Here's Proof.

Gonzalo Jara
Gonzalo Jara of Chile shoots and hits the post to miss the decisive penalty against Julio Cesar of Brazil.

Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images

As you can see in this GIF, via Deadspin, Chile’s Gonzalo Jara was heartbreakingly close to converting a penalty that would’ve extended his team’s round of 16 match against Brazil.

Though it wasn’t quite a perfect strike by the Chilean, this was a perfect shot by the World Cup camera crew, who captured Brazil keeper Júlio César’s all-out dive and the ball’s tantalizing ricochet off the post. But that wasn’t the image we saw in live action. Rather, we saw Jara’s shot from a side angle, and then were treated to replays that offered a better view.

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You can see the limitations of the side view very clearly in this next video, of a Neymar penalty from Brazil’s opening game against Croatia. Note ESPN announcer Ian Darke’s hesitation after goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa tips the ball: He has no idea whether the shot is in the net or has gone just wide. It’s only on the replay—where we’re afforded views from both behind the goal and behind the shooter—that it’s clear that Neymar has scored, and how close Pletikosa came to making a glorious save.

It’s important to note that ESPN does not control live shots or replays during World Cup broadcasts. ESPN and other “media rights licensees” pay a fee to transmit the “host feed.” Every live shot and replay that you see on ESPN, as well as the order that you see them in, is controlled by an entity called Host Broadcast Services, a subsidiary of a Switzerland-based company that FIFA has contracted to produce World Cup telecasts.

So, why does HBS film penalties from the side? Chris Alexopoulos, an ESPN producer who’s in Brazil to work on the network’s studio coverage, says he believes tradition has a lot to do with it: This is the way it’s always been done. The main play-by-play camera for soccer, also known as Camera 1, is at midfield, elevated above the side of the pitch. Most game action is seen from the vantage of Camera 1, as are penalties. That’s how viewers are used to seeing the game, so that’s how they’re going to see it during this World Cup.

In the Brazil-Chile penalty shootout, every live shot was from Camera 1, and those were followed by replays from behind the goal (with the camera pointed at the shooter’s face) and then occasional replays from over the shooter’s shoulder (with the camera pointed at the goalkeeper).

Would we see penalties differently if ESPN did control the cameras in Brazil? If Bob Frattaroli had his way, we would. Frattraoli directs soccer matches for ESPN, including MLS games and ones featuring the U.S. national team. Since ESPN doesn’t control game footage, they don’t need directors in Brazil. But if it were his call, Frattraoli tells me, he’d film the penalty shootout from over the shooter’s shoulder, using what’s known as the “high end zone camera.”

“You can see the way the goalie responds, the curve of the ball—everything perfectly,” Frattraoli says. By contrast, if you’re looking from the side and the ball goes past the back post, you can’t tell if a shot skims past the goal by four inches or by four feet. And why does Frattraoli prefer to film a shootout from behind the shooter rather than behind the goal? Because if you’re behind the goal, the woodwork blocks your view if the ball hits the post or the crossbar.

Frattraoli notes that from a production standpoint, a penalty is very similar to a field goal. In both cases, it’s a lot easier to tell what happened when you’re looking straight at the target. In the early days of the NFL, field goals were filmed from the side. But as technology improved, and high end zone cameras developed better zooming capabilities, the broadcasting standard changed, and we now see every three-pointer from behind the kicker or behind the goalposts.

FIFA, it seems, has chosen tradition over technology at the 2014 World Cup. What might it look like if they changed things up and showed a penalty shootout from behind the penalty takers?

Such a thing is not unprecedented. Watch this footage of the 2008 Champions League final between Manchester United and Chelsea. Starting with the second penalty, you’ll see every shot from directly behind the shooter.

There’s no doubt, no hesitation—every make and every miss is obvious from the instant the shot is taken. It’s a glorious thing to behold. And it’s a shame we won’t see penalties like this during the World Cup.

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

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