After 90 minutes, the score was still tied. As the referee signalled for 30 minutes of extra time, the crowd anticipated that something fantastic would soon happen—a game-winning goal that football fans would remember forever. Instead, the pace slowed down and the players’ conviction steadily dropped. Everyone on the field took fewer risks, perhaps due to fatigue and perhaps because they feared making a match-losing mistake. Soon enough, it was clear both sets of players had settled for the “lottery” of penalty kicks.
The match I’ve just described was this past weekend’s Champions League final, won by Real Madrid. But we've seen this story play out many times before. Since 1983, 13 Champions League finals have finished in a tie after normal time, and 11 of those were resolved by penalty kicks. We’re stuck with penalties, though, because nobody has been able to think of a better way. Well, I think I have one.
The penalty shootout came into existence in the 1960s, in an era when games that remained tied after extra time were decided by a random draw. An Israeli football official named Yosef Dagan was greatly offended by this unjust tie-breaking measure, which cost his nation a chance to reach the semifinals of the 1968 Olympics. “The drawing of lots is immoral and even cruel,” wrote Dagan in an article published in the FIFA News in 1969, “it is unfair to the losing team and not honorable for the winner.”
Though penalties are more moral and less cruel than the act of drawing pieces of paper out of a hat, they are still a horrible way to decide a football match, let alone a European or world championship. And it’s not just that penalties are capricious. They also destroy the 30 minutes of gameplay that precedes them, transforming the portion of the game that should be most exciting into a suspense-free slog.
None of the obvious alternatives are workable. Piling on still more extra time would drive the players to exhaustion. Replaying the game entirely might’ve been an option years ago, but not today when the Champions League final has become a singular spectacle. So, what can possibly be done?
Here’s my simple idea: Play the penalties before extra time. If one team outscores the other in the subsequent 30 minutes of open play, then that result will trump the outcome of the penalty kicks. If extra time ends in a draw, then the game goes to the penalty winner.
Why is this an improvement over the current system? The most important benefit is that one team—the penalty loser—would be desperate to score. This would be far superior to what we see now, a slowed-down stalemate in which, more often than not, a pair of worn-down teams seem to have resigned themselves to penalties before the first ball is kicked in extra time. While the penalty winner would no doubt play cynically, wasting time to prevent the penalty loser from scoring a decisive goal, that would still be more enjoyable than watching teams collude to run 30 minutes off the clock.
Second, the players who miss their penalties, poor souls like Juanfran of Atletico Madrid, would no longer bear the full responsibility for defeat. The whole team would have the opportunity to make up for an individual error during the play that followed. If they succeeded, scoring a goal in extra time to instantly overturn a loss on penalties, the catharsis would be immense. Teams would win and lose football matches, not individuals. This would surely be a more fitting end to what is, after all, a team sport.