May 30, 2012

Saving Us From the Shootout

For the past few years, the UEFA Champions League final – the Super Bowl of European club soccer and, some would argue, the highest level competition in the world – has been played on Saturday, rather than the traditional midweek date for European fixtures. That’s mean good mid afternoon time slot and Fox has therefore run the match on the main Fox network (over the air, as it were) rather than one of its cable outlets. So more Americans get to feast their eyes on the final.

And what a final this year, huh? English club Chelsea’s improbable run ran into Germany power Bayern Munich, who had the benefit of playing the final in their home stadium (as with the Super Bowl, the site of the final is determined years in advance). The two teams slugged it out for more than an hour, before Bayern grabbed a late goal that surely looked like the winner. However, given the script, Chelsea struck back with an even later goal of their own, leaving the two sides tied 1-1 after regulation.

Which meant it all went pear shaped after that. Thirty minutes of overtime produced nothing but insomnia, before the inevitable – penalty kicks. Yes, it was dramatic. Certainly, if you were a Chelsea fan, it must have been sweet (Chelsea prevailed 4-3, with the kicks taken in front of the end of the stadium where Bayern’s fans were seated). But for a neutral or, gods forbid, someone who wasn’t a soccer fan looking in with curiosity, it was an anticlimax.

If you’re a fan of the game, you know that shootouts as means to determine a winner aren’t all that popular. If you’re not a fan, you might rightly wonder what is the point of crowning a champion based on a small part of the game, equivalent to a home run derby in baseball. Maybe that’s why Sepp Blatter, the enigmatic chief of FIFA, the game’s global governing body, is searching for an alternative. Maybe.

It was not always so that penalty kicks were a part of the game:
I was in River Plate stadium (before it was known as Estadio Monumental Antonio Vespuci), Buenos Aires, Argentina, June 25, 1978, when three goals were scored in extra time and the hosts defeated the Netherlands to win the World Cup.

No golden goal. No penalty kick shootout lurking in the minds of players and fans. In fact, I believe that was the last World Cup final that would have actually been replayed, two days later, before the major domos at FIFA realized that each and every final must come to a resolution. Travel plans. The demands of television. Not to mention the strain on the players.
Replays these days in such major tournaments aren’t really feasible, for those reasons (although the F.A. Cup manages to deal with them in most rounds, IIRC). So what’s the solution? In my opinion, the problem isn’t so much PKs themselves as a tie breaker (although I think the old MLS version was more interesting), it’s that the teams involved know that, if they hold out long enough, the game will change into whatever the tie breaker is.

So here’s my solution – let them play. In games where there must be a winner and loser (so the vast majority of matches aren’t impacted), tell the teams going in that they’re going to play until there’s a winner. I’m open to suggestions about allowing extra subs or what the overtime periods should look like (I’ve got no real problem with sudden death, or “Golden Goal” as FIFA dubbed it), but at the end of the day, the winner should score more goals that the other team.

Having watched lots of games that ended in PKs, the sense I get is that once teams get into extra time the goal becomes not winning the game, but avoiding losing it, because the PK scenario greatly equalizes the two teams’ chances. In other words, for large chunks of that half hour, it’s a slow speed kick around section, not a competitive match worthy of a major final. My theory is that, without the safety net of PKs hanging out there, teams would be forced to play to win and would, therefore, score goals.

Granted, there could be games that go on for hours and hours, as some Stanley Cup playoff games are famous for, but I think that would be really rare. After all, since a draw is meaningless neither side has a reason to play for one, right? It would be truly exceptional for two teams to be so well matched (or so astoundingly unable to score) that games would drag on and on as a regular exercise. And when they did stretch on to epic lengths, they would be truly epic. What’s the problem with that?

That being said, I don’t expect anything to change real soon. For one thing, PK shootouts only pop up in knockout matches which, even in tournaments like the World Cup or Champions League, are really rare. Easier just to hope the problem doesn’t pop up this year than worry about dealing with it. And, for all its flaws, the shootout does make things easy on the TV programmers, which more and more runs the sports world.

In other words, we’re presented with a long-term deadlock that nobody can seem to break. Hmm, which end do I want to take the penalties in?

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