What's Wrong with Penalties?

What's Wrong with Penalties?

Win the toss, win the shootout!
Aren't penalties just a simple and fair solution to a difficult problem?

Simple, yes. Fair, no. Professor Ignacio Palacios-Huerta in his book Beautiful Game Theory: How Soccer Can Help Economics, studied 1001 penalty shootouts comprising 10431 penalty kicks during a period from 1970-2013.

It includes virtually all the shootouts in the history of the main international elimination tournaments such as the World Cup, European Championships and Copa América. The data set also includes club matches from the UEFA Champions League and Europa League, Spanish Cup, German Cup and English FA Cup.

What Palacios-Huerta discovered was that the team who took the first kick in the shootout won 60% of the time.4 The reason is because the team kicking second is usually playing catch-up and therefore experiences greater pressure with each kick.

The data clearly shows that the penalty shootout is not a 50-50 lottery. It is more like a 60-40 lottery, where the team kicking first has 20% more tickets!

IFAB have also rejected the ABBA kicking sequence which mirrors the tennis tiebreaker. However, ABBA was just putting a band-aid on a broken leg .

It didn’t address the penalty shootout’s two other major problems – it doesn’t showcase the game and it exposes players to psychological trauma, racism and death threats.

Nicolai Jorgensen received death threats
Agostino di Bartolomei committed suicide on the 10th anniversary of the European Cup loss
A Marcus Rashford mural was vandalised with racist abuse
What psychological impact does the shootout have on players?

Michel Platini was seemingly aware of the potential for long term psychological damage when he said, “A football match should be decided by an action of play. Not some contrived process whose end result is to mark a fine player such as Bossis, Baresi or Baggio for the rest of his career. Of course coaches like shootouts because they can say that defeat was not their fault. But the people who run the game should take the long-term view.” 6

Roberto Baggio who was instrumental in getting Italy to the final of the 1994 World Cup, but missed the decisive kick in the shootout says, “It affected me for years. It is the worst moment of my career. I still dream about it. If I could erase a moment, it would be that one.” 7

Maxime Bossis, the French defender who missed the last penalty in the 1982 World Cup semi final says, “You know players miss penalties all the time, but you still feel guilty. I would rather we lost in extra-time. I’ve never taken another penalty since then.” 8

Didier Six, who missed his kick in the same match, states explicitly how people’s hostility and prejudice can exaggerate the long term psychological damage that players often suffer.

Six says, “At a certain point it gets too much. You are forty-five but people still see you as missing the penalty. I had difficulty finding a job because they said, ‘That one is unstable.’ And all that has come from this missed penalty kick.” 8

Former England and Barcelona manager Terry Venables agrees. Venables says, “Penalties put too much strain on one player. It could ruin his career if he’s not a strong character. If you feel for the rest of your life that everyone could of had a winners’ medal but for you, it’s a hard thing to get over.” 6

The first penalty shootout in a European Cup final occurred in 1984 when Liverpool defeated A.S. Roma. The match is largely remembered for the antics of Liverpool goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar and his wobbling legs.

Roma’s favourite son, Bruno Conti, smashed the ball against the top of the crossbar and later described his missed penalty as “unspeakable pain” and said “my heart shrank to nothing and I was psychologically destroyed.” 8

Roma’s captain was Agostino di Bartolomei, who scored with his kick, but later suffered from clinical depression and committed suicide on the tenth anniversary of the game .

It’s a stark and tragic reminder that professional athletes are just as susceptible to mental illness as any other group in the community.

Does any other sport on the planet have such a self-destructive element as football’s penalty shootout? And who will be the next player to be sacrificed? Imagine an icon of the sport like Messi, Ronaldo or Marta propelling their team to a World Cup final, only to miss the decisive kick in the penalty shootout.

And what of the fourteen year-old boy or girl who misses the kick that loses their team the championship match? Do they continue playing football, or abandon it for another sport?

Perhaps, Christian Karembeu described it best when he equated the penalty shootout not with an old fashioned Wild West gunfight, but with a game of Russian roulette. “It is loading a bullet into the chamber of a gun and asking everyone to pull the trigger. Someone will get the bullet, you know that. And it will reduce them to nothing.” 6

Some people will argue that the shootout simply parallels the ups and downs of real life. But the “two imposters” of triumph and disaster are already ever present within the regular ninety minutes.

Indeed, it’s common to see a player turn from villain to hero, or hero to villain, in the space of a few games or even a single match. If there’s one thing football certainly doesn’t need, it’s a tie-breaker to remind us of the capriciousness of life.

Of course, today’s players also have to endure all the scrutiny and vitriol from social media. Death threats were made against several players at the 2018 World Cup. 1 While three English players received racial abuse and a mural was vandalised after they missed penalties in the 2020 Euro final. 3

FIFA, IFAB and any group concerned about player welfare need to act before there’s a catastrophic tragedy.

ADG showcases the modern footballer's immense skill and athleticism
In contrast to penalties, how does ADG showcase the game?

Every time that a match ends with a goalkeeper guessing wrong and a ball dribbling into a goal, or a player crumbling to the ground at the penalty spot, the sport is devalued.

ADG provides a tie-breaker format where fans can see spectacular and exhilarating goals. Would you rather watch a player like Ronaldo, Neymar or Marta walk up and convert a penalty to win a tournament, or watch them at full speed, swerve past a defender and bend the ball into the back of the net?

However, ADG isn’t just about the attacking players, it also gives defenders and goalkeepers equal opportunity to shine.

When the shootout was introduced in 1970, football was a very different game. Four years earlier Pelé was literally kicked out of the World Cup and even considered quitting the sport.

Five decades later and the game deserves a tiebreaker that rewards and showcases the modern footballer for their immense skill and athleticism.

Expect at least 10 shootouts at the 2026 FIFA World Cup
How often are penalty shootouts occurring?

Since the start of the century, 30% of all elimination matches at the FIFA World Cup have been decided by the shootout. At the 2026 World Cup in Canada, USA and Mexico, the 48 teams will be divided into twelve groups of four.

This means an additional 16 knock-out matches, bringing the total to 32. So, we can anticipate at least 10 penalty shootouts at the tournament.

Of course, it also means a massive increase in the amount of abuse, racism and psychological trauma that players will be subjected to.

NEXT: What are the Advantages of ADG?

Learn about ADG’s fundamental advantages.