The art, agony of penalty kicks

Penalty Kicks
Filipe Fortes/Creative Commons

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For those who yawn at the thought of watching a low-scoring soccer game’s full 90 minutes, penalty shootouts offer a source of rare intrigue and excitement. But for fans who love and appreciate the game’s intricacy and strategy from the opening whistle to the last, penalty kicks have proven to be a cruel, callous method of crowning a winner.

William McCrum, a member of the Irish Football Association, first introduced the idea of the penalty kick in 1890 in response to a growing number of defenders intentionally fouling opposing forwards to prevent goal-scoring opportunities. The penalty kick was officially inked into the Laws of the Game in June 1891, though penalty shootouts to decide the outcome of a match were not formally implemented until almost 80 years later in 1970.

Penalty kicks have the kind of duality your high school English teacher would love to hear about: They can be both beautifully satisfying and intensely devastating. Here are three reasons why penalty kicks are the best and also the worst.


  1. They have very high stakes


Even though they’re only used in games that require a winner — matches in league play, qualifying rounds and youth games are fine left as ties — penalty shootouts are not uncommon and have notoriously determined high-stakes games all over the world. Three of the four National Women’s Soccer League quarterfinals were decided by penalty shootouts earlier this month, and a penalty kick awarded in the opening minutes of its championship game Sunday proved pivotal. Thirty World Cup games have required penalties after the full 90 plus overtime, including two World Cup finals. And perhaps the most recognized image by female athletes, if not the most memorable goal celebration in U.S. history, is that of Brandi Chastain on her knees in her black sports bra, hands outstretched in exultation after converting her penalty kick to win the 1999 Women’s World Cup.

While previous methods of coin flips or replays to determine a winner were no better, McCrum’s proposal of the penalty kick has brought moments of both immense joy and heartbreaking devastation that have redefined the game itself.

At the epitome of their controversy, cheers and tears is the idea that penalty kicks change the game from being a team sport to an individual one. You could argue that free throws in basketball do the same, or that other sports such as hockey also utilize a “shootout” determinant if the game remains tied after regulation. Soccer is different from other sports in that the low-scoring nature of the game puts an unparalleled amount of pressure on the individual.

In basketball, one missed free throw rarely makes a difference in the outcome of a game. And if a basketball game were to come down to one, the player probably wouldn’t feel personally responsible for the team’s loss if they miss, as there are countless opportunities for a team to score over the course of the contest. Though penalty kicks and free throws are converted at similar rates (about 70% to 80% of the time), free throws are far more common, whereas receiving a penalty kick during regulation is a gift. What better chance to score than when shooting from just 12 yards out, the goalie being the only thing between you and the 24-foot-wide mouth of the goal? Failure to capitalize on such an opportunity can haunt a player for years — just ask Roberto Baggio or Asamoah Gyan. Perhaps if a free throw was worth 10 or 15 points, the two would be comparable.

  1. There are a lot of theatrics involved

But with the agony comes the art, the theatrical aspect of penalty kicks that provides equally intriguing entertainment as the actual goals do. Will the kicker embrace the character of a beast, confident and unperturbed, ultimately drilling the ball into the back of the bottom left corner? Or will they embody one of a butterfly, delicately accepting the ball from the referee, setting it on the mark and floating it over the outstretched hands of the keeper? Players have all sorts of routines and psychological tactics, but at the core, the best are those who can stay calm, cool and collected at center stage.

  1. The kick itself can be an emotional roller coaster

Ultimately, penalty kicks are arguably the most brutal tradition in all of sports. Losing in a shootout after 120 minutes of grueling play, where inches could have been the difference between scoring in regulation versus losing in an almost arbitrary fashion, is devastating. And winning in a shootout as a result of the opposing team’s miss isn’t necessarily satisfying either — given the impossible maneuver of correctly guessing the direction of and saving a well-placed shot in the less than a second goalies have to react to a ball coming at them at more than 80 miles per hour, victory at the hands of an opposing individual’s mistake is usually how it plays out.

As cruel and as harrowing as penalty kicks may be, the emotional roller coaster of a process isn’t going away anytime soon. Defenders must be held accountable for clean play in the box, and players can’t run forever. Unless anyone has an idea for an alternative — two vs. two from the top of the box, moving the penalty mark back … maybe a cartwheel contest? — the least we can do is sit back and enjoy the duality of the penalty kick.

Allie Coyne writes for Bear Bytes. Contact her at [email protected].