A penalty-kick shootout to decide a World Cup soccer match may be one of the most intense and nerve-wracking moments in sports. When two teams are tied at the end of regulation in an elimination game in the World Cup, the outcome of the game is decided with five alternating penalty kicks—and more if necessary.
International soccer is so dominated by defense that four of the last six World Cup finals have gone to extra time, and penalties decided the world champion in 1994 and 2006. During the shootout, though, the advantage shifts to the shooter. If the goalie can make even a single save—or cause the shooter to miss the shot—that often decides the game.
Penalty kicks are taken from a distance of 12 yards away from the goal. The strongest shooters can kick at speeds of up to 80 mph. This means that the ball reaches the goal line in 500 milliseconds. A goalkeeper takes 600 milliseconds to move from the center of the 24-foot-wide goal to one of the posts. In short, a well-struck shot is all but guaranteed to be a goal.
A study of 138 penalty shots in World Cup Finals games between 1982 and 1994 suggests that even world-class goalies aren't able to buck these odds. They guessed the direction of the kick only 41 percent of the time—slightly worse than random chance. And they stopped only 14.5 percent of the shots.
A 1997 rule change designed to give goalies a fighting chance in a shootout may have actually made it worse for goalies. Until then, the goalie had to remain stationary in the center of the goal until the ball was struck. The rule change allowed goalies to move from side to side at will, although they were still not allowed to move forward toward the shooter.
About a decade ago, this rule change gave rise to a devastating move by shooters called the paradinha, or "little stop." Brazil's best penalty kickers are now doing a stutter step and sometimes even faking a kick in an attempt to get the goalie to commit to one side or the other.
The international soccer governing body, FIFA, added a clarification to the penalty kick rule in 2010:
"Feinting in the run-up to take a penalty kick to confuse opponents is permitted, however, feinting to kick the ball once the player has completed his run-up is now considered an infringement of Law 14 and an act of unsporting behavior for which the player must be cautioned."
An English researcher argues that in this kind of high-pressure situation, the shooter should simply ignore the goalie. In an article to be published in the Journal of Sports Sciences, Exeter University psychologist Greg Wood gathered 18 university-level soccer players and outfitted them with equipment that tracked their eye movements. Shooters who were focusing on the goalie were turned away 40 percent of the time, compared with 20 percent of the time for calmer shooters who were able to ignore the goalie.
"When players are anxious, they're more likely to worry about the goalkeeper," he told the Guardian. He adds that goalkeepers can enhance the effect—and win the shootout—by actively distracting the shooter, citing the example of Liverpool's Bruce Grobbelaar, who did a wobbly leg dance during a 1984 European Cup, and Liverpool's Jerzy Dudek, who waved his arms during the 2005 European Cup Final.
"If the goalkeeper can make himself more threatening," Wood says, "he is likely to capture the attention of the kicker even further."
Another famous example of deception came in the , in which Manchester United keep Edwin van der Sar got in the head of Chelsea's Nikolas Anelka by pointing to his left, the direction Chelsea's previous penalties had gone, inducing Anelka to shoot to his right. Keepers like van der Sar also studied up before the match on each potential shooter's tendencies and which direction they like to shoot.
Keep it in mind when you watch shootouts at World Cup 2018 in Russia. Soccer's weird tiebreaker is a mix of skill, luck, mind games, and heartbreak.