As the World Cup Final looms, there’s no clear consensus on who will win it all. What people seem to agree on, though, is that they hope the match will be decided before it comes to a penalty-kick shootout.
Soccer purists hate penalty-kick shootouts. They seem like an unfair way to settle a match after two hours of often-intense play, and the final victor seems a bit arbitrary in the end. Or, so the argument goes.
Personally, I have never disliked the penalty kick. Perhaps as an American who was raised on the idea of free throws deciding basketball games and field goals deciding football games, it just seems normal and reasonable.
In this tournament, we have already seen two matches decided by penalties: Uruguay-Ghana and Japan-Paraguary. In the latter match, I remember watching as Yuichi Komano prepared to take the third penalty kick in Japan’s match against Paraguay. He looked every bit the calm and confident striker, and the kick he took reflected it. He elected to put the ball in the top corner where the goalkeeper couldn’t get it. He wasn’t trying to get the keeper to dive the wrong way, or guess which way the keeper would dive and put it in the other direction. No, he would fail or succeed based on his own ability to strike the ball with purpose and accuracy. In the end, he missed, putting the shot just off the crossbar, but I respected his moxie and, for lack of a better terms, the ballsiness of his shot.
You can tell a lot about how someone takes a penalty kick. Who can forget the nonchalant chip that Zinadine Zidane used to beat Gianluigi Bufon in the first half of the 2006 World Cup Final. It was an act of supreme haughty arrogance that presaged his oddly calm meltdown later in the match. Or, what fan is not frustrated by the run-stop-run-stop-run technique that Cristiano Ronaldo uses to try to get the keeper to move in one direction so that he can put it in the other. This annoyingly cheeky approach perfectly fits with a player whose sublime otherworldly skills are too often overshadowed by his silly antics.
Of course, by now everyone knows that the Ghana-Uruguay match was decided by PK’s. Asamoah Gyan, fresh off of knocking the United States out of the tournament, allowed the moment to get the best of him, rushing his kick and sending it high as the overtime period came to a close.
To the extent that we value nerve and poise as important ingredients in athletic contests, we could in the end but conclude that Uruguay were the deserved winners, if for no other reason than that they could master themselves and find a place of calm as they took the most important of the likely millions of kicks that they have had in their lives. Watching as the last two Ghanaians offered up lame and almost perfunctory efforts, I felt justified in thinking that the stage was simply too big for them.
Penalty kicks take your measure. What will you do? An effective kick to either of the top corners will beat any goalkeeper, even if they guess right. But, then you risk being the goat who couldn’t put the ball on frame (apologies, Roberto Baggio). You could take a safer shot, and hope that the goalie doesn’t guess right. Safer, perhaps, but then you are leaving the matter to someone else. Is there a more difficult decision to make in sports? The fate of a nation’s hopes and dreams will settle on your level of confidence in your ability to place a ball or fool a goalie.
I always prefer players who decide to make the goalie irrelevant, pick a corner and go for it. Be the author of your own destiny. Easy for me to say, though, from the comfort of my desk with no cameras or a stadium full of people who will love you or hate you depending on your next move.
Two of the last four World Cup Finals have been decided by penalty kicks. In 1994, Roberto Baggio’s infamous miss gave Brazil its fourth star. In 2002, had French coach Raymond Domenech not subbed out Franck Ribbery for David Trezuguet, France may well be defending champions (Ribery missing a PK seems a near metaphysical impossibility).
These are small moments that changed soccer history. Given Spain’s inability to score goals and Holland’s propensity to make things rather more dramatic than necessary, this final could well come down to the dreaded spot kicks. If it happens, I’ll sit back and enjoy the spectacle, anxious to find out what kind of men David Villa, Carles Puyol, Wesley Sniejder or Mark van Bommel are. To me, this is the essence of sports: put the man to the test and discover his mettle.
Brian Fobi is a Yale graduate student based in South Africa attending more than a half dozen games during the World Cup.