Bullets and Penalties

Lindsay Beyerstein on World Cup penalties:

At that level, most of the kicks are going to go into the net.

Someone ought to tell the England team that.

With respect to replays, I don’t think it’s necessarily the case that they’re anti-climactic. In England, the FA Cup Final went to a replay in the case of a draw for many years, and some of the replays (notably the 1981 final) turned out to be extremely memorable games. The tension isn’t necessarily lessened by the extra game. Earlier-round FA Cup ties still go to replays if needed. The World Cup couldn’t support the logistical nightmare of multiple replays, though, obviously.

I think at the heart of the whole penalty kick issue there’s a philosophical problem. They’re not necessarily a bad way to decide a match given that it’s been played for two hours already without a result; but the prospect of penalty kicks casts a long shadow back over the match as it progresses. Play becomes distorted and — typically — overly cautious, in the knowledge that risk mostly isn’t justified when there’s a 50-50 chance at the end of things. There are exceptions: Italy probably wouldn’t have pushed so hard at the end of extra-time in their semi against Germany if Germany weren’t so flawless at the penalty shoot-out: they knew their chances probably weren’t 50-50.

Ideally it would be possible to somehow brainwash the players into not knowing that the penalties are coming, so they’d give their all, with the penalties as a surprise expedient that’s unveiled anew each time only when it’s needed. It’s a bit like the paradox that arises from induction. Say you tell me that you’re going to fire six bullets at me, five of which are blanks, and one of which is live, and you also tell me that I won’t know when the live bullet is coming. Well, if the first five turn out to be blanks, then I know the last bullet must be live, so I’ll know it’s coming. That means that if I’m not to know when the live bullet is coming, it can’t be the last one. However, given that the live bullet can’t be the last one, by induction it also can’t be the second-to-last one: if it was, then after four blanks I’d know the next one was live. And given that it therefore can’t be either of the last two, it also can’t be the third-from-last, and so on. Turns out that if I’m not going to know when the live bullet is coming, it can’t be any of them.

Mutatis bear-with-me-bear-with-me mutandis, the bullet in the final chamber is the analogue of the penalty shoot-out. Its influence is cast by induction backwards over the whole game. Only by not knowing how many bullets there are can we truly not know when the live bullet is coming. Only by not knowing about the penalty shoot-out can open play up to that point be free from its deadening loom. It’s an argument for letting play continue indefinitely until there’s a goal, though I have a feeling the game would end up the same way Quidditch would without Rowling’s hand to guide the narrative: genuinely endless and farcical.


  • Thanks for an informative reply. I’m a very new soccer fan, so I could be totally misinformed about the relative success of penalty kicks. From what I’ve read, it seems to be empirically that a majority of penalty kicks end up in the net.

    If you believe in the offside rule, shouldn’t you expect a very high percentage of the penalty kicks to score? As I understand it, the whole point of the offside provision is to prevent one guy from positioning himself in front of the net and waiting for someone else to shoot the ball down to his end so he can take an impeded shot on the goal while everyone else is still down the other end of the field. The logic of the offside rule says that it’s not reasonable to expect a goal keeper to stop shots from kickers who have an optimal position and nobody in their way.

  • Lindsay:

    > From what I’ve read, it seems to be empirically that a majority of penalty kicks end up in the net.

    Well, yes, but only overall. England has lost five of the six penalty shoot-outs they’ve been in in major championships, and they lost this time against Portugal having scored just one of four penalties. This isn’t just statistical noise; for whatever reason/s, we crumble in those situations. (That line of mine was mostly a gag, anyhow. Knowing that most penalties should be scored doesn’t seem to help us.)

    > If you believe in the offside rule, shouldn’t you expect a very high percentage of the penalty kicks to score?

    Apples and oranges. The offside rule exists for exactly the reason you say, but it doesn’t follow that striker-versus-goalkeeper in open play is equivalent to striker-versus-goalkeeper in a penalty shoot-out. The former is mostly a situation of strategy and technical skill. The latter is largely about psychological strength under pressure. Penalty shoot-outs take place only at the end of hugely important games; the players are typically physically exhausted; there’s plenty of time to brood; and there’s the knowledge of no second chance. It might well be the case that the success rate of striker-versus-goalkeeper from open play would be the same as that from penalties, on average, but it’s clearly the case that some players – and some teams – just don’t deal well with the pressure of a penalty shoot-out.

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