The winner takes it all: Trialling a new penalty system

Tim Farrell Roar Rookie

By Tim Farrell, Tim Farrell is a Roar Rookie


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    The penalty shootout is a tragic way to lose a match. (AP Photo / Franz Mann)

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    Earlier this month the 131st annual meeting of the IFAB took place today at Wembley Stadium.

    The IFAB is made up of FIFA and the UK-based associations (English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish FAs) and their role is to decide upon proposed alterations to the Laws of the Game.

    From the press release on their website we read that the IFAB will focus on “… a potentially fairer system for kicks from the penalty mark.” So, what’s this all about?

    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 60.6 per cent of the time. 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 per cent more tickets.

    Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo from Portugal reacts after falling to score a penalty kick during a shootout in a semifinal, second leg Champions League soccer match against Bayern Munich at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid Wednesday April 25, 2012. (AP Photo / Franz Mann)

    As the team who wins the coin toss can always elect to kick first, it’s an inherently unfair situation for the opposition. The winner of the coin toss, really does take it all! The reason is because the scoring rate in the shootout is 73 per cent, so the team kicking second is usually playing catch-up and therefore experiences greater pressure with each kick.

    The IFAB acknowledged this for the first time when Stewart Regan, chief executive of the Scottish FA, said: “The stats at the moment say that 60 per cent of penalty shootouts are won by the team that takes the first penalty.”

    Incredibly, nine consecutive penalty shootouts were won by the team kicking first at the FIFA World Cup during a period from 2002 to 2014. Now some of these shootouts were blowouts such as Ukraine over Switzerland 3-0, or Portugal over England 3-1. But others including the final in 2006 were decided by a single missed penalty.

    I wonder how some of those losing teams feel about the IFAB’s admission that for the past 47 years the team kicking first has had a 20 per cent advantage?

    Regan went on to say, “We believe that the ABBA approach could remove that statistical bias and this is something that we will now look to trial.” No, he’s not talking about the 70s Swedish pop sensation, but about a new kicking order that mirrors the tennis tiebreaker. In tennis, player A serves the first point, then player B serves the next two points and so on. The resulting pattern looks like this: ABBA-ABBA.

    And if you look at the stats for tennis tiebreakers, you can see why they’re testing it. Professional male tennis players win about 70 per cent of points when serving, which is very close to the scoring rate in the shootout. Out of 5200 tiebreakers on the ATP men’s tennis tour, the first sever won 50.8 per cent of them. So, the 20 per cent advantage inherent in the shootout is reduced to a miniscule 1.6 per cent in the tennis tiebreaker.

    Hopefully the trials can be conducted quickly and both football and disco fans can celebrate at having ABBA at the 2018 FIFA World Cup!