A tragedy, if not a heartbreaking farce. That’s the message now coming from FIFA President Sepp Blatter on the use of penalties to decide the outcome of football matches.
Members of the FIFA Congress in Budapest heard how football could be “a tragedy when you go to penalty kicks. Football should not go to one to one, when it goes to penalty kicks football loses its essence.”
The person commissioned with the task of ending the 42-year-old tradition is the formidable Franz Beckenbauer, who heads a FIFA taskforce on improving football ahead of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
This is a curious choice in itself, given that Beckenbauer is on record as favouring the use of penalties over previous experiments such as the golden or silver goal.
Such processes of elimination do offer a degree of fairness, though again, opinion is divided on the subject. Just a day after Blatter’s announcement, the German paper Bild reported that the former West German and Bayern Munich captain saw no alternative to shootouts.
Some followers of the game would like to see the abolition of the penalty shootout. England would be at the forefront. Four of the last eight tournaments those unfortunates have participated in have resulted in elimination by penalty shootout.
It is, however, arguable whether the same sentiment would be felt had they won through with the same number.
The curious laws of redistribution work in different ways. Bayern Munich lost to Chelsea in this year’s European Champions League final by means of a shootout. In 2001, they won it the very same way they lost it in 2012.
While the penalty shootout is an act of forced constipation between goal keeper and kicker, it can, on its own, make for absorbing viewing. Other variables come into play, requiring a different set of skills to master.
The free flowing side suddenly finds fluency irrelevant before the mechanics of the goal post. Lumbering, aesthetically dull sides may thrive in that context, though this is hardly a set rule. Stress levels jump. A ruthless accounting system is enforced.
Nor is Blatter consistent on this score. Penalty shootouts have been reluctantly favoured in his analysis before. How to break deadlocks remains the mystery and challenge of any confrontation between opponents. Points of resolution are always sought. It’s often a question of degree: do you kick a ball past a goal keeper, draw lots, or play till you drop?
The ‘tiebreaker’ is a fundamental aspect of many a decision making process. Lawyers and lawmakers have pondered the issue for millennia. Sporting administrators regularly chew over the ideal way of forcing a result that might, at least on the surface, seem just.
Take the following observation by a somewhat verbose legal eagle, Fleming James, Jr. In an article for the Virginia Law Review from 1961, he suggest that, “If, now, the trier is operating under a system which requires him to decide the question one way or the other, then to avoid caprice that system must furnish him with a rule for deciding the question when he finds his mind in this kind of doubt or equipoise.”
The principle might well have been said in one line, but the law is a long, muddied ass.
The appearance of fairness is football’s greatest conceit: assuming its existence even when found to be lacking. In fact, the mystical ‘essence’ of football the FIFA president is ruffled about lies in its inherent inequalities.
Football, in short, harnesses tragedy. The shootout is simply another feature of it, the signature of doom or triumph depending on where the ball goes and how the players stand up on the day. Blatter’s efforts are bound to fail, and one can’t help but think his motivations lie elsewhere.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.