Confederations Cup semi-final showed penalties are a great way to decide a match – and no way are they a matter of luck
Thursday night's Confederations Cup semi-final proved a couple of things that most people already knew but some still deny. Firstly, that you don't need goals to have a good time. Secondly, that penalty shootouts are a terrific way to determine victors after an inconclusive duel, adding a whole new layer of drama to an unpredictable contest.
The most unsatisfying way for a match to be settled from a neutral viewpoint is with a goal in the last minute of extra time or, when the rules permitted it, a golden goal. Both of these make late outcomes feel premature, denying us the more textured denouement of a shootout and leaving us with the same sense of being cheated that we get when a hitherto well-plotted movie ends with the hero escaping from a sticky situation by suddenly waking up to find it was all just a dream.
Not all shootouts are great, of course, and great ones can be great for different reasons. The trial is designed to be short and emphatic, yet there is a wide range of ways for the resolution to be reached.
Thursday night was a prime example of one genre of entertaining shootout: a fusillade of ace marksmen. Spain and Italy offered a textbook retort to anyone who barfs the cliche about shootouts being like Russian roulette. Shootouts are not governed by chance. Teams who believe they are lotteries tend to lose.
Sir Clive Woodward, a rugby manager whose success was built on open-minded meticulousness, once said footballers could be coached to ensure they scored at least 99 out of every 100 penalties.
That assertion was based on the belief that when players miss it is because of mental failings, either a lack of focus or a surplus of nerves. And the best way to neutralise nerves is to hone technique.
This entails following a process that simultaneously dehumanises the fateful kick while boosting that crucial human fuel, confidence. In much the same way that the world's best golfers continually practice four-foot putts, footballers can rehearse penalties so diligently that taking them becomes an almost mechanical process, a deed that they barely have to think about and can therefore execute as coldly as contract killers.
The belief that they have achieved such a state of callous excellence adds confidence and helps them to tame the emotions that can still creep in as the stakes, physical discomfort and atmosphere bring to bear forces that cannot be replicated in training (though trying to replicate them makes sense, which is why Aidy Boothroyd took Woodward's advice before the 2006 Champions playoffs and asked Watford fans to stay behind after a match at Vicarage Road to boo his players as they practised spot-kicks).
On Thursday night, with each set of players facing one of the best goalkeepers in the world after 120 minutes of intense action in conditions so humid that the BBC commentary team felt unable to complete a sentence without referring to the weather, every Spanish and Italian player until Leonardo Bonucci dispatched technically perfect shots into the net. It was perhaps the coolest shootout display since Italy's triumph in the 2006 World Cup final or Zambia's victory in the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations final. The latter was made even more uplifting by the fact most of the Zambians went for the most risky option – hitting high rather than low – and that the extraordinary background story to their success generated a level of pressure and eagerness that few, if any, teams had experienced.
Background stories can be crystallised beautifully in shootouts. England's victory over Spain at Euro 96 was made all the more exhilarating by the redemption of Stuart Pearce. Antonin Panenka's chip in 1976 was all the more glorious because no one had dared do it before and, some might say, Chelsea's defeat in the 2008 Champions League final was made all the more amusing by John Terry's slip, just as their triumph last year was all the more poignant because it was secured with Didier Drogba's last kick for the club.
Then there are the shootouts when the hero is a villain, like Harald Schumacher in the 1982 World Cup semi-final, in which the West German goalkeeper should not have been on the pitch to save two penalties since he had knocked out Patrick Battiston earlier in the game; or the 2010 quarter-final when Luis Suárez was rewarded for his cynical handball in the last minute by Asamoah Gyan missing the ensuing penalty – Gyan showed great gumption to score the first spot-kick in the shootout but Uruguay still prevailed to claim a win as deliciously incorrect as adult frolics in a church.
Then there is the scope for twists and turns even within what is supposed to be a brief exchange (we're back to talking about the penalties here, forget the frolics). The dullest shootouts tend to be when the first one is missed and all the others scored, such as in the 1991 European Cup final when Manuel Amoros's early miss for Marseille confirmed the fear that Red Star Belgrade's dastardly plot of playing for a shootout from virtually the first minute was going to pay off, though you still had to admire the deadliness with which Red Star converted theirs.
In contrast, the most gripping can be the epic ones where you wonder whether anyone is going to miss, with the ignominy that will befall the eventual goofer growing with each successful strike. Consider the drama of the 2006 Africa Cup of Nations quarter-final between Cameroon and Ivory Coast when every player, including both goalkeepers, scored from the spot before Samuel Eto'o botched his second attempt and Drogba converted again to seal a 12-11 win and confirm their status as kings of the marathon shootouts following their 11-10 victory over Ghana in the 1992 final.
On the flip side, we have seen improbable sequences of misses when we wondered whether anyone was going to score, most memorably in the 1986 European Cup final when Helmuth Duckadam saved all four Barcelona penalties to seal a historic coronation for Steaua Bucharest.
Then there are the shootouts in which momentum veers one way and then skids to a stop and hurtles amazingly in the other direction. No one would be still talking about the 1995 FA Cup fourth-round replay between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Sheffield Wednesday if Wolves had not fallen 3-0 behind in the shootout yet still emerged victorious, as Wednesday missed their fourth and fifth before Chris Waddle managed to avoid blazing their sixth one over the bar, instead donking it straight into the goalkeeper's arms.