Penalty Kicks Really Aren’t So Bad After All

Switzerland v Poland - Round of 16: UEFA Euro 2016
Photo Credit: Alex Livesey/Getty Images

This article probably sounds like it’s coming out of nowhere.  It is, but I’m writing this for a reason.

Earlier today, I found myself watching the end of the UEFA Euro 2016 Switzerland-Poland match.  The winner of the game would advance to the tournament’s quarterfinal.  With Poland clinging to a 1-0 lead and time running out, Switzerland’s Xherdan Shaqiri scored the goal of a lifetime to tie the game and give the Swiss side life.

That goal would cap the regulation scoring and the game headed into extra time.  And that’s when I was inspired to write this.

In the 100th minute and about a third of the way into the extra period, Poland made a substitution, replacing Krzysztof Maczynski with Tomasz Jodlowiec.  On his way off the field, the ESPN broadcast flashed a graphic stating that Maczynski ran 12.7 kilometers over the course of the game.  Even more interestingly, next to Maczynski’s distance traveled, the graphic said that on average, each player on the Polish team covered around 11.1 kilometers in the first ~100 minutes of the game.

My first reaction to these numbers, just like every other American, was to Google “conversion from kilometers to miles,” or “km to m,” for short.  I could lie to you and tell you I knew how to convert between these units, but 1) honesty is very important in journalism and 2) no, I didn’t.

When Google told me that 1 kilometer equals roughly 0.621 miles (I’ll definitely forget that one by tomorrow), I got to crunching the numbers.  If the average distance traveled was 11.1 kilometers (6.897 miles) in the first 100 minutes, how much farther do the players run over the course of an entire game?

I found this result by dividing 6.897 by 5, yielding another 1.39 miles.  I then added that number to 6.897 and got 8.28 (rounded to the hundredths place).  Since I assumed that fatigue, cramping, injury, and even weather conditions could play into the distance covered in the closing minutes of the game, I knocked that figure down to roughly eight miles.  (Note: the high temperature was 74°F today in Saint-Étienne, France, the site of the match.)

I then shared my findings with my mini Twitter community, because that’s what you do every time you have an a-ha moment:

So, this discovery also got me to thinking about something else: if players are running around eight miles per 120-minute game and over six miles per 90-minute game, why do so many fans insist that going to penalty kicks after 120+ minutes is a bad idea?  

There are some people who believe that the best way to decide the game after a half-hour extra time is to go to sudden death overtime.  That way, the next goal of the game also ends it.  The problem with that solution is that the game may not end within 15 or even 30 minutes, especially in international play, with some of the best goalkeepers in the world ensuring low-scoring games.  For example, consider what Tim Howard did to Belgium two years ago.

In that game, the United States was thoroughly outplayed in every area… except goalkeeper.  Howard carried the U.S. to extra time, where he finally surrendered two goals in a 2-1 defeat. Howard and the U.S.A. lost, but not before the goalie recorded a World Cup record with 15 total saves.  If that game had two evenly-matched teams and sudden death overtime after 120 minutes, well, we might still be playing nearly two years later.

And think about it this way, too: on their own, penalty kicks really aren’t that bad.  They’re a great way to win and an even worse way to lose, but they really are an all-or-nothing proposition.  Isn’t that exactly what we want out of sports?  We just had an all-or-nothing Game 7 in the NBA Finals and we treated it like the greatest thing since sliced bread.  Were the Cavaliers the best team in the NBA all season?  No, not even close.  However, they won when it counted.  That’s all that mattered.  Penalty kicks are no different; the best team doesn’t always win, but it’s a very exciting finish that ensures the safety of the players.

Penalty kick finishes have also given us some great moments. For example, the United States’ Brandi Chastain is synonymous with the removal of her shirt after netting her PK to defeat China in the 1999 Women’s World Cup Final.  In 2006, the Men’s World Cup Final between Italy and France came down to penalty kicks.  While that game is more generally remembered for the Zinedine Zidane headbutt incident, Fabio Grosso’s winner in PKs sent the entire country of Italy into a frenzy.  

Penalty kicks are everything sports is supposed to be.  We don’t appreciate that because we get too wrapped up in the imperfection of the system.  What we need to realize, though, is that PKs were put in place to protect players who have already covered almost one-third of a marathon in two hours’ time.  If we made the players run for, say, 150 minutes, they might cover 10 miles, get hurt, and leave the uninformed among us wondering why they’re not in better shape.  

Anyway, the game I was watching just happened to conclude with a penalty shootout.  Poland, which had been badly outplayed in extra time and most of the second half, won the shootout and advanced to the Euro 2016 quarterfinal. Switzerland was the better side for most of the game; it didn’t win in the end, however.

I guess this is the perfect encapsulation of everything right and wrong with this way of deciding a winner.  It is somewhat arbitrary, but it’s rife with drama; you legitimately don’t know who’s going to win until it’s over.  It is by no means a perfect system, but it does give us a fun ending that also keeps already fatigued players from injuring themselves (or worse) in game action.

So maybe it isn’t such a bad system, after all.