Penalty shoot-outs

liam-lentenDr Liam Lenten



Tomorrow’s Brisbane v Perth A-League grand final has local devotees of the ‘world game’ version of football salivating in anticipation. 

However, many will also be nervous at the prospect of the title decider being determined once again via the dreaded penalty shoot-out, which many fans still see as an unsatisfactory climax to matches of such importance. 

Not least of all, Football Federation Australia (with other ongoing problems in the domestic game) will be hoping that recent history does not repeat itself – not only did last Saturday’s preliminary final finish in penalties, but the last two successive grand finals also ended in soccer’s cruel version of Russian roulette. 

While lack of intent to score was not a problem in last year’s final, it certainly was in a largely dull 2010 Melbourne Victory-Sydney FC decider, especially in extra-time. 

More famously, the 2006 World Cup final finished in this fashion, with the 2010 final almost replicating this, until Andrés Iniesta’s decisive strike moments from time. FIFA President Sepp Blatter has described shoot-outs as a ‘tragedy’, and he has more recently indicated that FIFA is looking for an alternative to the current format.  

Along with my La Trobe University colleague, Jan Libich and Petr Stehlίk (University of Western Bohemia, Czech Republic), I was motivated to look at such alternatives. 

The most compelling idea to us is staging the shoot-out before (rather than after) extra-time, with the shoot-out result determining the winner only if the subsequent extra-time does not separate the teams anyway. 

As economists, we were most interested in the incentives involved – the team that loses the shoot-out under this proposal would become more attacking in extra-time than currently because they have to score to win, and while the shoot-out winner becomes more defensive, what really matters is the net of these two effects. 

Using econometric modelling and regression techniques, we estimated what would happen under this rule change, building on a 2007 theoretical model by University of Southern California’s Professor Juan Carrillo in the Journal of Sports Economics. 

We used a comprehensive database of over 500,000 matches in various domestic and global competitions and compared scoring outcomes of two groups of matches, whereby one group closely simulates what the proposed rule change would do, and the other group represents the current rule. 

Our results indicate that for competitions such as the World Cup, the probability of scoring in extra-time would increase on average by 45-60% under this rule, depending on various factors such as evenness of the teams, stage of the tournament and home-ground advantage. The proportion of goal-less extra-times would fall approximately by half: from almost 50% currently to below 25%. 

Based on this, we believe the evidence for trialling the rule is strong. Our findings were well received at several economics institutions across Europe, including seminars at the Universities of Birmingham, Iceland and Zürich – the home of FIFA. 

FIFA have demonstrated previously that they are not too conservative to make such rule changes in response to problems in the World’s most popular sport. Examples include the back-pass rule (inter alia) after the uber-defensive 1990 World Cup, and their recent flirtation with goal-line technology. Notwithstanding, FFA has the power to introduce this proposal for the A-League finals without fear of FIFA mitigation. 

FIFA has even moved previously to assuage the penalty shoot-out problem, with the ‘golden goal’ rule in the mid-1990s. Unfortunately, it backfired because it created precisely the wrong incentives for teams to attack, due to the higher cost of conceding a goal.  It therefore undermined its own intention, and was eventually abandoned. 

This proposed rule change also yields additional benefits, such as alleviating the pressure and ‘tragedy’ of individual players, like Central Coast’s Michael McGlinchey last weekend – he would still get 30 minutes to redeem himself, and go from villain to hero. 

It would also guarantee finishing the game as a team contest in open play – imagine even how much more exciting and climatic the 2011 final would be remembered if Erik Paartalu’s equalising  header had have won the game in the very last act of play. 

Liam Lenten is a Senior Lecturer in Sports Economics at La Trobe University.