It doesn’t get more stressful than penalties.
Legs turn to noodles, stomachs to cement mixers. Bitter honey pours out of onlookers’ palms, eyes shaded as players line up like guardsmen to send strikes towards the net.
There’s nothing quite like it in sports. The drama, the celebrations, the heartbreak, the apprehension…it’s all a bit tense, a bit frightening.
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But what prompts such an occasion to take place, and how likely is it that we will see it in this year’s World Cup? The Sporting News details everything you need to know about the penalty shootout, the most heart-stopping event in sports.
When games are knotted after 90 minutes, they go to a period of extra time: 30 minutes, split into two 15-minute halves.
If a winner isn’t crowned after those 30 minutes — plus stoppage time — then the game moves to penalties, a word synonymous with fear for most involved.
The penalty shootout takes the spectacle that is a penalty and multiplies it times 10. Five players from each side are enlisted to strike the ball from a patch of milk-white grass located 12 yards away from the goal. One after one, they rifle the ball at goal, hoping to put it past the outstretched grasp of the goalkeeper, who stands tall at the goal-line.
It all seems simple enough, especially for some of the world’s best footballers. But the hair-raising nature of the event makes it an absolute spectacle.
The objective is simple: whichever team finds the net the most after five penalties is proclaimed the winner. If the two sides are level after the first five penalties, the action goes on. Each team goes down their lineup, inserting a new member of their squad to carry the weight of their team on their broad shoulders.
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There aren’t too many stipulations limiting players from taking part in a penalty shootout. The only thing that matters is that the players were on the pitch when the final whistle blew at the end of extra time.
That means there are no pinch-hitters, so to speak — ace penalty takers who are allowed to sit until the shootout starts. Every player who is selected to take a penalty has to play at least some part of the actual game itself.
The penalty shootout promises each side five penalty chances. Oftentimes, some of those opportunities fall by the wayside; for example, if one team scores its first three penalties and the other team misses its first three attempts, the shootout ends, with the side that scored its first three penalties being awarded the win.
However, everything is done under the assumption that teams can take at least five penalties.
Technically, there’s no limit on how long a penalty shootout can last. The only thing that matters is if one team scores more penalties than the other.
Once the five penalty takers finish their attempts, players step up one by one if the shootout remains tied. If they are knotted after all 11 players on each side have made an attempt, the cycle continues again until a winner is crowned — the first penalty taker lines up again from the spot and so on and so forth.
By and large, the penalty shootout tends to be a fairly quick process. However, it’s one tinged with nerves, nerves that make it all the more draining.
Per Guinness World Records, the largest recorded penalty shootout lasted 24 rounds (or 48 penalties) between Namibian sides KK Palace and Civics. Palace walked out as victors, winning the shootout 17-16. The shootout reportedly lasted almost as long as the 90-minute game itself.
At first glance, scoring a penalty seems fairly easy. No defenders, just you and the goalie. The goalie is required to keep their foot on the line, further limiting their ability to maneuver around the net.
And it’s usually the attacking player who wins out: per InStat, about 75.5 percent of penalty kicks have been converted since 2009.
However, the skillfulness of a good ‘keeper — as well as the burden of the situation — makes it a real challenge.
Per InStat, about 17.5 percent of penalty attempts are saved. Some goalkeepers particularly adept at getting to penalty shots in this year’s World Cup include Poland’s Wojciech Szczesny, England’s Jordan Pickford and Belgium’s Thibaut Courtois.
That leaves an additional ~7 percent of penalty efforts that end up off target. Some is accounted for by hitting the post or bar, a rather unlucky result, all things considered.
The vast majority of errant penalty kicks come because a player misses the goal completely. Given the technical ability that professional players possess, you can chalk these misses up to nerves, more so than any other ones.
The penalty shootout is a fairly common occurrence in international competition. When teams reach the latter stages of their respective tournaments, they, by and large, face sides similar to them in talent, tactical acumen or structure. That makes games tense and tight, things that can lead to games going into extra time and, possibly, penalties.
The likelihood is that if you’re watching this year’s World Cup, you’ll see a penalty shootout. Per The Analyst, Argentina 1978 was the only iteration of the competition that did not see a match go into penalties.
World Cup shootout rules: Explaining the format, regulations behind soccer's most dramatic event – Sporting News
It doesn’t get more stressful than penalties.