On football’s biggest night, a penalty shootout to decide between Manchester United and Barcelona wouldn’t be a disappointing ending. It might even be the best ending we can hope for. Stripped of the phoney narratives and the pseudo-intellectual analysis, football is left with irrational emotion – the reason most people love it so much - and nothing provides a better platform for that emotion than a shootout.
Kicks from twelve yards bring with them connotations of bad games. We’ve come to associate penalties with one or both teams playing for a draw – the Manchester team in Saturday's game keeping a nice shape and trying to get a clean-sheet, perhaps, or Barcelona breaking a record for keeping possession in their own half. Worst of all, we associate penalties with the Juventus team of 2003 performing a drab holding job on AC Milan in the Champions League final. It even became consensual, that year, when Milan were essentially brought down to ten men by injury and decided to go with what they had. It ended with no goals, and because of games like that, penalties remind us of football at its dullest.
Yet so rarely do penalties come about from two teams agreeing to differ in the way that Juventus and Milan did. One team will almost always have tried and failed to score the winner before it gets to the last-ditch reality of penalty taker versus penalty stopper. What’s more, it’s too readily forgotten that watching the desperation of an attacking team failing to score and a defending team managing to stop them can be about as gripping as football gets.
Liverpool’s comeback from three goals down against Milan in the 2005 final is the model answer to give to doubters. Rafael Benitez’s team clung on for penalties in one of the best games in history. Their frantic hour of clinging on, through ninety minutes and then extra time, was more exciting than even seeing them score three goals in the space of nine second-half minutes. To prove the point, Jerzy Dudek’s stunning reaction save from Andrly Shevchenko in the dying moments of that game is now far more iconic than Steven Gerard’s looping header which got Liverpool back into it.
Usually though, it’s games between closely matched opponents which end in penalties. Close run draws like Uruguay’s 1-1 with Ghana at the World Cup are the most emotionally intense games and the most thrilling to watch. That game was an engrossing spectacle because it was too close to call, right up until it had called itself. Certainly neither side was holding back. Luis Suarez’s last gasp handball demonstrated how desperate the players were to win, and how close, at all times, they were to losing a match that was to run through to penalties. When games are that close, exceptional incidents turn up regularly and the most exciting things start to happen.
Penalties are then left to interact with what’s gone on before them. Suarez’s punch gave Uruguay a chance last year. Then the penalty shootout, which his team won, enabled the righteous indignation of fans to swell. Not only were they able to feel more cheated by Suarez, as his team went through with four clinically taken penalties, but they could pour further sympathy towards Asamoah Gyan, who scored his penalty having just missed, crucially, in normal time. People loved the injustice of it all, which penalties helped to build. Similarly, when Liverpool won the Champions League, penalties enhanced the sense of destiny around the whole thing – Shevchenko was never going to score his penalty, just as Dietmar Hamann was always going to score his, it seemed.
Whatever happens between Manchester United and Barcelona on Saturday - even if it’s a dull game - a shootout at the end of it would bring the same polarised emotions as it always does. Players never jog to the penalty spot because they, like everyone else, buy into the sense of theatre around the whole thing – they want to prologue the tension because ultimately it’s thrilling. Shootouts feel like what they sound like – life or death – for everyone involved.
Against the backdrop of banal modern living, sometimes football fans need that more than tactics talk. With no media stimulation necessary, millions of people share in an unrehearsed silence, simultaneously buying into the same narrative - that this is life or death. Penalty shootouts aren’t a metaphor for entertainment: they’re a synonym for it.
Should it reach a battle between goalkeeper and penalty taker on Saturday, everything becomes simple. Reducing winning or losing to single kicks of the ball ensures every movement and moment takes on a significance that the most casual observer is able to grasp. A twitch becomes something to focus on; Messi’s eyes become the source of all knowledge and Van der Saar’s fingers the source of all power.
Shootouts are as close as football gets to raw emotion – the specter which attracts fans to it in the first place, rather than the tactics, or even the ball-kicking itself. If we get one one Saturday night , the first time you hear the commentator say that it’s a shame it’s all come down to this, they’ll be wrong, and a part of every football fan watching will know that, in fact, it’s what they came for.