PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA - JUNE 29: Justo Villar of Paraguay dives as Yuichi Komano of Japan misses his penalty in a penalty shoot-out during the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Round of Sixteen match between Paraguay and Japan at Loftus Versfeld Stadium on June 29, 2010 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
In praise of the penalty shootout: nobody wants to see a game decided like this, except everybody.
Paraguay stand on the verge of history, with just their counterparts in the Axis of Guay standing between them and their destiny. Two more hours of parity, followed by about twenty minutes of excellence, and they will become the first football team to win a major tournament without actually winning a game. (Probably. I haven't checked them all. There's been cricket on.) Three draws in the group stage, two more in the knock-outs, and they're just needing one more, plus competence from 12 yards, to leave with a big shiny pot and goal difference of absolute zero.
Obviously, this would be an outrage, a disgrace, an abomination, and all the other synonyms for spluttering that-ain't-rightness. It would also be exceptionally funny. But, more importantly, it would also be another triumph for the glory and horror of penalties: as compelling and brilliant an invention as football has ever offered the world.
What you and I know as the penalty shootout, FIFA, for reasons best known to themselves, call them "kicks from the penalty mark". To those who fear them - England, the Netherlands - they hang over tournament football like a malevolent blimp; conversely, the Germans treat them as nothing more than a simple formality between the playing of a football match and progression to the next round. But they are always compelling: every shootout is a tiny epic, a quick, disposable war with heroes and villains, and triumph and disaster.
Part of this is the fascinating thing that is the penalty itself. In a game as fluid as football, to be given a simple, straightforward, distinct moment is a rare and unusual thing. The agonies of the penalty for those involved - do I shoot left I always shoot left but he might know I always shoot left so I should shoot right but he knows that I know that he might know so I should shoot left - are well documented, and have been the subject of academic study as well as fiction and film. Two opponents, alone with one another, fighting in the autoclave. It's almost gladiatorial.
In fact, if you'll forgive me an indulgent aside, one of the features of gladiatorial combat was the contrivance of mismatches. Not in terms of odds - nobody wants to see a one-sided fight - but in terms of styles; the most common image of the arena is the face-off between the secutor, armed with sword, shield and helmet, and the retiarius, with trident and net. The idea was to ensure that each protagonist was forced to fight in a different way, heightening the spectacle. And if you squint a bit, you can see a similar contrast between the penalty taker - who carries the pressure, the advantage, and the restrictions of action - and the goalkeeper - who is pressure-free, but disadvantaged, restricted in movement, and also has a net. There's less bleeding, obviously, unless you're Germán Burgos and his Amazing Figo-Denying Nose. But I digress.
Further fascination comes from the back and forth of it. The takers are not only opposed to the goalkeeper but to each other; every successful kick is a step toward victory and an extra weight on the shoulders of your opponent. A study into missed penalties at the World Cup and European Championships - a small sample size, admittedly - noted almost as an aside that if a penalty-taker scores, then they could depress the chances of the player immediately following them by ostentatiously celebrating. Such celebration also provided a boost to their team-mates. Each penalty speaks to the next, as the pressure builds behind the hunted eyes and thousand-yard stares of those poor unfortunates addressing the ball.
(The thought occurs that a truly fair penalty shootout would see both players shooting simultaneously, one at either end, but this would ruin the thing for television and is therefore wrong.)
Because ultimately, a penalty is easy. Even with the greatest penalty-saving goalkeeper of all-time in nets - a toss-up between Lev Yashin, who is reputed to have saved a quite ludicrous fifty percent of the penalties he faced, and Mark Crossley, the only man ever to save a spot-kick from Matt le Tissier - the striker should - should - always score. There are ways of taking penalties that are within the grasp of most footballers, because there are places that a goalkeeper (acting within the rules, of course) cannot hope to reach in time. So kick it in one of those.
In that sense, it is football in its purest form, all unnecessary to-ing and fro-ing stripped away. This is a game about kicking the ball in the goal ... well, go on then. We tried the busy version with the full rules and all the running about and stuff, but you couldn't win, and nor could they, so we've boiled the whole thing down for you. Whenever you're ready.
It's a cheat, of course. By ensuring that at some point there will be a kick to win the game, or a kick to lose the game, it creates a tension that isn't so much artificial - after all, you really will win or lose - as inorganic, outside the rhythms of a normal game. But therein lies the brilliance of the penalty shootout: yes, it's contrived, but it's contrived so perfectly and sucks the viewer in so utterly that it cannot help but be brilliant. There is nothing so brutally compelling as knowing that at some point in the next ten or so minutes, somebody on the pitch in front of you is going to feel worse than they have ever felt before. Pure, uncut theatre, shot straight into the eyeball.
Come on Paraguay!