I just watched the United States women’s World Cup soccer team blow two leads against Japan and then lose in penalty kicks for the 2011 world championship. Bob Ley and everyone else covering it for ESPN were quick to point out that Japan definitely deserved the win, played as well as anyone else in the tournament, played much better than anyone expected them to, and showed incredible heart and teamwork by fighting back from two different one-goal deficits late in regulation and then late in overtime to take the USA to penalty kicks.
The problem is that the United States deserved to win just as much as Japan did. They both scored two legitimate goals, so they should have remained tied until someone ended an overtime period with the lead or scored a “golden goal” (if that rule were in play).
Clearly penalty kicks are the absolute worst way to decide the winner of any sporting contest in the world. No baseball game has ever been decided by a home run derby, no football game has ever been decided by a field goal kicking contest, and at least no postseason NHL game (that I know of) has ever been decided by a penalty shootout.
The blame for this shortcoming of soccer’s does not fall on the policy of any league or governing body. The fault is not all FIFA’s. The ridiculous, outmoded, illegitimate, artificial method of deciding a champion by penalty kicks exists because soccer is an inherently inferior sport. If it weren’t inherently inferior, it wouldn’t need to resort to a penalty kick contest to decide the champion of the World Cup. It is appalling how often the final match of a World Cup, men’s or women’s, has been forced to end in penalty kicks. When I was studying abroad in Spain in 2002, I watched Spain get eliminated by South Korea in the quarterfinals on penalty kicks, and the Spaniards we were watching the game with were rightly disgusted at the fucking penaltis.
The great stories of the underdog Japanese women playing for the heart and soul of their disaster-stricken country and the heart-attack kids of the USA trying to regain their championship status have been tainted by a poorly devised sport’s inability to decide champions properly. I mean, what a great World Cup, from beginning to end, especially for the two finalists, ruined by fucking penalty kicks. After the overtime ended 2–2 and before the penalty kicks started, I changed my Facebook status to, “Wow, what a great World Cup ruined by an outmoded, unreasonable method of deciding a champion: penalty kicks.” The eventual outcome of the game was irrelevant; the presence or absence of my home country’s team was irrelevant; penalty kicks ruin any game, especially the championship match of the fucking World Cup.
I don’t care enough about soccer to know exactly how to fix it; I only care about soccer for about two weeks on two occasions every four years. Maybe scorers should be allowed to be more aggressive and physical against defenders; maybe the rules of set pieces need to be changed to favor the offense; maybe the fucking goal could be enlarged to allow some more near-misses to go in. The latter has long seemed a reasonable fix to the major drawback of soccer: the low scoring. I don’t wish soccer were higher-scoring because I like higher-scoring sports; my favorite sport is easily baseball, partly because it is low-scoring, as I have written before. I wish soccer were higher-scoring so that matches could be more often decided before they have to resort to goddamn penalty kicks.
Since the dimensions and rules of how the game is played are never going to change (understandable), the best solution in my opinion is to combine the two overtime formats that have been used: first play a half-hour of extra time, after which the leading team is declared the winner, if there is one; and after the extra time, go to sudden-death overtime, or, as they like to say across the pond, the “golden goal” rule. Play actual fucking soccer until there is a winner. If the players get too tired, then the increasing amount of substitution will mean that the team with the deepest roster will most likely win. If people will worry about games lasting unreasonably long, then remember that as fatigue builds, goals become more likely with each passing minute. Because of the building fatigue and the more lax defense that comes with it, most games would not go on interminably, and it would be a hell of a lot better than ruining an entire World Cup with fucking penalty kicks.
Of course, they could all just play a better sport that never even needed to resort to such an arbitrary, capricious, artificial game-deciding contest as a penalty shootout.