UNDER FURTHER REVIEW – Penalty kick ‘foul’ way to break World Cup tie

The championship game of soccer’s 2022 World Cup will be contested on Sunday in Qatar, and here’s hoping all 22 players are on the pitch when the winner is decided.

I dislike tiebreakers—in this case, penalty kicks—intensely.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think sporting events should be decided the way they’re played during regulation time, whether that’s nine innings, four quarters, three periods or, in the case of soccer, two halves plus whatever they choose to call the time added at the end of 90 minutes of continuous play: stoppage time . . . injury time . . . makeup time . . .

We don’t decide deadlocked basketball games with a free throw-shooting contest when the final buzzer sounds.

So why decide the most important soccer game every four years with penalty kicks from a designated spot 12 yards from a goal that’s eight times larger than a hockey goal—defended by a sitting duck goalie?

It is unsatisfying, at least for me, to see full teams match wits and, in many cases, knock heads throughout a regulation game then see a couple or few of those players decide the outcome.

If, during the regular season, we can’t be satisfied that neither opponent prevailed, even after overtime of some duration, then a tiebreaker should be a last resort.

But not when a championship is at stake. Even the National Hockey League gets that.

Football comes closest to preserving the game, especially the pros. 

In the National Football League full teams return to the gridiron for offense and defense, and it takes a touchdown to end play before both teams have a chance to score.

At the college level, it’s not exactly the same game the teams played to reach the tie, but at least it’s 11-on-11, defense lined up opposite offense, and both sides get an equal chance.

I admit I don’t know a lot about soccer, and that it has grown in the United States largely without me. So, I’m likely missing something important about the world’s most popular game.

But if that’s the case, I’m not alone.

Most Americans have at least a casual knowledge of football, baseball and basketball—the rules . . . players’ positions . . . the basics of play. Fewer—though an ever-increasing number, thanks in particular to youth leagues—know soccer’s intricacies. 

I sought out a former member of the University of Denver soccer team, which is good enough most years to make the post-season playoff that determines the national collegiate champion.

Soccer, he explained, involves four disciplines: physical, mental, technical and tactical. 

It’s the tactics that are hard to discern as players dart, seemingly willy-nilly, up and down a field, called a pitch, that’s most often about five times the size of a gridiron. (Soccer, unlike football, does not have one standard set of field dimensions.)

I believe the subtleties of soccer tactics and many Americans’ unfamiliarity with them is a big reason why soccer is not yet as appealing as, for example, football. 

Most football fans don’t have a clue what every player is supposed to do on any given play, but the outcome is apparent to them every time. Not so with soccer.

Getting back to the current World Cup, three of the four teams that reached the semifinals made it that far thanks to penalty kicks. 

Morocco beat Spain 3-0 from 12 feet after tying 0-0; Croatia and Japan tied 1-1 before Croatia prevailed 3-1, then upset Cup favorite Brazil 4-2 following another 1-1 draw; and Argentina survived Netherlands 4-3 to break a 2-2 standoff.

My knowledgeable DU source insists that penalty kicks (the most in five tries, or more if the sides are tied after five) are the best way to resolve a soccer match that might otherwise go on for who-knows-how-long.

There’s tremendous mental pressure on the kicker and the goalie in each instance, he said, which is the epitome of competition. And it’s conceivable that all 10 players in the lineup at game’s end (excluding the goalie) could be called on to try a kick, if the teams repeatedly match kicks and misses after tying through the first five.

But I’m not convinced. 

I remember the Avs’ first Stanley Cup triumph in 1996, when Uwe Krupp rifled a shot past Florida goalie John Vanbiesbrouck almost five minutes into the third overtime period of Game Four, to break a scoreless tie that had lasted more than 104 minutes.

Denny Dressman is a veteran of 43 years in the newspaper business, including 25 at the Rocky Mountain News, where he began as executive sports editor. He is the author of 14 books, eight of them sports-related. You can write to Denny at dennydressman@comcast.net.