Smith: Penalties the purest sporting theatre

TONY SMITH
Last updated 05:00 05/07/2014
Theofanis Gekas
Reuters
LOST FACE: Greece's Theofanis Gekas reacts after missing during a penalty shootout in their 2014 World Cup round of 16 game against Costa Rica.

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OPINION: Let's face it we're all P addicts.

If P's a short form for the World Cup penalty shootout - that cruel, heartbreaking, inherently unfair yet purest form of sporting theatre.

Sport and theatre, we hear you say? "Isn't that oxy-whaddyacallit, you moron?"

Maybe not.

Our office emptied this week as soccer superpowers Greece and Costa Rica courted sudden-death. No fire engines were chased. No council meetings chronicled. No parishes pumped.

Hacks deserted their desks like designers of dodgy buildings quitting the Institution of Professional Engineers. To a man (and a woman), they all intoned the immortal words of 1970s mystic Michael Nesmith: "I think I will travel to Rio." Well, Recife, really. Still, lemming-like, they gathered around the TV screen.

The reporting retinue included an arts writer and movie reviewer and a literary type who usually only gets excited at the release of the Booker Prize shortlist.

Prior to World Cup month, most thought Messi was a collective noun describing desktops in the sports department.

Yet that didn't stop folk who wouldn't know an offside trap from their elbow debating whether the Greeks should shoot for the top corner or whether the Costa Rican keeper moved before the ball was kicked.

There's a morbid fascination to penalty shootouts. Many of us profess to hate them, think they should be banned but watch then anyway, splayed hand across our fixated faces. Onlookers experience the same duality as Rome Colosseum spectators when Christians were thrown to the lions: A mix of dread and anticipation.

Penalty shootout performance anxiety can blight the best footballers in the world. A highly-paid pro who'd slot spotkicks in his sleep finds his legs turning to jelly and his mind to mush in the white-hot glare of the World Cup's knockout phase.

The walk from the team huddle near halfway to the penalty spot must be the loneliest trudge in the world. Prospective penalty takers often look like a condemned prisoner being led to the gallows.

How often do you see someone get an extreme case of stagefright and smash the ball over the bar up into the gods?

A successful shot, a glaring miss, a sublime save can make or break a career. Most of us would struggle to kick a ball 12 yards to its target, yet the public is notoriously unforgiving of a penalty flub.

When England's Gareth Southgate missed a kick to send England tumbling out of the 1996 European Championships semifinals, even his mother Barbara bellowed: "Why didn't you just belt it?"

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Other codes have their own dramatic tension at the denouement. The final ball of a cricket one-dayer with four runs required for a tie and six for victory is a squeaky bum moment for both batsman and bowler. Going to the free-throw stripe with a NBA crown on the line would test any basketballer's bottle.

But nothing quite matches the sustained drama of a dirty old penalty shootout.

Which gives us an idea. Seeing as New Zealand's general election falls in World Cup year why not forego first-past-the-post in the electorates and MMP for the party vote and seal the deal from the penalty spot at the Wellington Phoenix's home ground?

Yes, the odds might still favour National with Gerry Brownlee guarding the goal frame. John Key couldn't go between the posts because nothing sticks to our prime minister. Nor could he take one of the shots as he'd be too busy holding his finger up to test which way the wind is blowing. The English are fated to always fail at the World Cup, so bad luck Bill. But Crusher Collins looks like someone who'd give anything a good kicking.

The Greens may be rising as rapidly in the politics game as Colombia at the World Cup. But they'd struggle in a shootout unless Russel Norman could first get Fifa to verify the grass was organically grown and the goalposts weren't sourced from an Amazon rainforest.

You need a squad of southpaw shooters to prosper at penalty-time so that Labour would be dog-tucker due to a lamentable lack of genuine left-wingers.

The Sensible Sentencing Trust would be blindsided, too, because Garth McVicar would want the number of penalties doubled.

Winston Peters would go down in history as the first captain red-carded at shootout time for insisting on taking all five New Zealand First shots himself.

It'd be a bad hair day for Peter Dunne with United Future (who, incidentally, are neither united nor have a future) eliminated because they couldn't convince Fifa they had enough members.

What about our first-time finalists, the Internet-Mana mob? Kim Dotcom could well be a latter-day Toni Schumacher, the German goalie who took no prisoners against France in the 1982 finals. Like Gerry, he'd be a hard man to get the ball past. But Laila Harre's worn so many team colours she'd probably just get confused and Hone Harawira would probably pick up the ball and run off with it like that philistine William Webb Ellis.

And we couldn't have that. Because even hardened rugby heads discover their inner football fan when the World Cup rolls around.

- The Press

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