World Cup 2014: The Art of the Penalty Kick Has Changed for the Better, or Worse

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World Cup 2014: The Art of the Penalty Kick Has Changed for the Better, or Worse
Matt Dunham/Associated Press

For decades, teams have been playing extra time in major competitions like the World Cup in preparation for—one might say in hopes of—the match ending in penalty kicks.

With Costa Rica fighting valiantly for much of regulation against the Netherlands, it looked like the last quarterfinal played in the 2014 World Cup was going to end in a surprisingly fair fight.

And yet, when the match hit the later stages of regulation and flipped into extra time, the pitch completely tilted, favoring the Dutch for most of the additional 30 minutes.

Costa Rica seemed happy to survive the 120 minutes, settling for penalties, having previously won a shootout with Greece in the round of 16.

What was odd, however, is that the Netherlands seemed content on going to penalties as well, with manager Louis van Gaal holding two of his three substitutions until after the 105th minute, most notably the introduction of Tim Krul as a back-up 'keeper just before the completion of extra time.

Krul was installed exclusively for penalties and not only guessed the right way for all five Costa Rican shots but managed to save two of them, putting the Dutch into the semifinals for the second World Cup in succession.

The move made Van Gaal—heading to Manchester United after the World Cup run for the Netherlands ends—look like a tactical genius. In a way, it may also change how everyone views the penalty shootout, now and in the future.

Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

While we can debate the merits of keeping a substitution just in case a match goes to penalties in order to put in a goalkeeping "closer"—to borrow a more traditional American sports term for late-game specialists—people may look at penalties differently after this World Cup not just because of Van Gaal's decision, or the fact that Krul saved two shots in the penalty session, but what happened before each shot was taken.

Tim Krul's performance didn't change the way we look at penalties. But perhaps it should.

There has been no doubt over the last few days that the Dutch are relishing the decision to switch 'keepers, suggesting the move got in the heads of the Costa Rican penalty-takers and confused the opposing coaches, who may have had a book on starting 'keeper Jasper Cillessen heading into the shootout.

Natacha Pisarenko/Associated Press

Van Gaal and Krul both felt that the move may have rattled their opponents, and despite Krul's poor record in saving penalties in the English Premier League, his sheer size, combined with the shocking decision, could put the Costa Ricans on their heels.

Also, the trash-talking. There was a lot of that, too.

Forget, for a moment, the unbelievable job Krul did in net. Forget how perfect all four Dutch shots were, as well. In that regard, the penalty session was as fantastic as ever.

It's all the other stuff that should be the bigger issue moving forward.

The Daily Mail noted that Krul had screamed "Vamos!" in the face of each Costa Rican player, then quoted Krul, who said:

I don’t think I did anything wrong. I didn’t shout in an aggressive manner.

I did everything in my power and I would be happy to do it again, absolutely no problem. There are no regrets. I was ready for the moment.

I told them I knew where they were going and I had analysed it. I tried to get in their heads and it worked.

When Krul says he tried to get in the Costa Rican players' heads, he might have meant that literally.

In the five shots taken by the Ticos, Krul got in the face of nearly every shooter. He didn't yell because he didn't have to. He was nose-to-nose with the shooters.

Uzbekistani referee Ravshan Irmatov allowed Krul to walk all the way out to the penalty spot to talk to his challenger three times before once talking to the Dutch 'keeper about staying farther back. Before the second Costa Rican penalty, taken by Bryan Ruiz, Krul walked out to the spot to wait for the shooter in order to talk to him before making a crucial save.

The referee just looked on like nothing was wrong with that.

via WatchESPN
Tactical Camera angle of PKs for Van Persie (left) and Ruiz (right).

And maybe nothing is wrong with that. These are professional athletes shooting a penalty that—statistically speaking—far favors the shooters over the keeper. Maybe Krul's antics should be part of the game from now on.

In some respect, the trash-talking and intimidation was happening on both sides. After Costa Rica netted the first goal of the shootout, Ticos 'keeper Keylor Navas walked out to the spot with the ball, handing it to Robin van Persie before the Dutch captain took his shot.

It's hard to imagine no words were exchanged between the shooter and the 'keeper there, so perhaps calling Krul's antics unsportsmanlike isn't really fair if both 'keepers were doing it.

Matt Dunham/Associated Press

They were. They both were. There is no reason for a 'keeper, who by rule must have his feet on the goal line when the shot is taken, to be prowling around the 18-yard box waiting for his target to enter the area. And yet, it seemed to work, which means there might be every reason.

Former England striker Alan Shearer, covering the game for the BBC, said:

Tim Krul was playing mind games, walking up to the Costa Rica players, taking his time to get onto his line.

I don't mind that at all - you do what you can to get through. It's gamesmanship but the Costa Rica players have to try and handle it.

While the shooter has nearly every advantage in a penalty situation—there is no way for a 'keeper to wait until a ball is struck and still have enough time to save a shot, leaving guesswork (or in Krul's case, informed guesswork) the only option—the pressure in a World Cup penalty situation is squarely on the shooter, not the 'keeper.

If a 'keeper saves one ball, he can be a hero. Any player who misses a penalty in the World Cup is almost assuredly remembered as a goat.

Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

And so, Krul used the pressure to his advantage as much as he could. Before the third Costa Rican attempt, Krul was still allowed to pace out to the 10-yard line, and it wasn't until the fourth attempt—the second in which Krul made a save—that Irmatov said something to the 'keeper, allowing him to prance out to no more than halfway between the six-yard box and the spot.

Unsportsmanlike or not, it truly was a masterful shootout performance by Krul, undoubtedly getting in the heads of the Costa Rican shooters.

Former England international and Manchester United star Rio Ferdinand also told the BBC he had no problem with Krul's antics:

Krul was telling them, 'I know where you're going to put your penalty - I've looked and I know where you are going to go'. I'd like my keeper to be doing that. It puts them off, and adds a bit of edge to it.

That match wasn't the only time in this World Cup that silly pre-shot antics have served to "add a bit of edge" to a shootout. Honestly, it's been getting like this for years.

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The very idea of ending matches with this level of global importance via a penalty shootout is unfortunate, but the process has developed into theatre unlike any other in sports.

There is no more drama in the world—albeit manufactured after two hours of free-flowing, open play—than a penalty shootout, so much so that the histrionics aren't necessary at all. And yet, that's what we talk about the most.

The stutter-stepping on the way to the spot can get to the point of ridiculousness—if Brazil or Argentina get into a shootout this week, you will see a ton of it—and while trickery is technically part of the rules, the tactic does put referees in an unnecessarily tough spot during shootouts. FIFA Law 14 specifically states the following:

Feinting in the run-up to take a penalty kick to confuse opponents is permitted as part of football. However, feinting to kick the ball once the player has completed his run-up is considered an infringement of Law 14 and an act of unsporting behavior for which the player must be cautioned.

In other words, a player can feint all he wants while running up to address the ball at the penalty spot, up to and including actually fainting, but once he reaches the ball and plants his foot, the fakes are technically against the rules.

Remember that the next time you see a player stop at the ball in order to get the 'keeper to move before sliding it into the opposite corner.

And yes, the entire process is a bit cat-and-mouse these days, with the shooters trying to get the 'keepers to move too early and the 'keepers dancing around the line (and often coming off the line too early without a whistle for that) in every effort to get that miniscule advantage during the shootout.

That's all fine. Annoying, perhaps, but fine. Walking out to the penalty spot to yell in a shooter's face that you know which way he's going seems a bit too "professional wrestling" for a World Cup knockout competition. What's next? Will each shooter get his own entrance music and get a microphone to cut a promo for the crowd before he kicks?

"Whatchagonnado, KRUUUUL, when this stutter-stepping madman and all his fans around the world go wild on youuuuuuuu?!?!?"

Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

Come to think of it…that might be awesome. If the drama of a penalty shootout is manufactured anyway, why not embrace it?

Of course, that would probably cross the line to unsportsmanlike, even for FIFA.

And, if there are any soccer gods watching this World Cup, which has been full of drama without the need for (much) FIFA manufacturing so far, there won't be any more penalty shootouts to decide a match in this tournament. Three shootouts in two rounds have certainly been enough.

In fact, the three shootouts thus far—Brazil defeating Chile, Costa Rica beating Greece and Netherlands beating Costa Rica—are as many or more than we've seen in seven of the previous nine World Cups.

Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

There has not been a penalty shootout in the World Cup semifinals since 1998, and there have been just two World Cup finals to end in penalties in the history of the tournament.

Perhaps, then, Krul's antics against Costa Rica won't be seen again this tournament. Though one has to wonder if the Newcastle 'keeper would dare try the same ploy against Lionel Messi and company should the Netherlands find themselves in a shootout with Argentina.

It will be interesting, no matter what happens in the tournament's final four matches, to see if FIFA opts to re-write the penalty kick rules again, precluding a 'keeper from exiting the six-yard area during a shootout situation.

After seeing what Krul was allowed to do, the referees certainly aren't in a position to stop it. Only organizational legislation—imagine a 'keeper during PKs getting a red card for persistent taunting—may be able to stop it.

If a 'keeper wants to trash talk, let him do it from the goal line. That way, he's going to have to trash yell.

The question is, will anyone be able to hear him over the entrance music and pyrotechnics? It may be just a matter of time until we find out.

 

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