A soccer match lasts for 90 minutes, another 30 if there really needs to be a winner. But if it’s still level after that, then the game will be decided with a penalty shootout, arguably the most nerve-shredding experience in all of sports.
For the fans, it’s excruciating; at the World Cup in Qatar, one Argentina supporter sobbed uncontrollably as she watched the quarterfinal shootout against the Netherlands through her fingers. By the end, she looked distraught. All the emotion had been wrung out of her, and the tears that she cried were of relief, rather than joy.
For the players, such emotions are magnified tenfold. “Love hurts,” goes the anonymous quote, “but not as much as penalties.”
Success or failure could be career-defining, one simple kick from 12 yards is weighed down by teammates’ hopes and the expectation of potentially millions of fans. As the author Karl Wiggins put it, “It’s as if, for a few seconds, a player’s soul is laid bare for the entire world to see.”
Very few people would admit to enjoying a shootout, but Professor Geir Jordet is an exception; he can’t get enough of them.
“A penalty shootout is a very uncomfortable event,” he told CNN Sport from his research facility in Oslo. “It’s painful because the pressure is so intense, and of course, the consequences of failing are so dire. Penalties, for me, are wonderful!”
Professor Jordet works at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, where he specializes in performance under extreme pressure. He’s been studying shootouts for almost 20 years and has analyzed more than 200 of them, around 2,000 kicks in total.
He’s studied the psychology of the event, observed the behavior and dynamics of the participants and crunched the data to conclude that even the most dramatic of shootouts can be swayed by teams who know what they’re doing.
“The main factor in a penalty shootout is luck,” the former England goalkeeper Peter Shilton once declared, but Jordet is convinced that it is never “only a lottery.”
Penalties are more important than ever
The margin between success and failure in title matches seems to be getting slimmer, and so it’s in shootouts, where the margins are even tighter, that soccer’s biggest prizes are being decided.
“If you enter a major tournament today with the ambition to win,” says Jordet, “you’re making a severe mistake if you’re not prepared for penalties.”
In 2021, both the Brazilian men and the Canadian women needed penalty wins en route to Olympic gold in Tokyo; in the same month, Argentina survived a shootout to win the Copa América and Italy triumphed in the same way at the European Championship at Wembley.
The following year was a bonanza for penalties.
Starting in February with Senegal’s Africa Cup of Nations final win against Egypt. Liverpool won two English cup finals – both against Chelsea – on spot-kicks, while Real Betis and RB Leipzig won the Spanish and German Cup finals respectively from the spot.
Eintracht Frankfurt beat Rangers in the Europa League final on penalties while the Philadelphia Union missed all of its kicks to hand LAFC the title after an extraordinary MLS Cup Final.
The 2022 penalty party concluded in Qatar where there was a record five shootouts, including the final.
Within seconds of the final whistle being blown, Jordet can tell if one side has the edge. He’s able to glean valuable information simply by observing the interactions on the field.
“The coach and the staff of some teams almost panic when the game goes to penalties,” Jordet explained to CNN Sport. “It seems like they don’t know what to do. And then with other teams, it’s all dealt with before the game and definitely before the penalties.”