Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Shoot-Out: The Lesser of Evils

The world of soccer is not a place where universal accord and agreement occur very often. But there is one issue that draws almost everyone together as sure as if they were mountain climbers trapped in a snowstorm. Plans, players, coaches and commentators all seem to hate, detest, abominate and loathe the penalty shoot-out.

Anyone who doubts that need only observe the acrimony that will ensue this week when several European second-leg matches end in the inevitable deadlock and have to be settled by this form of sporting torture. Someone once compared it to Russian roulette, but at least in that you don't often have the humiliating experience of shooting wide.

Neither do shoot-outs always provide the speedy conclusion they are supposed to.

Nearly 20 years ago, in the semifinals of the Asia Cup, Hong Kong and North Korea were still inseparable at 3-3 after extra time so it was on to six penalties each. Still level. It was then decided that each player would take a kick. Still level. So they began the whole process again. Finally, after 28 spot kicks, Hong Kong missed and one Kim Jung-min found the net to give North Korea an 11-10 victory.

The objectors to shoot-outs have, down the years, proposed a number of alternatives. Not all of them, or indeed many of them, bear much scrutiny. They range from awarding the game to the side with the most corners (can you imagine what that would do to the last 20 minutes of the average European tie?) or counting free kicks (a license to every forward to behave like a silent movie stuntman), to taking the goalie off for extra time.

In the late 1970s, the North American Soccer League had 15 minutes of sudden death. If the scores were still even, then one player, starting at the 35-yard line, had to try and score against the opposing goalkeeper in only five seconds -- a time period selected, presumably, because it corresponded with the attention span of the man who dreamt up the idea.

The English Football League this week advanced a new solution. They have a competition whose sponsor causes it to be called the Auto Windscreens Shield (which is my nomination for the most absurdly titled sporting event in the history of the world). In this contest, extra time will be played, but with the novel twist that teams withdraw one player every five minutes for the next 20 minutes until they reach the minimum of seven a side.

If the game has not been settled by then, another 10 minutes of sudden death is played. The problem is what happens if the deadlock has still not been broken. The English League, being football administrators, is of two minds. Their first thought is that teams should continue playing until a goal is scored. This sounds fine in theory, and has the added element of punishment -- a bit like keeping children in after school until one of them owns up for putting ink in the fish tank. But practical experience shows that the sides would be likely to adopt tactics which were soccer's equivalent of trench warfare.

Faced with a threat of "you can't leave until someone scores" in a South American cup tie in 1962, Santos and Penarol once played for 3 1/2 hours. Only when the stadium clock struck 1 A.M. and the referee was near collapse did they abandon the affair, without a result.

The football league's other option, would you believe, is to resort to a shoot-out -- precisely the alleged evil they set out to eradicate in the first place. And the reason they return to this, I suspect, is because no one has ever come up with a lesser evil.

My view is that if you cannot have, or have already had, replays, then penalty shoot-outs at least bear some resemblance to a situation you would find in the game. I would defend their use in every round except the final. When it comes to that and there is still deadlock after replays and extra time, then what is wrong with sharing the title? It is, after all, only a game.