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Myth debunked: It’s a penalty!

All football supporters, at some point, suffered a heartbreak after a penalty shootout. The final of the World cup, Italy-Brasil (USA 94); the traditional England-Germany shootout (England’96), all classic encounters ending with a lucky draw. No wonder the Italians call them “La lotteria dei rigori” (the penalties lottery). Even Pele in his autobiography writes “A penalty is a cowardly way to score”. But is this a good and justified way how to end a tie encounter?

Research from the prestigious London School of Economics from 2010 shows that football penalty shootouts give an unfair psychological advantage to the team that shoots first. Researchers analysed 2,820 penalty kicks from penalty shoot-outs from the major national and international competitions between 1970 and 2008. They found that the team that takes the first penalty kick wins 60 per cent of the time and the team that takes the second penalty wins 40 per cent of the time.

Even players understand this advantage.  Authors of the study viewed 20 films of coin flips and in all cases, except one, the players chose to take the first penalty kick in the shootout.

In order to reduce this unfair advantage the authors of this study, Ignacio Palacios-Huerta and Jose Apesteguia, suggest that the coin toss determines only the taker of the first penalty in the sequence, then the second team takes the next two penalties; and then the first team takes another two penalties and so on.  So for two teams (A and B), the pattern would look something like ABBAABBAAB… In this sequence  no one team is ‘catching up’ (or lagging behind) every time.

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