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Clear factors define, determine World Cup penalty shootout outcomes

There were 10 penalties awarded in the 48 group games in this World Cup, of which nine were scored. Karim Benzema was the only casualty, with Switzerland goalkeeper Diego Benaglio pushing out his spot-kick, a minor victory in what ended up a 5-2 defeat for the Swiss.

Penalties were the constant backdrop in the round of 16, with two matches, Brazil vs. Chile and Costa Rica vs. Greece, going to a shootout, while the last three knockout games all went to extra time. Switzerland-Argentina was the width of a post away from another shootout. Had the USA snatched an equalizer against Belgium, with Tim Howard in the form he was in (and with his excellent penalty record: stopping eight of his last 15 spot kicks), Jurgen Klinsmann would have liked his team's chances.

But the pressure of a World Cup shootout can do funny things to players. In the Brazil-Chile game, the conversion rate was only 50 percent: the average in World Cup shootouts is 71 percent, some way below the 78 percent average for open-play penalties in domestic leagues (taken from the top five European leagues over the last 10 years). 

Here are some other things I spotted from watching the two shootouts so far:

Kicking first helps

Before a single penalty had been taken, Brazil and Costa Rica had an advantage in the shootout, because they were kicking first. In an analysis of 212 shootouts, taking in 2,106 penalties, the team kicking first won 61 percent of the time. In World Cups, that figure is reduced to 59 percent, but it is still an 18 percent swing. The reason? Scoring to avoid defeat in the shootout, as Chile’s Gonzalo Jara discovered, is hard: in World Cups, the kicker in that position only converts 44 percent of penalties. This makes reports from Greece that captain Giorgios Karagounis won the toss and chose to kick second even more surprising.

Body language matters

Brazil have made a habit of waving their arms to encourage support from their fans before corners, but the importance of body language during a shootout is vital too. Statistics show that if a player converts his penalty when the scores are level, and he celebrates with one or two hands raised over shoulder-height, his team is 82 percent more likely than if he doesn't celebrate to go on and win.

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Psychologists believe that emotional contagion of body language is a significant factor in the shootout and that not only does celebrating have an impact with a pressure-increase on the next kicker, but that not celebrating has the opposite effect. David Luiz and Marcelo both celebrated wildly after their penalties. Luiz Gustavo and David Luiz even broke from the center circle (which is not allowed) to commiserate with Willian after his miss, sending a clear message of unity to his teammates: “If you miss, you will still be welcomed back into the group.”

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In the other shootout, when Kostas Mitroglou converted Greece’s first penalty, he walked back to the center circle with his head down, looking miserable. Anyone would have guessed that he had missed his kick.

Who makes the first move?

The hardest penalty kick to master is the Goalkeeper-Dependent method, which is when the shooter waits for the goalkeeper to make the first move and then rolls it in the other direction. It’s what Neymar does so well with his ‘paradinha’ run-up, a legacy of Pele, who invented the move. But it’s also what the first three Greek shooters did as well: Kostas Mitroglou, Lazaros Christopodopoulos and Jose Holebas all waited for Keylor Navas to make his move before taking their kick. The first Greek to try the ‘Goalkeeper-Independent’ method was Theofanis Gekas, and once Navas dived the right way, his chances of saving it were improved by 30 percent.

“The more important a penalty is, the bigger the probability that he will shoot Independent,” said German sports psychologist Dr Georg Froese, who has written an award-winning academic paper on the two strategies.

“But, for important games like in a World Cup, fewer penalties are placed and more are blasted. It’s more a question of ‘Close your eyes and hope.’ In this case, players don’t stick to their usual routines and have more chance of missing. But Goalkeeper-Dependent is more effective. If you miss, it looks worse, but if the player is trained to do in the right way, it works.”

Take your time

When the referee blows his whistle to take a penalty, it’s to signify that the shooter can strike the ball when he is ready. It’s not to say he has to do it straightaway. This has been one of the reasons behind English failings in the past: their average reaction time from the referee’s whistle to starting their run-up is 0.28 seconds. Compare that to Usain Bolt’s race start, which is 0.17 seconds.

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​Rushing your penalty after the whistle blows is a sign of two things: stress, or overconfidence. In the case of Benzema against Switzerland, it looked like the latter. But with Gekas against Costa Rica, it seemed like the former. Both Benzema and Gekas reacted very quickly after the referee’s whistle. Gekas even looked at the referee on three separate occasions while waiting for him to blow.

He had also missed his last penalty kick, for Turkish side Konyaspor, against Karabukspor, seven weeks earlier (kicking to the same side), and Navas knew him well, because they had spent a year together at Levante in 2012-13. Did any of those factors contribute to the miss? Compare Gekas’ wait time to all the Costa Rica players, and especially Michael Umana, who had the final kick to win it for the CONCACAF side. He waited, waited, waited, almost four seconds, after the referee blew his whistle. He composed himself. And he scored.

Ben Lyttleton is a regular SI contributor and the author of Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty.