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Penalty Kicks Suck Ass. Or Do They?

I enjoy penalty kicks because they remind me of death. Allow me to explain.
Drew Millard
Κείμενο Drew Millard
2.7.12

Last Wednesday, Spain and Portugal played against each other in the semifinals of the Euro 2012 Championships. Nothing happened. I mean, some dudes did some stuff and kicked a ball around and ran into each other and got a bunch of yellow cards and shit, but nobody scored any goals. So the match went to penalty kicks. Spain, despite acting like they didn't know how the fuck soccer worked for a minute or two during the match, eventually came out on top, 4 to 2, advancing to the Euro finals against Italy, which they won, making them the Best at Soccer or whatever.

I don't need to get into why the ending of the game was problematic. On a macro level, penalty kicks are this weird corollary to the game that, as a governor of outcome, doesn’t really make any sense—deciding a soccer match based on penalty kicks is kind of like deciding who won a game of Monopoly based on which player is dressed the most like Uncle Pennybags. PK's are weird, bullshitty, totally arbitrary, and they're my favorite goddamn thing about sports ever.

I enjoy penalty kicks because they remind me of death. Allow me to explain. You can work for a year and a half building a house with your own two hands, be nearly finished, and then get killed by a vehicle while you're crossing the street to go to the hardware store for that new hammer. This is how life works, and there's nothing any of us can do about it. As someone who played soccer for 15 years, this is more or less what losing a match on penalty kicks feels like. All your hard work gets derailed, and you're left with this sinking feeling of terribleness that can only be tempered by the sensation of cheap, hollow victory if you come out on top. This is totally in philosophical accordance with the rest of the game. More than any other sport, soccer is the one in which the rules are most transparently apt to fly out the window at any moment. Referees stretch the time of matches out in accordance to "stoppage time," which is just a red herring of a phrase meant to disguise the fact that refs can just let the match play out for as long as they think something interesting is happening. Every call gets eyeballed; there are no instant replays. Flopping becomes artisanal. Soccer might not be a 100 percent fair, but at least it's consistent in its inconsistency.

There's something about penalty kicks’ capricious nature that makes them oddly Zen. On their own, they're one of the purest forms of competition: It's just you and another person, and you're trying to do a thing that they're trying to prevent. There's a certain psychology to PKs that renders taking one almost pokeresque—consider when Spain's Sergio Ramos, in a move that can only be described as stratospherically audacious, just floated the ball right down the middle as Rui Patrico went diving like he was trying to jump on something invisible. That's cool.

Still, what it takes to win penalty kicks is not in fact directly related to the actual sport of soccer, where the team with the strongest sense of hive-mind generally takes the day. But while teamwork is good and stuff, it's not rewarding for the individual. And lest we forget, there are 22 dudes out on that pitch, all trying to do something really cool that will make people think they're special. But because of the way soccer works, even the most selfish players still have to pass the ball and stuff—imagine even a dude like Italy's super-talented, crazy-ass Mario Balotelli trying to dribble the field every time he got the ball; this wouldn't work, and he would get really tired after like 30 minutes. So, then, penalty kicks as a match decider distill soccer down to not necessarily what is fairest, but what players want the most but can't always have: a contest of individual glory. It's microeconomics versus macroeconomics, serving beer at the party versus having a secret bottle of Jack that you keep in your room, the tribal challenges versus the tribal councils on Survivor. Penalty kicks are unfair and ultimately play into individual self-interest, but so is life. And that's why penalty kicks are perfect.

@drewmillard