Between the Lines

"Of all unimportant subjects, football is the most important" – Pope John Paul II

Two Penalties that Changed the World

Posted by hakanrylander on November 25, 2008

It might seem unlikely that two particular penalty kicks should dramatically improve the chances of other penalty takers scoring in the future. Yet, this is what probably happened in the mid 70’s, according to a scientific study by Wolfgang Leininger and Axel Ockenfels (“The Penalty-Duel and Institutional Design”) at the Universities of Dortmund and Cologne. The study is included in the recently published book “Myths and Facts About Football” (to be reviewed shortly).

The argument goes something like this. From the beginning of time up until the summer of 1974 it was generally perceived that both kicker and goalkeeper had two alternatives, i.e. kick/dive to the left/right. This gave the keeper a 50% chance of diving in the right direction.

Then suddenly, in the second minute of the World Cup Final, the Netherlands were awarded a penalty, and Johan Neeskens scored by whacking the ball straight to the middle while Sepp Maier dived for his right corner. Two years later the point was made even more emphatically in the final of the European Championships when Antonin Panenka delicately chipped the last penalty of the shoot-out to the middle of the goal, in what is generally acknowledged as the coolest penalty of all time. This time Sepp Maier dived to his left.

These two high-profile penalties didn’t, of course, change the actual possibilities when taking a penalty. It was always possible to hit it down the middle. But it changed players’ perceptions of the strategies you could expect from kicker and goalkeeper. They both now have three basic choices; left, right or centre. Accordingly the keeper now has only a 33% chance of getting in the right position to save a penalty.

This game theoretic analysis is backed by empirical data from the German Bundesliga, where the scoring rate of penalty kicks was on average 69 % from 1963 to 1973 (pre-Neeskens) and on average 77% from 1977 to 1987 (post-Panenka).

The model is extremely simplified, but it seems that Neeskens and Panenka forever improved the chances of scoring a penalty.

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2 Responses to “Two Penalties that Changed the World”

  1. Poor Sepp Maier…

  2. hakanrylander said

    Well, at least he was present at two of the turning points of history.

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