SHOOTOUTS AND HEART-BREAKERS

The shootout's appeal springs from more than just the accompanying drama. It throws a lifeline to the underdogs, and it's from this suspension of disbelief, from this hope that the mighty might be toppled, that the most fascinating sporting stories derive, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

In a sport whose every tactical nuance is debated with a passion bordering on the rabid, the penalty shootout offers much grist. The purist hates it, and often sniffs a condescending nose. The wannabe pretends to hate it, but is secretly thrilled. The sceptic, who couldn't care less for O Jogo Bonito (Portuguese for The Beautiful Game), kicks his shoes off for "some real action". Simplistic as such stereotyping is, the concept of the shoot-out has troubled football's followers for some time now. "Penalty kicks is like playing the lottery," said an anguished Franco Baresi, former Italian captain, after losing the 1994 World Cup final to Brazil on penalties. It was an emotion shared by many that day — an emotion that hasn't changed much since. The grandest stage of all was perceived to have been taken over by thrill-seeking cheapness. How can 120 minutes of football be settled in so cavalier a manner with no regard for what happened before it? Why not respect the intensity of the contest and the virtue of fairness, and replay the match?

Conceived as a means to end a contest that has failed to resolve itself of its volition, `kicks from the penalty mark' — as it's officially termed — hasn't quite found the success its tennis cousin, the tiebreak, has. In this curiosity, perhaps, lies the key to understanding why the true-blue football fan rails against the shootout.

Jim Van Allen's tiebreak might have come about to shorten interminably long sets, but it didn't tamper with the fabric of the game. The skills needed were still the same (it helped if you could construct short points of course); the rhythm of the game wasn't compromised nor was its premise. Consequently, sublime moments like the immortal McEnroe-Borg 34-pointer have occurred during the breaker.

The shootout, on the other hand, preserves neither football's rhythm nor the integrity of its premise. The sweeping flow of match play is reduced to the staccato burst of spot kicks. And the irrevocable concept of football being a team sport is torn down — mates may join arms, but they play no part in the action that involves mano a mano combat.

The other argument, not as stridently put forth, is that the shootout is unfair. A team may be hopelessly outclassed and comprehensively outplayed but may still get lucky. Why should countless hours of planning and strategy, squiggly lines and pep talks, hinge on the whimsy of a goalkeeper's choice of the right side to lunge? Surely, such travesties ought not to be encouraged.

The shootout may be — as the popular analogy suggests — the equivalent of a hamburger after a French five-course meal; it, however, contains certain redeeming features. It reveals character for nowhere is it more imperative to gain an edge. And in attempting to gain that edge, goalkeepers, illegally, step off their line and kickers, legally, stop mid-stride. It reveals nerve for nowhere is the ability to focus more necessary than when it is down to you and your shot at glory or death.

It reveals personality. Some choose the irreverent chip straight, others prefer the no-nonsense drill to a corner, a few take a flutter and aim at the underside of the top netting. It reveals skill, for, in the drop of a shoulder, the twitch of a hip, the ability to feint right and go left, can be discerned the skill so apparent during match play.

Lest the keepers feel left out, this is their chance to slip out of the invisible cloak of efficiency. This is their metier — despite pleas of helplessness, they have little to lose. In one inspired guess or the chutzpah to stay on his feet a split second longer, the keeper can take his side home.

It's dramatic; it's a spectacle. But so is the most obnoxious drunk. What then is its rationale? And is its appeal limited to its drama? The first is easily answered. The shootout still is the best resolution of a deadlocked match in an era of crowded scheduling and big-bucks television that make replays difficult. While the purist will continue to scoff, the shootout won't disappear anytime soon though a provision for the replay of major finals makes sense.

The shootout's appeal springs from more than just the accompanying drama. It throws a lifeline to the underdogs, and it's from this suspension of disbelief, from this hope that the mighty might be toppled, that the most fascinating sporting stories derive. The knowledge that they may yet prevail if they hang on for 120 minutes can spur the underdogs to hitherto unknown levels. It may not be fair; what is?