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Soccer-More science than art to penalty shootout success

Reuters

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By Mitch Phillips

RIO DE JANEIRO, July 3 (Reuters) - Penalty shootouts have been used at the World Cup since 1982 but while every one of the 24 to date has routinely been described as "dramatic" there is a deal more science than art when it comes to converting successfully from 12 yards.

Shootouts are also routinely described as "a lottery" but the statistics would suggest they are anything but, and "the ultimate test of technique and nerve under intense pressure" is probably a more accurate description.

Like many other aspects of top-level sport, some players, and some nationalities, seem to thrive in the spotlight, while others melt.

The first penalty shoot-out to decide a major international match came after the final of the 1976 European championship when the Czechoslovakia beat West Germany 5-3 with the famously dinked final effort by Antonin Panenka. The Czechs have taken part in two more Euro shoot-outs since, winning both, and have remarkably converted every one of their 20 penalties.

The Germans obviously learnt from that experience and quickly became the masters when it came to the World Cup.

Uli Stielike did miss during their win over France in the first-ever World Cup shootout in the 1982 semi-final but in their three since they have converted every shot and have won four out of four.

Brazil's win over Chile last week took their record to 3-1, while Argentina also boast a 3-1 record.

Propping up the table with three defeats out of three are England, who have also lost three of their four European championship shootouts.

It is hard to argue that Germany's perfect record or England's woeful one is the result of luck and these days, with the availability of statistical data, the logic behind what works and what doesn't is becoming apparent.

"Penalty shootouts have generated a large amount of peer reviewed papers in recent years in an effort to arrive at optimal strategies for both the penalty taker and the goalkeeper," Robert O'Connor, a data analyst at www.onlinegamblingbible.com who writes on the use of statistical analysis to gain an edge in sports betting, told Reuters.

"Whoever goes first will win the shootout about 60 percent of the time - and unusually Greece won the toss against Costa Rica but opted to go second - and lost."

O'Connor said the data has been crunched to produce the perfect penalty taker - both in his technique and behaviour.

"He should be left-footed, have a well-established pre-shot routine and be wearing a red jersey if possible," he said.

"Even the nature of the player's celebration if he scores makes a difference, with a more theatrical celebration leading to a better success rate from following team mates.

"Strikers have an 83.1 percent success rate while defenders have only 73.6 percent. Players under 22 are successful 85 percent of the time, while their older team mates convert about 78 percent."

The quality of the penalties in the Costa Rica v Greece game was very high but it should have come as no surprise that Fanis Gekas was the player to have his shot saved - players taking the fourth penalty have the lowest conversion rate.

Of the 223 penalties taken in World Cup shoot-outs, 66 have been missed - a high 29.6 percentage that reflects the nerves involved and the fact that penalties are taken by players who never usually perform the task.

So was does the science say about where to place the kick?

"All of the research is in agreement on this one," says O'Connor. "Kick it as hard as you can, in the middle but high into the roof of the goal.

"The keeper dives to the left or right 94 percent of the time so if you kick it high even his trailing leg won't help him and data shows that 100 percent of kicks in the top third of the goal were successful."

That, of course, is easier said than done.

The most famous World Cup shootout miss of all came in the 1994 final when Italy's hugely talented forward Roberto Baggio aimed high, but ballooned the ball up into the Pasadena sky to hand Brazil the title.

England lost their 1990 semi-final to West Germany when Chris Waddle did the same. That was England's first shootout and, odd as it seems now after their stream of similar subsequent disasters, the whole country was rocked by the event.

Asked years later if he thought about his miss every day, Waddle replied: "Oh no. Sometimes it doesn't kick in until the evening."

(Editing by Nigel Hunt)

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