Even in retirement, Sir Alex Ferguson is still finding ways to loom in the minds of the refereeing fraternity. This time it is from his seat on Uefa’s elite coaches’ forum, where he will examine the feasibility of innovations to the rules, like the 10-minute sin bin or the extension of the substitutes’ bench to 11 men.
It is an intriguing idea to get Ferguson involved in helping equip referees with greater powers, a bit like giving Don Corleone the mandate to beef up the witness protection programme.
Should Uefa wish to go there it would be interesting to see whether it would be prepared to revive an idea that has been thrown around in the past, although only behind closed committee room doors. So far it is yet to emerge from the folder marked “radical ideas”, although it would give the knockout rounds of Euro 2016 a very different feel. It is one of those protocol changes that evokes derision at first, but stands up to further examination. It is one of those ideas that might just work.
A reliable source tells me that one or other of Uefa’s committees has considered the possibility of staging the penalty shootout when a knockout round tie is level after 90 minutes and then, regardless of the outcome, continuing with extra time. If the game, as played over 90 minutes and extra time, remains level then the result of the penalty shootout comes into play. There is a school of thought that you could even stage the shootout just before kick-off.
The key argument in favour of this innovation is that it prevents one team settling for the orthodox post-match penalty shootout as their best way of winning the game. The European Cup final of 1986, won on penalties by Steaua Bucharest against Barcelona after a goalless draw, is often cited as the best example of that unfortunate strategy. The 2003 Champions League final between Juventus and Milan at Old Trafford, also goalless, also settled on penalties, and won by Milan, was little better.
With a shootout that preceded match action, the game would be enlivened by the slight advantage that one team enjoyed. For the less adventurous of the two, the risk is that a successful pre-match penalty shootout might encourage them to park the bus that bit more resolutely. But it would give greater urgency to the team trailing. At the very least, it would eradicate those mundane finales to extra-time where neither team will take the risk to win the game.
The pre-match penalty shootout result would fundamentally change the balance of the game, in the same way as an away goal in a Champions League knockout tie means that a single goal can move a team from a losing position to a winning one. Andres Iniesta’s late equaliser for Barcelona against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the Champions League semi-final of May 2009 was one such case in point, notwithstanding the quality of the refereeing that night.
There are other small advantages to the penalty shootout taking place before the game. For example, it would ensure that the crowd are in their seats 15 minutes ahead of kick-off and set a more urgent tone for the game. It would certainly be more compelling pre-match entertainment than much of what has been devised by Uefa over the last 20 years.
There is another element to the pre-match penalty shootout which interested the men at Uefa. It saw it as an opportunity to put an end to the story of the penalty-miss villain. Every country has one, it just so happens that England with their dismal record in shootouts have more than most: Stuart Pearce, Chris Waddle, Gareth Southgate, Paul Ince, David Batty, Darius Vassell, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, Ashley Young and Ashley Cole.
The worst-case scenario, of course, is the player whose miss signals defeat in a shootout, such as Waddle in 1990 or Vassell in 2004 and that is more whom Uefa had in mind. In short, the ending of a game with the television camera on one distraught individual contemplating the blame of his entire nation and, in the case of Waddle, perhaps the limited commercial opportunities it would bring further down the line. Of course, there are many of us who find that ultimate test of nerve to be utterly compelling drama, and the aftermath just necessary, if regrettable, collateral damage. When it was discussed, the example cited was the 1994 World Cup final shootout, the first World Cup final to be settled on penalties.
Roberto Baggio missed the penalty that meant Brazil won the tournament but it was the earlier missed kick by Franco Baresi which drew more attention. It was the Italy captain’s last act in a phenomenal 82-cap international career, and the feeling was that a pre-match, or pre-extra-time penalty shootout would at least have given him, or any player who failed from the penalty spot, a chance to make amends.
Curiously, Vassell’s penalty at Euro 2004 that was saved by the Portugal goalkeeper Ricardo was also the England player’s last touch of the ball as an international footballer – although funnily enough it was Baresi’s penalty miss that attracted rather more attention.
In the past the European Championships have been innovative in the different ways introduced to decide games. The golden-goal rule, which was used at Euro 1996 and was latterly introduced at the 2002 World Cup finals, had to be scrapped because of safety concerns. Security in a stadium did not have time to prepare for the mass exits of supporters of the losing side when a match was decided and over in an instant. The silver goal, for the first period of extra-time, was also abandoned.
A pre-match penalty shootout in the knockout rounds at Euro 2016 might feel instinctively wrong to the natural development of an evening’s international tournament football. Often it can be spectators’ reward at the end of a poor game. At the start of the match it has a different function, that being improving the quality of entertainment of what is to follow.
National votes will not end World Cup corruption
To appreciate the difficulty in changing an organisation like Fifa, you only had to listen to former Football Association chairman David Bernstein’s call to arms to Uefa nations to boycott the 2018 World Cup finals. As part of that, he was effectively asking hosts Russia not to turn up to their own party, a post-modern twist on the Cold War Olympic Games boycotts of the early 1980s.
The Hans-Joachim Eckert report last week carried the minutes from the Fifa meeting from over 40 years ago when decision-making power on tournament hosts was transferred from the national associations to the executive committee. It seems barely conceivable now but back then the change was made because of the inconvenience of officials having to travel to all those competing countries to assess the different bids. For the lucky few, doing just that would become a lucrative full-time occupation.
Future tournaments will be chosen by the 209 members of Fifa rather than the 24 men on the Fifa executive committee. Yet those whom Mohamed bin Hammam is alleged to have showered money on were largely national association heads, who then created a groundswell of popular support for Qatar 2022. Who says it will be any different under the new system?
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