Penalty kicks could help decide World Cup

Paraguay beat Japan in the first match of the 2010 World Cup tournament to be decided by penalty kicks, but history suggests it won't be the last.

Sometimes, preparing for penalty kicks makes all the difference. And sometimes, it doesn't matter a bit.

Ask Paraguay, which won the only shootout thus far in this World Cup, how much preparation it had before going to penalties against Japan in the quarterfinals.

''We practiced penalty kicks once, so nobody could say we weren't prepared,'' Paraguay coach Gerardo Martino said after Tuesday's display of perfection: a 5-3 victory in the shootout after a 0-0 draw. ''But our executions weren't too good.

''You can't recreate the environment you'll face in a real game, with 40,000 fans.''

Yet others advise that all the studying and practicing you can do is vital.

When Germany beat Argentina in the 2006 quarter-final, goalkeeper Jens Lehmann took a cheat sheet out of his sock with information on the Argentine penalty takers and which way they usually took their kicks.

Heading to this year's rematch in the quarter-finals, Argentina keeper Sergio Romero said his team learned from the experience.

''In that moment it was a very smart move on their part, saving a piece of paper to know who was going to take the kick,'' he said. ''This time we have to be well prepared for everything.''

Since penalty kick shootouts were introduced 28 years ago, there have been an average of almost three per tournament, with highs of four in 1990 and 2006. Germany won the first shootout in the World Cup, beating France in a 1982 semifinal.

Two World Cup finals have also been decided from the spot. Brazil took the title in 1994 in a shootout win over Italy when Roberto Baggio famously sent his kick over the crossbar. Four years ago, the Italians found redemption, beating France by making all five of their tries.

After 120 minutes of exhausting play, many consider penalty kicks a cruel method of deciding draws. But the drama of the one-on-one shootout is undeniable, and nobody has come up with a credible alternative.

Golden goals, where the first team to score in extra time wins, were tried in the World Cup and then dropped because coaches and players didn't like the idea of sudden death in extra time. And there's no guarantee a team will score, so penalty kicks are often needed anyway.

A player's ability seems to have little to do with his chances of scoring from the spot. Mental strength seems to have as much to do with a successful kick as technique.

''Character plays a big role,'' Martino said. ''What can you say when [Oscar] Cardozo asks to kick the fifth penalty and he does it the way he did it?''

Oliver Kahn, the former Germany goalkeeper, spoke about the art of saving penalties.

''You can read a lot from the body language of the shooter and where he will be shooting,'' Kahn said. ''It is a psychological game between the goalkeeper and the taker. It has a lot to do with eye contact and body language.''

The format creates instant heroes — and instant villains. German striker Horst Hrubesch was the first player to taste the glory of scoring the winning penalty kick, beating French goalkeeper Jean-Luc Ettori in his country's 1982 victory.

Perhaps the most costly miss was by Baggio, who skied his shot at the Rose Bowl to hand the cup to Brazil.

Baggio is in good company. Among those who also found the pressure of a free kick from 12 yards too much to bear are France's Michel Platini, Brazil's Socrates, England's Steven Gerrard — and Diego Maradona.

Maradona missed Argentina's third shot against Yugoslavia in the 1990 quarterfinal, but the pain was soothed considerably as Argentina won 3-2.

Some nations seem more blessed than others when it comes to penalty kicks. Germany has a perfect record (4 for 4), while Brazil also has a good record, winning two of three, including the 1994 final.

Shootouts are dreaded in England, however, and with good reason.

England has lost all three shootouts in World Cups. Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle missed as the team crashed out of the 1990 semifinal to Germany. Argentina won the second-round match in 1998 and Portugal was the victor in the 2006 quarter-final by a low 3-1 score.

Italy lost shootouts in three consecutive tournaments from 1990 to 1998, but hit the jackpot in the 2006 final on Fabio Grosso's winner.

Even science is stumped when it comes to finding the secret of a successful shootout strategy.

American doctoral student Gabriel J. Diaz of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute tried to identify the telltale signs given by players' body movements when taking their kicks during a recent study. Despite tests, cameras, software and sensors, as well as computer analysis, the results were inconclusive.

''Professional soccer players may not have the luxury of that extra time, and also professional soccer players are much better at placing the ball at the further side of the goal,'' Diaz said. ''I can't say for sure in real world situations what would be the best thing for the goalkeeper to do.''

Except, perhaps, not get in a shootout at all.