What football can learn from the tennis tiebreak


In 2012 Portugal lost to Spain after a penalty shoot-out in the semi-final of the European Cup. Did Portugal get a fair chance?

In 2012 Portugal lost to Spain after a penalty shoot-out in the semi-final of the European Cup. Did Portugal get a fair chance?


With the World Cup moving to the knockout stage in some days, a few teams are destined to be ‘knocked out’ because they lost a penalty series.

Statistical analysis based on historical shoot-outs has shown that the team taking the first penalty kick, thereby starting the series, historically won in ~60% of the times.

This statistic should not be underestimated – teams starting the penalty series have a ~50% bigger chance of winning!

The explanation for this phenomenon is that the team going second comes under greater pressure more often than not, with greater pressure causing a higher likelihood of missing. A penalty shoot-out is of course supposed to be as unbiased as possible. Two valid criteria for a tiebreaker therefore are that (1) it should be based on an objective assessment of something measurable, and that (2) it should not offer an advantage to any nation, other than that based on their ability to play football.

The statistical analysis shows that the current practice of penalty series, with the coin toss, does not satisfy these criteria.

But do not despair, as an easy solution is at hand. In tennis, when a set needs a tiebreaker, a conceptually similar problem occurs. The solution offered there is that the player starting the tiebreaker may serve once. The second player then serves twice, etc., until the set is decided.

This can be implemented in football as well. The team starting the penalty series may shoot once first. Then, the other team can shoot twice, after which the first team shoots twice, etc., until there is a winner.

Problem solved.

Update: Well, apparently someone already mentioned this solution. I guess that’s all the more reason to implement it.

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