By Umair Irfan

Russian goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev dives to save a penalty kick from Croatian midfielder Mateo Kovacic during a World Cup quarterfinal match on July 7, 2018.

The agony and ecstasy of a soccer penalty kick, explained with behavioral economics.

The penalty kick in soccer is among the highest pressure moments in all of sports. The fate of an entire game, a tournament, even a career can hinge on a few fractions of a second between kicker and goalkeeper.

All that pressure is especially concentrated at the World Cup, with nearly half the world watching. And it ramps up even higher in elimination rounds, where penalty kicks are deployed as a tie-breaker. Since its introduction in 1978, 30 World Cup games have been decided through a penalty kick shootout, including two World Cup finals.

In this year’s tournament, we’ve already witnessed four shootouts. Croatia narrowly avoided a shootout on Wednesday in its semifinal match with England, winning 2-1 in overtime.

But both Croatia and England have already had their own experiences with nerve-wracking shootouts in the 2018 World Cup. You may have caught this moment after the July 3 round of 16 match between Colombia and England:

Colombia head coach Jose Pekerman, left, and England head coach Gareth Southgate, right, comfort Colombia's Mateus Uribe after the round of 16 match between Colombia and England at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Spartak Stadium, in Moscow, Russia, TuesdAlastair Grant/AP
England manager Gareth Southgate, right, remembers the pain of missing a penalty kick all too well as he comforts Colombia’s Mateus Uribe after the round of 16 match between Colombia and England.

Here, England manager Gareth Southgate is consoling Colombian midfielder Mateus Uribe, who missed his penalty kick, allowing England to advance to the next round with a 4-3 win in the shootout.

It’s a feeling Southgate knows all too well, having missed his kick 22 years earlier at the 1996 Euro Cup when England played Germany in the semifinals:

“Football World Cup, it is a passion, and when the match goes into extra time, it’s a drama, said former FIFA president Sepp Blatter in 2006 during the World Cup in Germany. “But when it comes to penalty kicks, it’s a tragedy.”

Another shootout is a possibility when France and Croatia match square off in the World Cup final on Sunday. It could also happen at third-place match between Belgium and England on Saturday.

As emotional as they are, penalty kicks in general and shootouts in particular are not just gambles. Behavioral economics research shows that there are methods that both the kicker and the goalkeeper can use to gain an edge, and one of the most crucial factors takes place before the shootout even begins: which team goes first.

Here are some fascinating things researchers have learned about penalty kicks, and what they’re analyzing to anticipate the next shot.

Penalty kick shootouts are really unfair to the goalkeeper and to the team that goes second

A penalty kick is awarded when there is a foul inside the penalty area in front of the goal. A penalty shootout occurs when the teams are tied at the end of regulation time and overtime.

It’s a horrendously lopsided contest: A goalkeeper has to defend 192 square feet of area from a shot taken from 36 feet away at upward of 80 miles per hour. In baseball, by contrast, the batter has to swing through a strike zone of about 3.5 square feet at a ball thrown from 60 feet away at more than 100 miles per hour. That gives a batter about 0.4 seconds to swing and a goalkeeper just 0.3 seconds to leap with their whole body. More often than not, the goalkeeper needs to guess — in advance — which way the ball is going.

So it’s not a huge surprise that most penalty kicks result in a goal. As Kirk Goldsberry pointed out at Grantland, soccer players only scored on about 10 percent of their shots at the 2014 World Cup, but scored on more than 81 percent of World Cup penalty kicks since 1966.

But for researchers, penalty kick shootouts provide a prime natural experiment in sports psychology and a useful behavioral model for game theory.

“If you look at soccer as a game, it’s very intricate,” Tom Vandebroek, a sports economics researcher now working as a professional coach, told Vox. “Whereas if you look at penalty shootouts, it’s very good example of a natural experiment: The stakes are high, the effort is relatively low. It’s one against one. It’s repeated. The behavior of the goalkeeper and the player is kind of simultaneous.”

Vandebroek co-wrote a 2016 study in the Journal of Sports Economics on the psychological pressure behind penalty kicks. The results showed that strategizing should begin at the coin toss for who goes first.

He explained that during a shootout, teams alternate between kicks, which creates a discrepancy in the stakes depending on the score of the shootout. For example, if the score is 5-4 after nine shots, the final kicker bears a massive psychological burden that can then cause them to choke.

Russian forward Fyodor Smolov kisses the ball during a penalty against Croatia at the 2018 World Cup. Smolov missed his shot. Valery Sharifulin/TASS
Russian forward Fyodor Smolov kisses the ball during a penalty against Croatia at the 2018 World Cup. Smolov missed his shot.

Writing in a 2003 paper in the Review of Economic Studies, Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, a professor at the London School of Economics, noted that penalty scoring rates during regulation matches decreased as the game wore on. This is “not because the goalkeeper’s saves increase but because kickers shoot wide, to the goalpost, or to the crossbar more often than earlier in the game. This may be attributed to nervousness or kickers being tired at the end of the game.” Based on player interviews, nervousness seemed to be the likelier explanation, according to Palacios-Huerta. So it stands to reason that players are most nervous during the tie-breaking round …read more

Read more here: World Cup shootouts: why the team that goes first usually wins

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