WORLD CUP USA ’94 / QUARTERFINALS : Putting Games on Line : Penalty Kicks Better Than Coin Flips, but Barely


Jorge Campos was a fallen figure in a sea of grass Tuesday evening at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. His face was down, against the turf. His arms were flung out, legs bent at the knees.

The Mexican goalkeeper was a heap of vivid color in the middle of a giant stadium where moments earlier everything had gone so wrong for his teammates in a heart-stopping, second-round loss to Bulgaria.

What could be done? Mexico was eliminated from the World Cup in the most disheartening of manners. After 120 minutes had produced a 1-1 tie, Bulgaria won on penalty kicks, 3-1.


It is perhaps the cruelest way to settle a game since FIFA, soccer’s governing body, did it with coin flips.

“At least this way, everybody has a chance,” said Joseph Blatter, FIFA general secretary.

Since its adoption in 1970, the round of penalty kicks has been debated and dissected, cursed by losers, praised by winners. Penalty kicks have made careers, and if not exactly ruined others, certainly left scars.

Some have come to terms with penalty kicks; others reject the very idea.

FIFA is expected to adopt sudden death for the 30-minute overtime period before the 1998 World Cup in France. But if neither teams scores, it will fall back on the round of penalty kicks to determine the winner.

“It does not seem right to determine the game that way,” said

Wim Jonk, a Dutch midfielder, who could be called upon to do just that in Saturday’s quarterfinal game against Brazil at the Cotton Bowl.

Carlos Alberto Parreira, Brazil’s coach, disagreed. He said penalty kicks are the best method of doing it.

“There is no other way,” he said. “If the players can’t decide it after 120 minutes, FIFA has to drop one team. It’s the only solution.”


For spectators, it is always high drama. Five kicks for each team, taken alternately, from 12 yards out against the goalkeepers. If that doesn’t settle the matter, they go to sudden-death penalty kicks.

A coin toss still is needed to determine which team kicks first.

Soccer fans still talk about how Argentina reached the 1990 final by defeating Yugoslavia in the quarterfinals and Italy in the semifinals on penalty kicks. What they mostly recall is the brilliance of backup goalkeeper Sergio Goycochea, who saved kicks in each game.

“Some goalkeepers have better intuition than others,” said Goycochea, who built his career on those games. “I don’t think saving penalties is just a matter of luck.”

In fact, the entire process has been turned into a science. Like pitchers in baseball, goalkeepers keep detailed statistics of opponents’ shooting tendencies. In the brief moment before the ball comes flying at them, keepers must guess where it is going.

Campos guessed right against the Bulgarians four times, but blocked only Krasimir Balakov’s shot. Bulgarian keeper Borislav Mihaylov did not bother guessing.

“I just look at the foot of the player who’s going to kick and try to move in that direction,” he said.


Timo Liekoski, U.S. assistant coach, said the Americans wrote a detailed book on Brazil before their second-round game Monday in Palo Alto. The United States lost in regulation time, 1-0, and did not need it.

But coaches try to learn as much as they can about opponents to prepare their keepers for the penalty-kick possibility. They also emphasize penalty shots once the World Cup becomes a single-elimination tournament, after the first round.

Romania’s players spent almost an hour practicing penalty kicks Thursday in the Bay Area. Brazil, practicing in stifling heat in North Dallas, did not. But Parreira has his own method of determining who is ready to take the pressure shots.

“We select the best shooters, those who are emotionally ready,” he said.

Coaches often make last-minute substitutions before the overtime ends to get a strong penalty kicker in the lineup. Only those on the field at the finish of overtime are eligible to shoot.

Mexico’s coach, Miguel Mejia Baron, was questioned for leaving Hugo Sanchez, 36, on the bench at that critical moment. Most coaches say they want their most experienced players taking the penalty shots.

“The first shot is crucial,” Liekoski said. “I would not save my best kicker to the fifth because a lot of times it doesn’t get to the fifth guy, so you waste him. You also need a good kicker to go third.”


Most agree that when the match comes down to penalty kicks, it becomes a game of nerves. Mexico seemed to lose its poise when it was most needed, missing its first three shots.

The U.S. coaches look for the players who want to take the shot in the make-or-break situation.

“It’s not really a learned skill,” Liekoski said. “If you’re afraid of it, it’s not going to work for you.”

By putting players in simulated situations, coaches try to determine which ones have steely wills.

“Who always picks his spot and doesn’t change his mind,” Liekoski said.

Blatter said that from the moment FIFA adopted the penalty kick, proposals have been made for changes. Most have been rejected.

“This solution is so far the best, unless something revolutionary comes along,” he said.

Simply letting the match continue until one team scores could put fatigued players at risk of serious injury, some point out.


For those who endured the coin toss, the penalty kick seems like a nice option. Jan Van Beveren, a great Dutch goalkeeper of the 1970s, did not even want to think about the coin toss.

Now a stamp dealer in Dallas, Van Beveren first encountered penalty kicks as a player in the North American Soccer League. He had joined the team midway through the season and was not aware of the NASL shootout until his team made the playoffs.

In his first playoff match, the game went into the shootout.

“I went to the sideline, and asked the coach, ‘What is this all about?’ ” Van Beveren recalled.

Van Beveren said the only way to be a successful keeper is to have a feeling for where the kick is going. Like other keepers, he enjoyed the intense situation.

“For the keeper, everything is on your shoulders but the pressure is not on you,” he said. “I’ve never seen a keeper get blamed for letting in a goal. The one who misses the kicks is the goat.”

But that is not comforting to a goalkeeper who plays for the losing side. Campos, the flamboyant Mexican keeper, played admirably in the tense moments of Tuesday’s match.


But that was little consolation as he lay on the grass, considering what might have been. Bulgarians were running across the field, celebrating their victory.

When Campos finally stood, star forward Hristo Stoitchkov of Bulgaria put an arm around him, and they walked off the field together.

One a winner, the other a loser.

Times staff writer Helene Elliott contributed to this story.