By Michael Lewis
You gotta love the World Cup.
One day you’re a hero saving penalty kicks in a crucial shootout, the next day you come up just a bit short.
One day you’re connecting for the game-winning penalty kick in the tie-breaker and the next day … well, how about that? … you’re the hero once again.
In this, in arguably one of the most unpredictable, entertaining and drama-ridden World Cups of them all, millions upon millions of soccer fans across the planet have been witness to this extravaganza that has more than its share of surprising twists and turns.
Saturday’s quarterfinal confrontation between host Russia and Croatia fell into that category.
So, this is what transpired in the past week:
On Sunday, July 1, Russia escaped its Round of 16 encounter with favored Spain, winning via penalties after a 1-1 draw. Goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev produced a world-class kick save on Koke to prevail 4-3 on penalties and to boost the Russians into the quarterfinals.
Later that day, Croatia survived its second-round match with Denmark as Ivan Rakitic converted the winner in a 3-2 tie-breaker after a 1-1 deadlock.
So that brought us to Saturday, when the two Round of 16 superheroes faced off with a spot in the semifinals on the line.
Call it the immovable object against the irresistible force. Something had to give. after the teams played to a 2-2 draw in regulation and extratime, which included a dramatic 115th-minute goal by Russia’s Mario Fernandes.
With the score tied at 3-3, Rakitic again gave it his best shot, burying his attempt to reach the semifinals.
It was the Croatians’ second biggest moment in their international soccer history after finishing third at France ’98. So, more glory beckons against England in Wednesday’s semifinal.
For the Russians, it was a difficult way to exit the competition after playing their hearts out.
Now, penalties just might be the cruelest and most unfair way to decide any soccer match, especially one at the highest level. But like it or not, nothing can duplicate the tension and drama that surrounds the tie-breaker.
Which brings us to the topic of how to decide tied games. Everyone seems to have a theory on how to accomplish it, although it is difficult to put anyone in the Solomon-esque category.
Everyone has his or her own theory on how to decide tied matches:
* More extratimes and more substitutes in each period.
* Who finishes with the most shots or corner kicks or the least fouls or yellow cards.
* And this one: just play on and on and on until someone scores.
Or when someone keels over with heat exhaustion.
Way, way back in the day, the NASL tried the “Play until you score” method and it wasn’t met well with the players. In fact, the old Rochester Lancers and Dallas Tornado played a pair of classic marathon matches in the 1971 playoffs of 176 and 148 minutes.
The former match, which started at 8 p.m. and ended at 11:59 p.m. on a goal by Carlos Metidieri (2-1 result) is considered the longest soccer game.
So, anything that extends play is not good for the health of the players. Remember, it is always about the players. No one needs ridiculous injuries from overwork in a tournament that demands the most physically out of the world’s greatest players.
So, I’ll throw my three cents into the mix (inflation, sorry) — keep the shootout, only incorporate what the old North American Soccer League and Major League Soccer deployed. That would be starting the shooter from 35 yards out, as opposed to shooting from the penalty spot.
Heresy, you say?
Well, the PK shootout as we know it today is a crap shoot. It has nothing to do with a player’s overall ability and skills. It’s about pinpointing a penalty kick into a specific area.
The NASL/MLS shootout is more about a players’ overall soccer skills. It involves dribbling, some tactics and shooting ability. Besides, it gives the goalkeeper a better opportunity to play hero and deny the shooter, making the tie-breaker more even.
The late, great Carlos Alberto, the Cosmos center back who captained Brazil’s outstanding 1970 world championship side, liked to bloop the ball up into the air as a diversion for the goalkeeper. He was known to score a few key shootout goals using that method. Mike Stojanovic, the Lancers’ late great striker, started at an angle on the 35-yard line in an attempt to gain an advantage on the keeper. He had his moments as well.
Admittedly, my plan isn’t the perfect way to determine a winner.
But if you have a candidate or a better idea, I would love to hear from you.
Drop me a line at SoccerWriter516@aol.com.