Thursday 19 July 2012

The Supporter's Fear of the Penalty Kick

Guest post by Alex Bryson, Senior Research Fellow, NIESR

 Like Marmite you either love it or hate it: the penalty shoot-out. Either way it is clear - we are not very good at them. Using data from on 95 national teams for 367 shoot-outs (including double-counting of head-to-heads) we find England is ranked 77th in terms of percent of shoot-outs won.  The only teams who are below England are countries that have never won a penalty shoot out. Figure 1 shows the win rates for all countries with at least one win. England has won just one of six, a 17% success rate. Sixteen countries have a 100% record, but 11 of these have only ever been in one shoot-out.  The shoot-out kings are Angola: they have won all four of their penalty shoot-outs.

We can also measure success in terms of percentage of penalties scored. The picture is similar. With 21 scored from 31 attempts England has a 67.7 per cent conversion rate.  As Figure 2 shows, this puts England 56th out of the 79 countries for whom we have data, just ahead of four countries with a 66.6 per cent conversion rate (the Netherlands, Panama, Canada and Swaziland) and just behind Tunisia. Again, on this measure Angola are the shoot-out kings scoring all 19 penalties they have taken.

Of course, not all penalty shoot-outs are the same. The quality of the opposing team varies by competition and is likely highest among the top ranking teams who play in the final stages of the world cup and euro championships. So Table 1 presents England's vital statistics alongside those for top teams we like to compare ourselves with: Brazil, Argentina, Germany and Italy. It does not make for good reading. We are bottom of the pile in terms of our win rate and our percentage of penalties scored.  The Germans come out rather well.

Table 1: Performance Relative to Other Top Teams

     Nation   N shoot-outs   wins        losses       % wins       N scored       N missed        % scored       
     England      6           1             5           17                21            10        68            
     Germany      7           5             2           71                28             5        85  
     Argentina    11          8             3           73                40            10        80  
     Brazil       11          7             4           64                39             8        83   
     Italy        6           2             4           33                24             9        73    

What are we to make of all this? In fact, surprising as it may seem, there is a literature on penalty taking and goalkeeper behaviour.  There is some evidence that goalies do better when remaining in the middle of the goal (Bar-Eli and Azar, 2009) but the most systematic investigation cannot reject the hypothesis that, conditional on other players' behaviour, goalies and players behave optimally (Chiappori, Levitt and Groseclose, 2002). Thus, in the analysis the probability of scoring is the same whether one aims for the right, the middle or the left of the goal.  Similarly, the probability of saving a goal is the same whether one dives to the right or the left. Of course, there is an iron law of football: you must hit the target to score. The woodwork is not good enough, as the two Ashleys will testify.

But does any of this matter? I'm afraid it does.  Team losses and draws reduce happiness in rugby fans (Moore et al., 2007); poor team performance increases group-related hooligan violence (Priks, 2010); and unexpected defeats by a home American football team lead to increase in police reports of at-home male-on-female partner violence (Card and Dahl, 2009). There is no simple solution; in a penalty shoot-out, there is only one winner. 


Bar-Eli M. and Azar O. H. (2009) Penalty kicks in soccer: an empirical analysis of shooting strategies and goalkeepers preferences. Soccer & Society, 10:183-191.

Card, D. and Dahl, G. (2009) Family Violence and Football: The Effect of Unexpected Emotional Cues on Violent Behavior. NBER Working Paper No. 15497

Chiappori, P. A., Levitt, S. and Groseclose, T. (2002) Testing Mixed-Strategy Equilibria When Players Are Heterogeneous: The Case of Penalty Kicks in Soccer. American Economic Review, 92, 4: 1138-1151

Moore, S. C., Shepherd, J. P., Eden, S. and Sivarajasingam, V. (2007) The effect of rugby match outcome on spectator aggression and intention to drink alcohol. Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health, 17, 2: 118-127

Priks, M. (2010). Does Frustration Lead to Violence? Evidence from the Swedish Hooligan Scene. Kyklos, 63, 3: 450-460

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