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How to Win a Penalty Shootout

It is World Cup year and going out on penalties is a realistic proposition for England. Maybe if they read our guide they might not fall at that hurdle this time…

With the World Cup coming up, it’s a racing certainty that a couple of teams will be taking the sad, long flight home having been knocked out on penalties.
It’s the worst way to go out.

There’s a lot more to it than you might think. Here are a few fascinating shootout stats, provided by Betfair.

Thankfully, only one World Cup final has ever been decided on penalties, back in 94 when Brazil beat Italy. Brazil led 3-2 in the shootout when Roberto Baggio, playing injured, stepped up and put his kick over the bar – and Brazil were crowned Champions.

What you may be surprised to learn is that it’s not all about chance – and there are various ways you can win a shootout if you know what to do:

Get your team to shoot first

Most importantly, take your penalties first. When the ref tosses the coin, the captain who calls it right gets to pick whether his team goes first or second. The team kicking first penalty wins 60% of shootouts on average – because the team going next comes under greater pressure more often than not.

In Euro 2008, Italy’s Captain Gianluigi Buffon won the toss for the shootout against Spain and elected, somewhat bizarrely, to shoot second. The Spaniards won, of course.

Don’t take penalties in the World Cup – but do be first on the list

According to one academic study, the penalty success rate in World Cups is 71.2% compared with 82.7% in the Copa America and 84.6% in the European Championships. The answer here again is “pressure”; the World Cup is more important and carries greater consequences for misses – so players miss more of their attempts!

The success rate of each successive penalty kick also generally declines through the shootout across all international competitions in the following way: First penalty (86.6% success), 2nd (81.7%), 3rd (79.3%), 4th (72.5%), 5th (80%) and sudden death penalties (64.3%).

This broadly reflects increasing pressure, but also reflects the way teams get their best players to kick first – which is a mistake as there is less pressure early on.


Although no research exists to decide how successful practicing is, it’s implicit in the sense that attackers score more penalties in shootouts, with a success rate of 83.1%, compared with 79.6% for midfielders and 73.6% for defenders.

Be fresh, be young

The length of time a player has been on the pitch also has a bearing; players with 30 minutes or less on the pitch score 86.7% of penalties in shootouts versus 81.9% for players who’ve played 31-90 minutes (though this is partly explained by managers bringing on experienced penalty takers before the end of extra time).

Meanwhile, younger players do better. Players aged 22 or younger score 85.2% of shootout attempts versus 77.6% for those aged 23-28, but older heads come back into it a little as players 29 and above score 78.1%.

And finally … be German, not English

England fans dread penalties. England teams have been knocked out of competitions seven times on penalties – winning just once, against Spain in Euro 96 on home soil. They have never won a World Cup penalty shoot-out.

Germany’s experience is the mirror image of England’s. West Germany lost the final of Euro 1976 in a penalty shootout to Czechoslovakia 5-3. But since then, Germany haven’t lost a penalty shootout in any major international tournament – but have managed to dispatch England twice (once in the semi-final of the 1990 World Cup then again at Wembley in the semi-final of Euro 96) along with France and Argentina.