Science

Goalies’ Best Chance of Blocking Penalty Kicks Might Be Dancing to Distract Their Opponent

Psychology, as much as skill, rules this face-off.

Danijel Subasic of Croatia saves a penalty kick during the match between Croatia and Denmark in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia on Sunday.
Danijel Subasic of Croatia saves a penalty kick during the match between Croatia and Denmark in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia on Sunday.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Andrew Surma/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

Roma’s Francesco Graziani kisses the ball before laying it on the penalty mark. His team is down in a shootout that will decide the 1984 European Cup champion. Make it and he ties the score; miss it and he gives Liverpool the chance to win it all. The crowd is roaring. His heart is throbbing. In preparation for one of the most important kicks of his life, he walks back making the sign of the cross.

Facing Graziani just 12 yards away, Liverpool goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar is careening back and forth like an idiot along the goal line. His legs are wiggling like spaghetti in a dance of feigned terror. While his opponent is appealing to God, Grobbelaar has decided that his best shot at success is silliness:

As you can see in the video above, Graziani missed the shot. Liverpool went on to win the game.

In this World Cup, penalty kicks have played a decisive role. A record three of the eight second-round matches were decided in a penalty shootout. When the score remains tied after 30 minutes of overtime, both players and viewers tense up—everyone knows that penalty kicks are a high-stress, luck-dominated way to determine the winner. The goalies probably have it the worst: Saving a penalty kick could mean the difference between eternal World Cup glory and a life full of regret for them. Which is all to say that I’m surprised more of them don’t seem to be following in the zig-zagging footsteps of Grobbelaar and focusing their efforts on the delicate skill of distraction.

Unusual as Grobbelaar’s shenanigans are, they really shouldn’t be. For one, these tactics are squeaky-clean: Nothing in FIFA’s 228 page doorstop rulebook prohibits them. While several forms of distraction are forbidden—goalies have received yellow cards for attempting to delay penalty kicks by cleaning their boots or asking the referee to double check the placement of the ball—there’s nothing stopping a goalkeeper from dancing his heart out on the goal line. (So long as he doesn’t hop over it in the process, which is illegal.)

It has been well-documented that, as any viewer might suspect, the psychology of the striker plays a big role in penalty kick performance. One study even went so far as to suggest that stress was a larger determining factor than any other. In this study of 409 penalty shootout kicks, researchers found that psychological variables (such as the perceived importance of a kick) were better predictors of outcome than fatigue, level of experience, or the player’s position.

Another study echoed the importance of striker psychology by studying the impact of timing during penalty kicks. These researchers found that a striker who rushed his kick after the referee blew his whistle (an indicator of emotional stress) was more likely to choke. And the longer the striker had to stay in the pressure cooker before the referee blew his whistle, the worse he performed.

So anything the goalkeeper can do to up this psychological stress might end up being more meaningful than tossing his body in a random direction in hopes of stopping the ball. There’s even empirical evidence to back up the tactic of distraction. A study of all World Cup and European Football Championship penalty shootouts between 1986 and 2012 found that goalkeeper attempts at distraction worked remarkably well. When goalkeepers didn’t distract their opponents, they saved 17.1 percent of penalty kicks; when they did distract, they saved 27.3 percent. It seems that if there is any legal way for a goalie to get a psychological edge over a striker, he should take it.

Like his Liverpudlian predecessor, that’s exactly what Jerzy Dudek did in the 2005 Champions League final against Milan. With the help of his own goofy dance—hopping back and forth along the goal line and flapping his arms like a territorial goose—Dudek stopped a miraculous 3 of 5 penalty kicks and sealed the victory for Liverpool.

So to the goalkeepers left in the 2018 FIFA World Cup, the question isn’t “Can I dance?” or “Should I dance?” The question is “Why am I not dancing?” I’m talking to you Hugo Lloris: Will you dance for France? And you Igor Akinfeev: Will you Macarena for Mother Russia? Thibaut Courtois: Will you Hustle for Brussels?

During the 500 milliseconds it takes a ball to reach the goal line, there’s only so much a goalkeeper can do. But in the moments leading up to this sliver of a second, a goalie can take matters into his own hands—and dancing feet.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the 2018 World Cup.