On a hot July day in 1994, Brazil won its fourth World Cup, defeating Italy in a penalty shoot-out. It was the first time the World Cup final had been decided on penalties, and FIFA General Secretary Sepp Blatter was appalled. The sight of Italian striker Roberto Baggio, whose goal-scoring heroics had fuelled Italy’s tournament run, sobbing into his hands after he missed the decisive penalty seemed to expose the cruel arbitrariness of tie-breaking shoot-outs. Blatter, who has made a career of spewing grandiose promises that prove impossible to keep, swore that no future final would be decided on penalties. “Football is a collective sport, while penalties are an individual skill,” he said.
In the thorough, well-written and altogether excellent Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty, soccer journalist and sports consultant Ben Lyttleton mounts a convincing defense of the procedure Blatter so reviles. “Let’s be honest, we have all watched a match in extra time and hoped for no more goals so we can enjoy the drama of a penalty shoot-out,” Lyttleton writes in his prologue. “It’s the essence of the game, soccer at its most elemental.”