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The Golden Goal: Remembering Football's Failed Attempt at Self-Improvement

The Golden Goal was football's attempt to reduce the number of penalty shootouts. In reality, however, the new initiative brought its own set of problems.

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Oct 28 2015, 2:15pm

Photo by PA Images

On 27 January 1994 something happened which proved beyond reasonable doubt that football cannot be trusted in the hands of the bureaucratic simpletons ordained to care for it.

It's the 87th minute of a Caribbean Cup qualifier between Barbados and Grenada in Saint Michael and things are going down to the wire. Home side Barbados lead 2-1, which is of no use to them as they need a clear two-goal victory to surpass their opponents in the final group standings and claim the last place at the finals in Trinidad.

In dire need of a goal, defender Marc Sealy plays the ball back to his goalkeeper, Horace Stoute, and the two pass the ball between each other for a moment before Sealy takes a touch and leathers the ball into his own top-corner from three yards for 2-2.

Something, clearly, is not right.

The tournament organisers had been one of the first proponents of FIFA's new 'Golden Goal' rule, although they'd given the governing body's new trick added flavour. All group-stage matches tied at 90 minutes were to be decided by a Golden Goal extra-time tie-breaker; not in itself a major deviation from American custom, since all tied MLS games in the States at the time were decided by a variation on a penalty shout-out.

The twist was that such a goal would literally count double, meaning that Sealy's own-goal tied the game up just long enough to force extra-time where his side could go in search of the 'double' Golden Goal necessary to see them through.

It gets worse.

For the rest of normal time Grenada went in search of the goal that would see them progress, although by now it didn't matter at which end of the pitch that goal was scored. So for three minutes Barbados frantically defended both halves of the pitch simultaneously as their opponents tried to fathom which end it would be best to attack.

Just to be completely clear: this was a FIFA-sanctioned international football match, and one team was trying to score in both goals.

Though things never got quite so absurd again during football's short-lived affair with the Golden Goal, Saint Michael was the most pathetic example of how the game's integrity is compromised when its DNA is wilfully tampered with.

That football had a problem to address in the early '90s is a legitimate point. The penalty shoot-out brings its own set of difficulties that could reasonably be said to mark a departure from the mechanics of actual football, and results decided from the spot leave out much of what is implicit within contact-based invasion sports: spatial awareness, endurance, operation as a unit.

To date there have been 26 penalty shoot-outs in World Cup finals and, since expanding to 16 teams in 1996, 10 in European Championships. It is a devastating way to be eliminated from a major tournament, turning four years of preparation and ambition to ash in a single kick. 36 times dreams have come to nought on the placement of one last exhausted 12-yard punt.

Euro 96 was peculiarly attention-grabbing. It was the first time the new Golden Goal had been used in a major finals and it was supposed to be a self-correcting mechanism that would put a cap on the number of games decided by the agony of the spot-kick. But out of seven knock-out games in England that summer, four went to penalties and just one was settled by the new sudden-death mechanism.

There was a moment during extra-time of France's quarter-final against Holland at Old Trafford when Dutch forward Youri Mulder was given space to shoot some 30 yards from goal. His effort was tame and bumped obligingly along the ground into the arms of Bernard Lama in the France goal, but the Frenchman was incensed that Mulder had been given the time and space to inflict his feeble pea-roller, and explained his feelings to his team in a histrionic eruption of spittle.

It was a neat artefact for what the Golden Goal did to football, turning decent strikers into hopeful speculators and goalkeepers and defenders into nervous wrecks. At the end of it all, France won on penalties.

It doesn't take a leap of logic to establish how the new system encouraged, rather than mitigated against, the likelihood of drawn matches going all the way to the spot. It turned extra-time into a knife-edge arena of nervous energy, with the risks of committing men forward turning the penalty shoot-out into the most appealing option.

It was an all-or-nothing approach to deciding a game that encouraged teams to sit back and conserve, as the danger became so great that risk was effectively stamped out. What responsible manager would set a side up to attack knowing that the consequences of failure were so total? This was zero-sum attrition, and it turned footballers into reluctant cowards.

The Golden Goal, in fact, reflected so much of what was wrong with football at the end of the last century, and what continues to dog the sport today. It was an absurd dramatisation that came at the expense of the game's integrity, a pompous nod to the grandeur that modern sport claims, yet one that crapped all over the rules.

Prior to the advent of the penalty shoot-out in 1970 (1974 in terms of World Cups) there were 71 knock-out matches played in World Cup finals (including replays, which was the preferred method of tie-breaker pre-penalties). Just four of them finished level and had to be re-contested, and none of those four resulted in a second draw.

So after producing four draws in its first 40 years of knock-out play, the World Cup went on to give us 26 in its next 40. The tournament expanded yes, but the numbers point to something more significant, suggesting that the way football is played has radically altered in that time.

How far the penalty shoot-out contributed to that change is difficult to say. It's possible that weaker teams altered their approach to playing against more technically gifted sides once safe in the knowledge that they could sit-back, keep things tight and take their chances in a penalty lottery, rather than be made to go again for 90 minutes in a replay.

But the game has undeniably changed. Tactics have evolved and players have become more technically refined, which means fewer mistakes and fewer goals. It also means that far less is left to chance than would have been in say 1950, allowing astute technicians of the game to engineer results through almost geometrically precise planning.

The tie-breaker rules needed altering to reflect these changes in the game, and it's difficult to shake the feeling that the penalty shoot-out is as far as the evolution can go. Certainly the brief dalliance with the Golden Goal was not deemed to have been the solution by the International Football Association Board (IFAB), who ultimately did away with it.

The official reasoning behind the scrapping of the new system was that it proved too much of a headache for stadium officials and police, who wouldn't know when a match was about to end and were unable to plan accordingly. A possible solution lay in a pared-down alternative, the 'Silver Goal', which saw the game end after the first period of extra-time if one side had taken the lead.

Only one was ever scored in major tournament finals, with Greece disposing of the Czech Republic in the semi-final of Euro 2004 with the last kick of the half. The clunky half-solution turned out to be little more than a death-rattle for the whole sudden-death experiment. By 2006 it had been confined to history.

One thing that always shone light on the almost sadistic cruelty of the Golden Goal was the reactions of the players that conceded them. When Laurent Blanc scored for France in the 114th minute to knock Paraguay out of the 98 World Cup, the BBC cut to a lingering shot of the beaten goalkeeper, the gregarious extrovert Jose Luis Chilavert, as the ramifications of what had happened to his team washed over him.

Prostrate on the turf, one of the game's most bold and brazen figures appears to go into shock as his brain struggles to process this ultimate and most complete sensation of loss. It seems almost akin to bear-baiting; how much anguish can we summon inside one goalkeeper while we kick-back and watch with voyeuristic glee?

There might be nowhere left to go for the IFAB as far as managing tie-breaker rules is concerned. Perhaps football is just a victim of how bum-squeakingly close it can be as a sport, although heavily-loaded fixture lists which leave little room on the calendar and little left in the tank for replays play a part in the authorities needing quick-fix, low-energy solutions.

It's less well-documented that Rugby Union also adopts its own variation on a Golden-Score rule, as well as a penalty competition for when knock-out games are tied in international contests. Indeed, in 2003 England were seconds away from sudden-death extra-time when Jonny Wilkinson kicked the winning penalty to claim the Rugby World Cup, with a five-against-five kicking contest not far behind.

Maybe football's fixation with drama will always lead it down hopeless dead-ends towards fanciful solutions like the Golden Goal. Maybe as fans we're just suckers for knife-edge tension ending in glutinous punishment. But while the format remains dormant the world is, if nothing else, safe from a repeat of the shambles of Saint Michael.

@hoovesonfire