Tim Farrell thinks he has the perfect replacement to the penalty shootout. He just needs someone to listen.
After Spain’s shocking Round of 16 loss to Russia last Sunday, manager Fernando Hierro was quick to blame an unexpected culprit for his team’s early exit. No, it was not his side’s poor finishing, circuitous passing, or Russia’s resolute defending that was at fault. Instead the Spanish manager attacked the penalty shootout system itself. “We are leaving this World Cup without losing a single match, and that is a fact,” he said. “A penalty shootout is basically a lottery, and we weren’t lucky. All of us are suffering.”
Hierro’s comments were very much on trend: Every time a major tournament match is decided on penalties, fans, managers, and players complain about how the shootout is an inherently unfair way to decide a football game.
Down in Melbourne, Australia, Tim Farrell is tired of suffering. Despite not holding any official power with a team or league, Farrell has dedicated the past decade to getting rid of the penalty shootout, pouring countless hours into his passion project, an alternative to the shootout called Attacker-Defender-Goalkeeper. Farrell’s website has everything from a 34-point set of rules complete with diagrams to hypothetical reworkings of major penalty shootouts to a page full of quotes from famous players bemoaning the penalty shootout. He’s contacted officials in leagues and organizations around the globe to no avail, a lonely and Quixotic mission to end football’s greatest injustice. “I’ve never kept a tally,” he says of his time spent trying to eradicate the shootout “but many thousands of hours.”
Farrell fell in love with football playing as a child in the 1970s and watching Maradona at the 1986 World Cup. His hated hatred of penalties came later after the 1994 World Cup when Roberto Baggio infamously skied his penalty over the crossbar in the tournament’s final. “The English novelist, A.S. Byatt writes [on the shootout], ‘One does not remember the winners. One remains haunted by the losers,” he says. “With Baggio it’s never been more true”.
Even though a heroic penalty shootout brought his beloved Socceroos to their first-ever World Cup in 2006, Farrell says the system has two fundamental flaws: Penalties don’t showcase the best of the sport, and they exert a huge psychological toll on the players.
“Even Terry Venables — who I don’t think anyone is going to accuse of being a new-age sensitive guy — said we shouldn’t be subjecting players to this level of pressure and it could ruin careers,” he says.
Farrell also worries that the the shootout might also damage young players and drive them away from the sport. “What are the ramifications for those young players who feel that they’ve let their teammates down? Do they continue playing soccer, or it abandon it for another sport?” he says, “You’ve got this long term psychological trauma that’s created for players and with the way world works now with all the scrutiny from social media, it’s going to make it infinitely worse.”
But unlike other armchair antagonists, Farrell has devised a solution. Attacker-Defender-Goalkeeper, shortened to ADG, is in format pretty similar to a traditional shootout. Just like a penalty shootout, each team has five chances to try and score. But instead of a spot kick, each attacking player gets the ball on the halfway line with a one defender and the goalkeeper between him and the goal. The attacker has 30 seconds to put the ball in the back of the net.
“The underlying problem with the shootout is the expectation that the kicker should always score,” he says. “Soccer is the ultimate low scoring game. [The shootout] turned the game upside down and it’s just crazy. The challenge was then to develop that initial idea into something that showcases modern soccer but doesn’t sacrifice the shootout’s inherent dramatic tension.”
Farrell estimates that ADG attempts would be converted around 20 percent of the time, much lower than the rate for a penalty shootout, which is around 70 percent. Plus, he thinks it would be better TV. “Would you rather watch Neymar or Mbappé walk up and convert a penalty kick to win the match, or watch them at full speed, swerve past a defender and bend the ball into the back of the net,” he asks.
But despite Farrell’s best efforts, getting anyone to bite on the proposal has proven difficult. The International Football Association Board (IFAB), the body in charge of standardizing the international laws of the game, considered Farrell’s original proposal back in 2009, but since then he does not have much to show for his efforts. He says that he has been told they will consider a newer, reworked proposal at some point, but has no definite timeline. He has also had little success in his attempts to get Australian clubs to try out ADG.
Farrell is running into essentially the same problem that faced Major League Soccer in the late 1990s. For its first three seasons, MLS employed the old NASL-style shootout: each player got the ball 35 yards from goal with five seconds to score. It could look dumb, but it was very, very fun.
Farrell loves the old NASL shootout and thought it was a step in the right direction, but MLS got rid of it for the 1999 season as the league began to more closely mirror the style and look of the major European leagues.
Despite his lack of progress, there are some signs change could be coming to penalty shootouts. Last year, IFAB began an experiment with an “ABBA” penalty order modeled after tennis tiebreaks in order to address the fact that the team kicking first wins around 60 percent of shootouts. Marco van Basten, now the technical director of FIFA, made headlines last year when he said that he was in favor of a shootout modeled after the old MLS style.
10 years on, ADG is not much closer to deciding a major tournament result than it was when Farrell first cooked it up. By day, Farrell continues to work as a film and video colorist, editing the color gradients for television and other video content. But by night, he plans to continue his work as one of the world’s foremost penalty antagonists.
He says he plans on sending an updated brochere to both IFAB and FIFA after the World Cup, hoping against hope that this time they might actually do something with his pitch. With the penalty shootout increasingly ingrained in the game that children grow up watching, it seems increasingly like Farrell is, like Sisyphus, destined to always watch the boulder roll back down the slope.
Not that he minds, however. As long as there are still penalty shootouts, Farrell will trying to get rid of them. “I started working on ADG in 2008 and to this point it’s been a solitary effort,” he says. “I’m just a simple fan with a love of the game.”