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Science decodes penalty shootout secret

Offering a scientific strategy for penalty shootouts, a team of Dutch scientists has found that goalkeepers in World Cup penalty shootouts tend to dive right when their team is behind because of the brain structure. Charu Sudan Kasturi reports.

sports Updated: Jul 13, 2011 18:51 IST
Charu Sudan Kasturi
Charu Sudan Kasturi
Hindustan Times

The biology of the human brain, and not football skills, may have played a key role in England’s 2006 World Cup quarterfinal loss to Portugal in a penalty shootout.

A team of Dutch scientists has found that in World Cup penalty shootouts, goalkeepers tend to dive right if their team is behind on the scoring sheet at that point, offering a helping hand from science to football coaches and strategists.

The right-oriented brain that humans possess makes us pick right over left when posed with a choice and faced with a positive outcome and under time pressure, the scientists at the University of Amsterdam have found.

"We're very hopeful this will help the Dutch national team win the next World Cup," Marieke Roskes, one of the co-authors said. The research will be published in the upcoming issue of Psychological Sciences, the highest empirically ranked journal on psychology.

Goalkeepers facing penalty kicks have the odds stacked against them, and while a striker is expected to score, a save from the goalkeeper could win the match and turn him into a national hero. But, the research suggests, such scenarios may also dull the natural objectivity of goalkeepers.

In the 2006 World Cup quarterfinal, England and Portugal battled for the entire duration of 90 minutes normal time and 30 minutes extra time without either team scoring.

The inability to hit the back of the net largely continued in the penalty shootout too, with Portugal missing two and England three before Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo stepped up to take the final penalty for his team.

With Portugal leading 2-1 in the penalty count at this stage, and a penalty left for England to take, a save from goalkeeper Paul Robinson could have brought England back into the game. Ronaldo shot to Robinson’s left, but Robinson dove right. Portugal scored and won the game.

"I was sitting with my coauthors in the bar and we were talking about soccer and about research," Roskes said.

The researchers evaluated every single penalty shootout in World Cup history since 1982 – when the concept was first introduced in the final tournament, though it had been used in the qualifiers four years earlier.

They found that goalkeepers dove to the left or to the right equally under normal conditions. But under the specific conditions of the goalkeeper’s team lagging in the penalty scoring sheet, goalkeepers tend to dive right, the researchers found.

Several earlier studies have shown that humans and animals tend to pick right over left when they really want something. The researchers also asked a group of people to divide a line in half, and found that most tended to aim a bit to the right when they were thinking of a positive outcome and were working under time pressure.

First Published: Jul 13, 2011 16:42 IST