World Cup 2022: Is there any statistical advantage to going first in a penalty shootout?

Hajime Moriyasu, Head Coach of Japan, speaks to players before extra time during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Round of 16 match between Japan and Croatia at Al Janoub Stadium on December 05, 2022 in Al Wakrah, Qatar.
(Image credit: Shaun Botterill - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

In 1968, Italy won the semi-final of the European Championship on a coin toss. There's a theory that at Euro 2020, they may well have done the same thing.

Italy went first in both semi-final and final penalty shootouts. It got a few people thinking too: how much of an advantage is there to going first? There are some who believe that the team that goes first in a shootout have a significant advantage: maybe the real decider isn't the penalty shootout at all but the toss to decide who goes first.

And looking back at the entirety of Euro 2020, perhaps there's something in it. Every team who went first in the shootout won. Look at the Europa League final of that season too: Bruno Fernandes elected for Manchester United to go second, only for Villarreal to triumph. When you dig a little deeper into the data, however, there doesn't seem to be too much concrete evidence to suggest an unfair advantage…

Is there any statistical advantage to going first in a penalty shootout?

Lionel Messi seeing his penalty saved by Hannes Halldorsson

Lionel Messi seeing his penalty saved by Hannes Halldorsson (Image credit: Getty)

While it's true that every team at Euro 2020 to go first in a shootout won, two out of the three teams who win shootouts six years ago at Euro 2016, actually went second. In fact, all four of the penalty shootout-winning teams at the last World Cup went second, too.

There have been 14 shootouts, all in all, in the European Championships this century. Nine of them have won been won by the side first up; five of them by the team going second. That's not entirely conclusive. 

Coincidentally, the last six World Cup shootouts stretching back to 2018 have all been won by the side who went second; the previous nine were all won by the team who went first. The teams that go first, are winning 21st Century World Cup shootouts nine to seven, against those going second.

In 2021's Copa America edition, there were three shootouts. Two were won by teams going second, two by teams going first.

Another strange quirk noticed at Euro 2020 is that the teams to have missed the first penalty have often gone on to win: that was true of the last three shootouts of the competition – although Kylian Mbappe's fluffed spot-kick was the only miss when France crashed out on pens to Switzerland in the last-16.

Similarly, the data isn't conclusive for this. 

Of the 30 penalty shootouts that have taken place in the World Cup or Euros since 2000, only seven of them have been won by a team who has missed first. This makes complete sense, given the tight nature of shootouts and the momentum that one miss could potentially have psychologically on either side.

Over the years, footballing bodies have rarely introduced new ways for shootouts to be fairer - but one such initiative was the ABBA ruling, which gave each team two penalties in a row to try and save, rather than alternating goes. This was most notably used in the 2015 Community Shield between Arsenal and Chelsea but has never been trialled at a World Cup or European Championship.

According to the data, at least, it's still as much of a lottery as ever. Better sharpen up from 12 yards if you're looking for the advantage... 

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Mark White
Staff Writer

Mark White has been a staff writer on FourFourTwo since joining in January 2020, writing pieces for both online and the magazine. An encyclopedia of football shirts and boots knowledge – both past and present – Mark has also been to the FA Cup and League Cup finals for FFT and has written pieces for the mag ranging on subjects from Bobby Robson's season at Barcelona to Robinho's career. He once saw Tyrone Mings at a petrol station in Bournemouth but felt far too short to ask for a photo.