Penalties will put players on the spot

LONDON - Two men face each other, knowing that a single kick is about to decide their teams' fate as more than 700 million viewers watch: it must be a World Cup penalty shootout.

There is more than a 50 percent chance that the winners of the World Cup in South Africa, which kicks off on June 11, will have to survive a penalty shootout en route.

Some of the world's top sportsmen will inevitably buckle under the pressure, consigning millions of fans to despair and a lifetime of muttering "what if...?"

Derided as a lottery by critics, the penalty shootout is unsurpassed as the ultimate test of nerve to decide tied games. Despite its flaws, it makes compulsive viewing.

The split-second moment can make a player a hero, or forever scar an otherwise unblemished career.

"It affected me for years," said Roberto Baggio, the Italian forward who was one of the best players of the 1994 tournament until he missed in a shootout defeat to Brazil in the final.

"It was the worst moment of my career. I still dream about it. If I could erase a moment it would be that one."

England's Stuart Pearce shared that sentiment after missing in a 1990 semi-final defeat to Germany.

"My world collapsed. The walk back to the centre circle was a nightmare as the first rush of tears pricked my eyes," Pearce said years later.

Four of the last five winners of the world's biggest sports event have had to come through a shootout test of nerve during one of their four knockout games, including Italy and Brazil in the final games of 2006 and 1994.

Since penalties were introduced in 1982, to decide matches that remained drawn after extra time, there have been 20 shootouts in seven tournaments.

Five players from each side take a kick and if the scores are level a "sudden-death" process starts. Fifty-six, or 30 percent, of the 186 spot kicks have been missed.

FIRST MISS

Germany have proved most clinical, winning all four shootouts they have been involved in.

German defender Uli Stielike was the first man to miss in a shootout in Spain 28 years ago but his team still won the semi-final. Not one of his countrymen has missed since, giving German players a 94 percent success rate.

In contrast, England have lost all three of their World Cup shootouts, missing half of the 14 kicks they have taken.

The Swiss, Mexicans, Romanians and Dutchmen have yet to win a shootout, while this year's favourites, Spain, may need to improve their record of one win from three.

"It may not be wholly representative of the game but it's a test of skill under pressure and some countries have proved good at it," said Matt Pain, part of Loughborough University's football psychology research unit in England.

"It's clearly not a lottery because the statistics show how many Germany have scored and how many England and the Netherlands score."

Coaches going to South Africa will spend much time on research, trying to improve their chances, backed up by sports science and psychology experts who have spent hundreds of hours studying the art.