Best Shot A Converting A Penalty Kick? : Show Me Your Cleats! - World Cup 2010 Blog Researchers say players should hit the ball straight down the middle, since the goalkeeper has to commit to diving one way or the other, and no self-respecting keeper is going to just stand there. But kicks down the middle are relatively rare.
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Best Shot At Converting A Penalty Kick? Shoot Straight Ahead

Spanish defender Carles Puyol (center) reacts after goalkeeper Iker Casillas saves a penalty kick by Oscar Cardozo of Paraguay. Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

Spanish defender Carles Puyol (center) reacts after goalkeeper Iker Casillas saves a penalty kick by Oscar Cardozo of Paraguay.

Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

Nothing makes grown men cry like missing a penalty, especially in the World Cup. And there have been buckets of tears in South Africa over the past few days.

Players and fans alike cried a river after Asamoah Gyan missed his chance to put Ghana in the semi-finals from the penalty spot against Uruguay, and Ghana subsequently lost a penalty shootout. Poor Oscar Cardozo of Paraguay was distraught after his penalty miss against Spain, covering his face in his jersey to hide his tears. Had Cardozo made his kick, he may have changed the course of the game; Paraguay might be preparing for a historic semifinal encounter instead of heading home. Moments later Spain's Xabi Alonso also missed from the spot. (He did score on his first attempt, but it was disallowed by the referee for an infringement).

If you've never taken a penalty kick, you'd think it should be easy. The penalty spot is 12 yards from the goal, which is 8 yards wide and 8 feet high. Even in these days of giant goalkeepers, with wingspans the width of a Pterodactyl, you'd think the odds would be stacked in favor of the kicker. And in ordinary times they are: Academic studies (yes, there are academic studies) cite conversion rates of approximately 75 percent in top-class soccer.

But in the World Cup quarterfinals there were three penalties in regulation time, all missed.

In the Ghana vs. Uruguay penalty shootout there were nine penalties total, with three misses.

Taken together, that's an overall conversion rate of 50 percent. Clearly, the higher the stakes, the greater the stress on the kicker: the goal shrinks, and 12 yards might as well be 12 miles. Former England manager Glenn Hoddle claimed he could tell by the way a player walked to the penalty spot whether or not they would score. And he speaks from bitter experience. Hoddle managed England during one of its several World Cup penalty kick debacles; let's just say, "deer" and "headlights" are the words that come to mind. Experienced players looked as petrified as an adolescent boy plucking up the courage to ask the high school prom queen out on a date.

So should you ever find yourself needing to take a penalty in the World Cup finals, what's the best approach? Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, the team behind the wildly successful bestseller Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, explore this problem in a recent podcast, as well as in an article in the Times of London.

Their findings draw on an academic paper published in the American Economic Review, entitled "Testing Mixed-Stragegy Equilibria When Players Are Heterogeneous: The Case of Penalty Kicks in Soccer." Now, I tried reading this article and it's as hard to get through as that unwatchable 0-0 draw between England and Algeria, especially given that I've forgotten what little calculus I ever knew. But the conclusions, as explained by Levitt and Dubner, are fascinating and counterintuitive.

Best way to score from the penalty spot? Hit the ball straight down the middle, since the goalkeeper has to commit to diving one way or the other before the ball is kicked to have a chance of stopping it, and no self-respecting keeper is just going to stand there. However, despite the likelihood of success, the researchers found kicks down the middle are relatively rare, compared with penalty kicks aimed at the corners of the goal. Why? Levitt and Dubner theorize that while the reward is greatest, so is the risk of being embarrassed in front of millions of people. If you hit the crossbar like Ghana's Asamoah Gyan did against Uruguay, or the keeper makes a full stretch save as happened to Oscar Cardozo, it's a heroic failure; hit the ball straight at the goalkeeper who saves it and you look merely inept.

So ... Netherlands, Germany, Spain and Uruguay you have your pre-match reading, and remember this, if you want to be a national hero, don't worry about being a national joke.

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