How do penalty shootouts work? Rules of soccer format explained

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Some of the most high-stakes football matches have been determined through a penalty shootout, but what exactly are the rules of one?

Penalty shootouts are some of the most nerve-wracking and stressful situations – for both players partaking and the viewers sitting anxiously at home, chewing their fingernails off in agony. 

Add the high stakes of what a shootout means as well as the anticipation period when a player runs up and shoots for the net in one of the most dramatic situations in football – sudden death in a last 16 game, the decider of a semi-final, the shootout to determine the winner of the World Cup.

But how do penalty shootouts work, and what are the rules? Goal takes a look.

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What is a penalty?

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In regular match play, a foul committed by a player in the penalty box on the opposition is a penalty – usually in the case of being fouled when through on goal, or through handball.

The ball is then placed on the "penalty spot" in the centre of the box, where one chosen player from the fouled team will be selected to convert a penalty one-on-one against the goalkeeper. The attacker obviously holds a deliberate advantage, as the keeper does not know where he will shoot the ball until he takes his shot.

How does the penalty shootout work?

Penalty shootouts only take place during the knockout phases of a competition, such as the last 16 of a major international tournament like the World Cup, Euros or club competition such as the Champions League.

They are to decide the scoreline of a knockout game if, by the end of regular or extra time the score is still even – as one team will need to be able to progress through to the next stage.

Penalty shootouts do not occur during the league season, as the outcome of the clubs' finishing is determined by points.

In the event of a shootout, both teams select five players to take a penalty and alternate the order in doing so (ABAB). Prior to the shootout, the captains of the two teams will meet with the referee first to determine at which end of the pitch the shootout will take place in, and a second coin toss to decide which team will take lead the shootout.

The team with the most penalties scored after the first five takes wins the shootout. 

However, if one side has scored more successful penalties than the other could possibly reach with all of its remaining kicks, the shoot-out ends, regardless of the number of kicks remaining – this is called "best of five kicks". An example of this is the 2006 World Cup final, when the shootout ended after Italy's Fabio Grosso had scored his teams fifth, despite the fact that France (on 3) still had one more to go.

If, after five penalties scored it is still tied, penalties continue through one back-and-forth round at a time – and the first team to have an advantage after a round between both teams wins. This is known as sudden death.

Then, the team that scores the most successful kicks by the end of the shoot-out will be the winner of the match.

How do teams get to the penalty shootout?

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In the event that the scoreline after 90 minutes of regular play is still even, the match will continue with two 15-minute periods of extra time in order to determine a winner. Teams are granted one additional substituion during extra time.

During the 30 minutes of extra time, teams will either play with a nervous, restless energy if they want to find a match-winner or either slow and lethargically if they want to take it to a shootout. 

It is not unusual for extra time to finish with the score still even or the same from the end of the 90 minutes, which send both teams to the penalty shootout high on nerves and adrenaline – with the team's fatigue and exhaustion only adding to the schadenfreude of shootout melodrama.

What is the ABBA shootout format?

FIFA have been trialling a new format for penalty-taking in smaller competitions, though decided against introducing it at the 2018 World Cup. As penalty shootouts are mostly taken under the ABAB format – where teams alternate between taking penalties with player from team A, then player from team B rotating – there has been a trend that the team who begin the shootout win 60% of the shootouts.

As such, FIFA have been trying to introduce a new format of ABBA, where teams take two penalties in a row – built like a tennis tiebreaker. It has been used at UEFA youth tournaments as well as the Carabao Cup, though it has reverted to the ABAB system for the 2018-19 season.