If Your Team Gets Knocked Out of the World Cup in a Penalty Shootout – Blame Israel

Contrary to popular belief that Germany was behind the penalty shootout idea to settle tied soccer cup games, a letter proves that it was actually an Israeli initiative

France's David Trezeguet (20) misses a penalty kick against Italy's goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon during the penalty kick shoot out  in the final of the soccer World Cup between Italy and France in the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, Sunday, July 9, 2006.
AP

This debate has been going on for a long time in soccer: Were penalty shootouts at the end of tied cup games invented by the Israelis or not?

The simple answer is that shootouts were not invented by Israelis – but they definitely became popular thanks to them.

From something used only under certain circumstances and in meaningless fixtures, penalty shootouts were later formally adopted as a way of determining the winner in tied knockout games at major tournaments – including the actual World Cup finals in 1994 and 2006.

The letter from Israeli Football Association to FIFA in 1969. They did not expect their proposal to be accepted so quickly.
Uzi Dan / FIFA archive

Although penalty shootouts existed as far back as the 1950s, it was thanks to an Israeli initiative at the end of the '60s that they were accepted in competitions run by world governing body FIFA. They were also included in the regulations drawn up by the International Football Association Board, which determines the laws of the game.

And although Israel didn’t actually come up with the idea of using penalties to settle tied cup games – contrary to what has been claimed by many Israelis, in a long-standing debate with the German soccer federation – it was Israel that led to broad acceptance of this tactic as a fair way of finding a winner.

The reason for this is well-known, certainly in Israel: The national side's loss to Bulgaria after their quarterfinal at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico ended in 1-1.

To decide who would advance to the semifinals, the teams didn’t toss a coin but instead drew lots out of a huge sombrero – one with the word "Yes," the other with the word "No." Israel’s iconic captain, Mordechai “Motaleh” Spiegler, drew the piece of the paper with the word “no” written on it.

“They didn’t let us approach; we stood on the edge of the field while the lottery was conducted on the other side,” the late journalist and Haaretz sports editor Yechiel Arazi once told me. “Motaleh said afterward – half in jest – that there were two slips of paper with ‘No’ written on them in the hat. Our feeling was that it might have been true.”

Penalty shootouts already existed in the early '50s. The first major competition to use the shootout on a regular basis was the Yugoslav Cup: A tied cup match between Kvarner Rijeka and Proleter Osijek in 1952 is believed to be the first decided by a penalty shootout – 4-3 to Rijeka, in the name of historical accuracy.

First FIFA regulation including clause on penalty kicks in knockout games, June 1970.

In light of the Yugoslav example, penalty shootouts were also used in the Italian Cup (beginning in the 1958/59 season). In 1962, penalty shootouts started being used at the inaugural Swiss Uhrencup – a series of summer games involving Swiss teams and foreign teams that still exists, and in which Maccabi Tel Aviv once participated. At the Bolivarian Games in 1965, the runner-up was decided by a shootout, when Venezuela defeated Bolivia 2-1 on penalties.

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But the shootout method still didn’t really catch on. When there was a tie at the end of a tournament match and it was possible to arrange a replay, they did so. When it was impossible – there was often a lottery.

If you think that being eliminated from the quarterfinals of the Olympic Games because of a lottery is painful, consider what happened a few months earlier in the semifinals of the 1968 UEFA European Championship, when the Soviet Union lost out to Italy after a 0-0 tie. 

This is about the time when the Israelis entered the picture. Yosef Dagan, the Israel Football Association's secretary at the time, had numerous connections in England and for many years was responsible for the IFA’s foreign relations.

He suggested the idea of asking FIFA to officially mandate the use of penalty shootouts in the event of a tie during tournament cup ties. The late Michael Almog, then-deputy chairman of the IFA and later IFA head from 1973 to 1982, was enthusiastic about the idea and pursued its authorization.

A fan’s paradise

I walk into the top floor of the FIFA World Football Museum in Zurich, where the archive is located. For a soccer historian, entering that place is like a chocolate lover visiting a fancy chocolatier. With only a short amount of time available, I concentrated on the most interesting thing in the cartons bearing the word “Israel” (most of which contain boring correspondence): the 1969 letter concerning penalty shootouts.

A well-preserved letter exists in the form in which it was first written, sent and received by FIFA: With the rather basic English of the original, with several mistakes and also corrections, but not even retyped – just sent the way it was. Still, the year was 1969 and the senders may not have imagined that their suggestion for a new regulation would be accepted relatively quickly, or that the document would become a piece of history.

“We sent the letter to FIFA, and they realized that there was something to it,” Dagan says now, adding that while the letter was not dated, the day on which it was received by FIFA – July 24, 1969 – was mentioned several weeks later in the association’s newsletter.

“A referee from Malta, who was a senior member of FIFA’s international referees’ committee, saw it and was enthusiastic,” Dagan recalls.

But Dagan gives most of the credit to a Malaysian referee, Koe Ewe Teik, who accepted the Israelis’ proposal and, with the help of his own connections, pushed it through at a FIFA committee meeting on February 20, 1970.

Dagan: “[Teik] sent the proposal to members of the referees’ committee that was responsible for the subject and suggested bringing it up for approval. We proposed the principle of five alternate kicks [per side] and then an additional one each time, if necessary. He completed the proposal and decided, for example, where the referee and players would stand.” (Players stand on the halfway line while their teammates take the penalty kicks.)

In order for the shootouts to become part of the regulations, IFAB approval was necessary. Its annual meeting took place on June 27 – a week after the World Cup had finished in Mexico. It was there, in Scotland, that the FIFA proposal was approved.

Meanwhile, in Germany...

In Germany, though, the idea of the penalty shootout is attributed to former German referee Karl Wald – in large part based on an interview he gave during the 2006 World Cup Finals in Germany, when he was 90.

Wald, who has since passed away, did propose to the German Football Association in early 1970 the idea of penalty shootouts to resolve tied cup games. He may not have known about the Israeli letter and the FIFA referees’ committee that discussed the proposal. In any case, the German claim is incorrect – making it one of the few times it has lost anything to do with a penalty shootout.

Because the 1974 and 1978 World Cups featured a second group stage instead of knockout matches, and regulations demanded a replay in the event of a tie in the actual final, there were no penalty shootouts in the World Cup tournament until 1982.

The European Championships had introduced the penalty shootout in 1972, and was first used it determine the winner when Czechoslovakia defeated West Germany on penalties – a shootout immortalized by a cheeky winning "dinked" penalty by Antonin Panenka (thus giving the world the "Panenka").

The fairness of penalty shootouts to settle a major game has been fiercely debated ever since the system was introduced. (The North American Soccer League even tried a variant, in which players started 35 yards (32 meters) from the goal and had five seconds to attempt a shot.) Still, they are certainly preferable to resorting to some sort of blind lottery – like drawing the word "No" out of a giant sombrero.