Israel’s Little-known Contribution to Soccer History - Penalty Shootouts

There is a letter that proves that it was Israel - and not Germany - that helped make the idea of breaking ties during playoff matches with kicks from the penalty mark into an integral part of the sport we know today

Uzi Dann
Uzi Dann
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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.
France's David Trezeguet (20) misses a penalty kick against Italy's goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon during the penalty shootouts in the World Cup between Italy and France in Berlin, July 9, 2006.Credit: AP
Uzi Dann
Uzi Dann

This debate is quite old already. Were the kicks from the penalty mark at the end of tied soccer games invented by the Israelis or not? The simple answer is: These kicks, used in knockout “cup” ties, were not invented by Israelis – but they definitely became popular thanks to them. From something used only under certain circumstances and by unimportant clubs, penalty shootout kicks were later formally adopted as a means for determining the final score during a playoff or tournament by FIFA (the umbrella organization of international soccer) and other soccer associations.

Although decisions by penalty shootout existed as far back as the 1950s, thanks to an Israeli initiative at the end of the ‘60s, they were accepted in FIFA competitions and were even included in the regulations drawn up by the International Football Association Board, the game’s legislative body. Although Israelis didn’t actually think up the idea of using the kicks to break tie games during playoffs, contrary to what has been claimed here for years in the context of a long-standing debate with the German federation, Israelis – and not the Germans – were the cause for broad acceptance of this tactic.

The reason for this is well known: the Israeli team’s loss to Bulgaria in a lottery after their quarter-final tie at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico. The teams didn’t toss a coin, but rather drew lots out of a huge sombrero. Israel’s iconic captain, Mordechai “Motaleh” Spiegler, removed the piece of the paper with the word “no” written on it.

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

“They didn’t let us approach, we stood on the edge of the field when the lottery was conducted on the other side,” the late journalist Yechiel Arazi, editor of the Haaretz sports department, 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 existed already in the early 1950s. The first well-known competition that used the procedure on a regular basis was the Yugoslav Cup: The tied match during the 1952 cup between Kvarner Rijeka and Proleter Osijek is considered to be the first to be decided by a penalty shootout – 4-3 to Rijeka, in the name of historical accuracy.

In light of the Yugoslavian example, penalty shootouts were also used in the Italian Cup (beginning in the 1958/59 season), and in relatively unimportant international tournaments. For example, the kicks were used beginning in 1962 at the first Swiss Uhrencup ־ a series of summer games involving Swiss teams and guests that still exists, and in which Maccabi Tel Aviv once participated. At the Bolivarian Games in 1965, the silver medalist was decided by a shootout: Venezuela defeated Bolivia 2-1.

But the method still didn’t really catch on. When there was a draw 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 lottery.

If you think that being eliminated in the quarter-finals of an Olympic competition because of a lottery is painful, as happened to Israel – what would you say about what happened a few months earlier in the semi-finals of the UEFA European Championship? In the same way the Soviet Union lost out to Italy in the finals of the Euro in 1968, after a 0-0 draw. The finals, incidentally, also ended in a tie, but Italy defeated Yugoslavia in the replay.

About then is when the Israelis entered the picture. Yosef Dagan, who was the secretary of the Israel Football Association at the time, had widespread connections in England and for many years was responsible for the association’s foreign relations. He suggested the idea of asking FIFA to officially mandate the use of a penalty shootout in the event of a draw during a playoff/tournament competition. The late Michael Almog, deputy chairman of the IFA and board member, who later went on to head the association from 1973 to 1982, was enthusiastic about the idea, and went on to authorize it.

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

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 just 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.

The 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 on the way it was. Still, the year was 1969, and the senders may not have imagined that their suggestion for the new regulation would be accepted relatively quickly, or that the document would become historic.

“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 Malaysian referee Koe Ewe Teik, who accepted the Israelis’ proposal and, with the help of his connections, pushed it through at a committee meeting on February 20, 1970.

Dagan: “He 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 and an additional one each time, if necessary. He completed the proposal and decided, for example, where the referee and the players would stand.”

In order for the penalty shootouts to become part of the regulations, IFAB approval was necessary. Its annual meeting took place on June 27, immediately after the World Cup. There, in Scotland, the FIFA proposal was approved, as stated in an official document.

However, in Germany, they attribute the idea of the penalty shootout to former German referee Karl Wald, in large part based on an interview he gave during the 2006 World Cup in Germany, when he was 90 years old. Wald, who has passed away in the interim, did in fact propose to the German Football Association, in early 1970, the idea of kicks from the penalty mark to decide tie games. He may not have known about the Israeli letter and about the FIFA referees’ committee that discussed the proposal. In any case, the German attribution is incorrect.

Because in the 1974 and 1978 World Cups there was a second stage involving groupings of teams, and regulations demanded a replay in the case of a draw in the finals match, there were no penalty shootouts in the tournament until 1982. In the European Championship the system was adopted in 1972, and was first used four years later when Czechoslovakia defeated West Germany, when the final kick in the playoff was the famous penalty shootout by Antonin Panenka.

After the official change in regulations, the penalty shootout became routine. The first match that took place after the rules were formally changed was the Whitely Bay tournament in England, a preseason event in which the outstanding scorer from each of the professional leagues played. Manchester United and Hull City met in the semi-finals match that ended up with a draw and penalty shootout. George Best was the first “official” shootout scorer in the new era of using kicks from the penalty mark to tip the balance in tied matches. Denis Law was the first to miss and Ian McKenzie of Hull was the first goalkeeper to kick a penalty shootout in such a playoff; it cost his team its elimination.

We can argue about whether it’s right to use penalty shootouts. They are certainly preferable to resorting to some sort of blind lottery. In any case, this may be Israel’s biggest contribution to the international soccer arena.

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