Although so many of the normal constituents of a World Cup finals – complaints about the ball, Sepp Blatter contradicting himself in public, Cristiano Ronaldo’s pained expression & enormous Adam’s apple combo, England getting dumped on their backsides – have been present and correct, it had begun to feel as if something was missing from the 2010 World Cup finals.  The penalty shoot-out. In fact, until this afternoon only one second round match had even gone to extra-time from the six already played.

Over the last few days, it has at times felt as if this stage of the competition, a straight ninety minutes with no need to worry about permutations and what might be happening elsewhere seems to have suit the strongest teams, and the wins for Germany, Argentina and Brazil had the air of a stroll in the park about them. This afternoon, however, two well-matched teams played each other and we finally got a battle to the very end. Paraguay and Japan didn’t set the world alight with the one hundred and twenty minutes of normal football that they played, but they did at least manage to bring the world some tension with the penalty shoot-out that followed.

There are good penalty shoot-outs and relatively dull shoot-outs, but there is no doubting that they are all moments of stomach-clenching apprehension. Even if you are watching the match as a completely passive observer, the shoot-out is the point at which you, the viewer, are faced with a sudden (if brief) life or death decision of your own. Who do you want to win the shoot-out? Quickly! YOU MUST CHOOSE NOW! This particular shoot-out wasn’t particularly great one. The first seven kicks all hit the spot before Japan’s Yuichi Komano hit the crossbar. Suddenly, it gone from being a taut battle of wits to being a near-certainty for Paraguay. Oscar Cardozo made it five out of five for Paraguay and they were through to the quarter-finals for the first time.

The first major international tournament to be won by a penalty shoot-out was the 1976 European Championship final, played between Czechoslovakia and West Germany. Uli Hoeness fired the ball wildly over the crossbar, and Antonin Panenka scored to give Czechslovakia their first and only major title. It wasn’t an experience that the German team cared to repeat, and by the time of their 2006 World Cup quarter-final shoot-out against Argentina they had a database of 13,000 kicks. Their goalkeeping coach, Andreas Kopke, gave Jens Lehmann a slip of paper which gave hints as to which way Argentine players would shoot. Two of the seven names on the list took kicks, and Lehmann saved from one of them, from Roberto Ayala. Germany won the match.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the 1976 shoot-out was the only penalty shoot-out that Germany have ever lost, and they were also the first team to win one in the World Cup finals (against France in the 1982 semi-final), although they were introduced for the 1970 tournament. At the bottom of the league (at least of the teams that have been involved in more than a couple of shoot-outs) are England (with one win and five defeats) and the Netherlands (with one win and four defeats). That there are teams that seem, on the balance of historical evidence, to be good at them and teams that aren’t would seem to indicate that the old media staple of “the lottery of penalties” is partly a myth, although six countries have won as many shoot-outs as they have lost. Of the twenty-two nations that have only ever been involved in one competitive shoot-out, seven have won it and fifteen have lost. Practice, it would seem, may make perfect.

Penalty shoot-outs don’t seem to favour the English way of doing things. The overwhelming influence of notions of “heart” and “courage” persuades some that shouldn’t take penalties that they should, such as David Batty in 1998 and John Terry in the 2008 Champions League finals for Chelsea against Manchester United. The psychological aspect must also play a significant part in being unable to break the spell. Lurking in the back of the mind of every English or Dutch player’s mind must be the idea that, “we may not be very good at this”. At a time of high pressure, when every psychological point counts for something, to suggest that this doesn’t make any difference at all seems unlikely, to say the least. The fact that they come up so infrequently and that it is impossible to recreate the environment of a shoot-out in a training environment may make failure a hard spell to break.

Penalty shoot-outs still, of course, have their critics, and alternatives have been tried. In the United States of America (both in the NASL and MLS) shootouts started 35 yards from goal, with the taker having five seconds to attempt a shot. MLS eventually changed over to penalty shoot-outs, the same as everybody else. However, the fact that they have been around for forty years (even if they weren’t required for the first twelve of those forty) and received relatively little criticism compared to, say, FIFA’s intransigence towards video technology in matches would seem to indicate that they retain a degree of popularity amongst supporters. They have the capacity to create heroes and villains in a thrice, which seems to tap into an almost primal desire on our part for instant gratification, and we know that they are a test of skill and nerve.

It is not reasonable, considering the high volume schedule that it has to stick to, to expect a major tournament like the World Cup to hold replays, and those that do consider them to be a lottery should probably consider the case of the Soviet Union, who lost their 1968 European Championship semi-final to Italy in Naples on the toss of a coin. For the rest of us, we can at least console ourselves when we lose on penalty kicks that we didn’t win over one hundred and twenty minutes and that there was a degree of skill in the lottery that we lost. It probably won’t come as much of a consolation to the players and supporters of a Japan team that missed out by the single kick of one ball earlier today, but it’s something.