Penalty – A Game of Choices


Most Competitive League In EuropeThe phenomenon of penalty kick is a matter of choice – both for the penalty taker and the goalkeeper. The penalty taker needs to decide whether to shoot left, right or down the middle while the goalkeeper chooses whether  to dive left, right or stay put in the center of goal. Can these choices fit a game theory model? Indranath Mukherjee explores the possibility by looking at an empirical study.


Football proposes a game involving a ball and eleven players in different positions. But the point to ponder here is that among the different positions for the eleven players on the pitch, which is the most intriguing one. The sheer dominance of two particular gentlemen in the Ballon d’Or award in the last nine years seem to suggest that goal scorers are the obvious answer to our question. The answer, however, is not that simple.

Friend and fellow writer at Goalden Times, Trinankur Banerjee, a student of Film Studies, once wrote, “When I was beginning to wander in the realm of cinema and was at an age when more than the game, football became an alternative narrative of history and philosophy, the act of goalkeeping pondered me the most. Truly, do you know who is a goalkeeper? Before one jumps onto the obvious, have you given it a thought? Are goalkeepers footballers? Or are they distant observers, aliens to the centre stage, the ideal postmodern persona of sports? Is he the Joseph K. of Football, who is always held at an irrational trial after every game?”

He went on to refer to Wim Wender’s existential masterpiece, “The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick” where a goalkeeper engages in some trivial activities with people on the sidelines and concedes a goal. Then, he gets himself sent off as he pushes the referee out of sheer wrath and there ends the opening sequence. The moment it ended, Trinankur had to pause and wonder, is this not the best summary of the question, “who is a goalkeeper?”


Left or Right or Left

This is indeed an intriguing question. However, during a penalty, the goalkeeper is always an active party to the game and is under the perennial dilemma of whether to dive — or not to dive. Whatever may be written about the great penalties and the goalkeepers’ geniuses, the history of penalties is actually a history of choices. And the choice is not just for the goalkeeper but for the player taking the penalty as well. In the 1994 FA Cup final against Chelsea, Eric Cantona scored twice from the spot in Manchester United’s 4-0 win. In the post-match press conference when a journalist asked Cantona about his thought before taking the second penalty kick, he responded: “Well, I first thought that I would put it in the other corner this time. But I figured the goalkeeper might know this, so I then thought about putting it in the same corner. But then again, I thought that he probably thought that I would think like this, so I decided to change again to the other corner. Then I figured that he probably thought that I was thinking that he would probably think that I would think like that, so …” He had paused, probably realizing that he is on an endless and circular loop of reasoning, and then said: “You know what? The truth is that I just kicked it.”2

Number of regular penalty takers went on record saying that even after starting their run –up to the ball to take the penalty kick, they are not sure which side they will kick the ball. I distinctly remember being stressed while thinking which side Lionel Messi would choose when he started walking up to take the first penalty kick for Argentina in the 2016 Copa América Centenario final. In the 2015 final, he took a low shot to his right and scored. Claudio Bravo, the Chilean goalkeeper, had played with Messi at Barcelona for two years by then and probably knew at least a little about Messi’s penalty-taking thought process. For a brief moment, I thought of the scenario as a classic case of game theory strategy between the two players involved. Messi went on to shoot to his right again but this time hit the ball over the crossbar, and Argentina went on to lose their third final in three years. Whether Lionel Messi will go down in the pages of football history as the greatest ever not to have won a national championship with the senior team can be debated, his Argentina team will surely not be considered as the best team to not to win a World Cup final. Hungary of 1954 is likely to be that team ahead of Holland of 1974 and the 1954 final had no penalties. Another Hungarian, John von Neumann, who died in 1957 at the age of 53 years, may not have had any interest in football, he was surely aware of his national team’s popularity and success. It will never be known whether the phenomenon of penalty kick was in his mind while working on his famous Minimax theorem3.


The Hypothesis

In his article titled “Zur Theorie der Gesellschaftsspiele” published in 1928, von Neumann proved the Minimax theorem, which essentially says that in zero-sum games with perfect information (i.e. in which players know at each time all moves that have taken place so far), there exists a pair of strategies for both players that allows each to minimize his maximum losses. When examining every possible strategy, a player must consider all the possible responses of the other player. The player then plays out the strategy that will result in the minimization of his maximum loss.3

Although empirical verification of strategic models of behaviour is often very difficult, the phenomenon of the penalty kick is a good candidate to test the implications of Minimax theorem in a real-life setting. The pay-off in a penalty kick is always constant-sum; the pay-off of the shot taker is exactly the negative of the pay-off of the goalkeeper. This is a case of pure conflict with no common interest between the players. Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, professor of management, economics and strategy at London School of Economics and head of talent identification at Athletic Club de Bilbao, did an extensive study which has been used in recent years to advise a number of professional football teams.2

A formal model of penalty kick may be written as follows. Players’ payoffs during the event of a penalty kick are the probabilities of success – goal for the penalty taker and no goal for the goalkeeper. The shot taker has the option of shooting either on the left or to the right. Similarly, the goalkeeper also has the option of diving to the left or to the right. Of course, there exists a third option for both the shot taker and the goalkeeper which is to shoot in the centre or stand in the middle but as we will see later in the data that those choices are statistically not significant enough and hence we keep the options as L and R in the simple model. There is another obvious dimension to any penalty kick – the height of the shot, which has been kept outside the scope of discussion for now.

LR Picture

Π here denotes a particular event; πLR stands for the event when the penalty taker shoots towards the left and the goalkeeper moves towards the right. It might appear that the goalkeeper has gone nuts as he is moving to the opposite direction of the shot. But one has to remember that these choices – left or right – are simultaneously taken by both the shot taker as well as the goalkeeper. It has been observed that the ball takes about 0.3 seconds to travel between the penalty spot to the goal line and this does not provide the goalkeeper with enough time to first see the shot, react, move towards the direction of the shot and complete a successful save. This means that both the shot taker and the goalkeeper must choose their strategies simultaneously. The outcome of the game is observable and in effect is decided within about 0.3 seconds after the involved players choose their strategies. Professor Palacios-Huerta has shown that the penalty kick game has a unique state of equilibrium (Nash equilibrium4) in mixed strategies when

πLR > πLL < πRL

πRL > πRR < πLR

In the above model of penalty kick, the equilibrium requires both the shot taker and the goalkeeper to use a mixed strategy. In this case, the equilibrium yields two sharp testable predictions about the behaviour of the shot taker and the goalkeeper:

  1. Success probabilities – the probability that a goal will be scored (not scored) for the shot taker (goalkeeper) should be the same across strategies for each player.
  2. Each player’s choices must be serially independent given constant payoffs across penalty kicks. This means that players must be concerned only with instantaneous payoffs and there are no intertemporal links between penalty kicks – the choices should be memoryless. In other words, the choice in one particular penalty kick must not depend on one’s own previous choices or the opponent’s previous choices or any other previous actions.

What this means is fairly simple; as the shot taker (or goalkeeper), it would be disadvantageous for you to let your opponent know your actual choice in advance. So it’s optimal for each player to choose a strategy randomly from the available pure strategies but the proportion in the mix should be such that one player cannot exploit the opponent’s choice by pursuing any particular pure strategy from all the strategies available to him or her.

Numbers and Crunching

Professor Palacios-Huerta used classical hypothesis technique and real data to test if the two hypotheses mentioned above can be rejected2. The data collected were from the leagues in Spain, England, Italy and some international games from the period between September 1995 and June 2012. Data for a total of 9,017 penalty kick records were used and the following data points were considered: name of the players (both the shot taker and the goalkeeper), name of the teams involved in the match, the date of the match, the choices made by the players (left, right or centre), time in the game when the penalty-kick was shot, the score of the match at that time, final score of the match and outcome of the penalty kick- goal or no goal (no goal included both save by the goalkeeper and penalties shot wide or to the post or to the cross-bar), each in separate categories. The data also include the shot takers kicking leg – left or right. Most of the shot takers in the sample are right-footed – as in real life. One immediate observation from the data is that right-footed shot takers shoot more often to the right-hand side of the goalkeeper and left-footed kickers shoot more often to the left hand side bowing to their basic anatomical inclinations. In the data set for example, Messi who is naturally left-footed takes about 62% of his penalties to the left side while close to 63% of Cristiano Ronaldo’s penalties are taken to the right side.

To deal with the naturally right and left-footed issue, Professor Palacios-Huerta ‘normalized’ the strategies of the game and instead of calling right and left; he renamed the choice as natural side (denoted by R) and non-natural side (L). Thus, a right-footed shot taker shooting to the goalkeeper’s right is denoted by R and the same notation is being used for a left-footed shot taker shooting to the left. For the goalkeeper, the shot taker’s natural or stronger side is R and the non-natural or the weaker side is L. So both Messi and Ronaldo’s number shows about 62% in their natural side in Table 1.

In the data set, 80.07% all the penalties resulted in goal. The rate of scoring is close to 100% when the goalkeeper’s choice doesn’t coincide with the shot taker’s choice and close to 60% when they coincide. In about half of all the penalties in the dataset, the goalkeeper’s choice coincided with the shot takers choice, mostly RR (30.5%), 16.7% are LL and 0.9% are CC. Shot takers rarely kick to the centre (6.8% in the data) and the goalkeeper’s choice of C is even rarer (3.5% in the data) perhaps because they cover part of the centre to some extent by their legs when choose R or L. The percentage of kicks where the choices don’t coincide are more or less equally divided between LR (21.6%) and RL (21.7%). Let’s now take a look at the tests of the implications of the Minimax theorem in the penalty kick game.


The Revelation

Table 1: Pearson and Runs Tests for 20 key penalty takers and goalkeepers2


Note: ** and * denote rejections at the 5% and 10% significance levels, respectively.

The table above lists the penalty taking statistics for 40 key players, top 20 of them being penalty takers and the bottom 20 being goalkeepers.

Professor Palacios-Huerta implemented standard proportions tests to test the null hypothesis that the scoring probabilities for a player (penalty taker or goalkeeper) are identical across strategies by using Pearson’s chi-squared (χ2) goodness of fit test of equality of two distributions. Put simply, he went on to verify if the actual conversion rate of penalties across strategies are identical subject to a theoretically pre-defined limit, known as p-value in the world of statistics. Thus one can reject the null hypothesis (that scoring probabilities across strategies are identical) when the p-value is less than a pre-determined significance level.

From the Pearson’s chi-squared (χ2) goodness of fit test results the null hypothesis of equal probabilities cannot be rejected for most of the players. It is rejected for just two players (David Villa and Frank Lampard) at 5% level of significance and four players (Iker Casillas and Morgan De Sanctis joins the list) at 10% level of significance. If we study deeply the way these players typically took their penalties or attempt to save them, we will probably understand why for certain players the hypothesis is rejected. For example, Frank Lampard’s technique was very different when he was up against an English goalkeeper compared to the time faced against other goalkeepers. Iker Casillas hardly stays in the middle and chose his natural side more than 50% of times against 59 penalties that he had faced until 2010 World Cup final, allowing his opponents a better chance of scoring when they chose Iker’s non-natural side.

Hence the hypothesis that scoring probabilities are identical across strategies cannot be rejected at the individual level for most players at conventional levels of significance (at 5% and 10% level as stated above). In fact, the number of rejections is identical to the theoretical predictions.

The second hypothesis was tested by applying the standard “runs test”. This is an application of the results of Gibbons and Chakraborti (1991)5. To explain this simply, let us consider the sequence of strategies chosen by a player in the order in which they occurred s = {s1, s2, …, sn} where every s will take a value of either L or R and n = nR + nL are the number of natural (nR) and non-natural side (nL) choices opted by the player. Further r (in the table) denotes the total number of consecutive identical strategies in the sequences. As for the hypothesis of serial independence, the runs test show that the hypothesis is rejected just for three players (Villa, Alvaro Negredo and Edwin van der Sar) at 5% significance level and only Jens Lehmann joins the list if we increase the level of significance to 10%. Majority of the players neither appear to switch strategies too often or too infrequently.

Curious readers may refer to Professor Palacios-Huerta’s work given in the reference section for further technical details and more insights into the results2. These tests and the results have been used to advise a number of football clubs and national teams in recent years. The most famous client being Chelsea Football Club in the UEFA Champions League final in 2008, the story of which has been narrated in details in the book Soccernomics (2012) by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski6. Let’s just recall a part of the story here:

So far, the advice (of the tests) had worked very well for Chelsea (The right-footed penalty takers had obeyed it to the letter, Manchester United’s goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar had not saved a single penalty, and Chelsea’s keeper had saved Cristiano Ronaldo’s) …As Nicolas Anelka prepared to take Chelsea’s seventh penalty, the gangling keeper, standing on the goal-line, extended his arms to either side of him. Then, in what must have been a chilling moment for Anelka, the Dutchman (Van der Sar) pointed with his left to the left corner. “That’s where you’re all putting it, isn’t it?” he seemed to be saying. Now Anelka had a terrible dilemma. This was game theory in its rawest form … So Anelka knew that Van der Sar knew that Anelka knew that Van der Sar tended to dive right against right-footers. What was Anelka to do? We all know that end. Kuper and Szymanski summarized the end as “Anelka’s decision to ignore the advice (of the tests) probably cost Chelsea the Champions League”. So that is the story of 2008 UCL final beyond John Terry’s slip.

MOSCOW - MAY 21: Edwin Van der Sar of Manchester United saves the penalty attempt from Ncolas Anelka of Chelsea to win during the UEFA Champions League Final match between Manchester United and Chelsea at the Luzhniki Stadium on May 21, 2008 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)


  1. Gonzalez E. Historias del Calcio: Una cronica de italia a traves del futbol. Barcelona: RBA Libros; 2007.
  2. Palacios-Huerta I. Beautiful game theory: how soccer can help economics. Princeton: Princeton University Press; 2014.
  3. Neumann JV. Zur Theorie der Gesellschaftsspiele. Math. Annalen. 1928;100:295–320.
  4. Nash JF. Equilibrium Points in N-Person Games. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1950;36(1):48-49.
  5. Chakraborti S, and Gibbons JD. One-Sided Nonparametric Comparison of Treatments with a Standard in the One-Way Layout. J Qual Technol. 1991;23(2):102-106.
  6. Kuper S, and Szymanski S. Soccernomics: why transfers fail, why Spain rule the world and other curious football phenomena explained. London: HarperSport; 2012.

Messi and Amigos – An Exclusive Pictorial

A pictorial tour of recent Messi and Friends charity match held at Chicago. Goalden Times correspondents were there and present some splendid captures from the event

Argentine football superstar Lionel Messi along with a galaxy of other stars  including Arsenal legend Thierry Henry, ex-Valencia man Pablo Aimar,  PSG forward Ezequiel Lavezzi, Argentine midfielder Javier Mascherano, ex-Chelsea star Florent Malouda, Brazilian goal keeper Júlio César, Uruguay defender Diego Lugano and former Argentine Playmaker Ariel Ortega recently appeared in a charity game on July 6, at Chicago Soldier Field. The game was arranged to raise  funds for Leo Messi Foundation and resulted in Messi and Friends  winning 9 – 6 against Rest of the World.

 Goalden Times brings exclusive photographs of some brilliant football moments from the game for its readers.


Correspondents: Joydeep Ghosh & Srinwantu Dey

Photography: Srinwantu Dey

Europe’s Best XI for 2011-2012 Season

Best XI is a compilation of interesting events or snippets from the football world across different locations that we share with you. Best XI will seek to be about topics you are interested in and want explored. You may mail your requests to

The Champions League Final on May 19 at the Allianz Arena marked an end to the latest European season. With its fair share of drama, controversies on and off the pitch and above all footballing brilliance, it has been quite an enthralling season. Let’s take this opportunity to look back at the season that is gone to decide upon a team of eleven players that can be put across as Europe’s Best XI.

Goalkeeper: Manuel Neuer

The Bavarian shot-stopper in his first season at the club has been in imperious form. He set the club record of maximum time without conceding a goal bettering the previous record of Oliver Kahn. Bayern Munich has been sort of unlucky as they ended the season trophy-less but they went on to play the final of Champions League, the DFB-Pokal Cup and finishing runners–up behind Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga. During the course of the season, Neuer was hugely influential for his team as Bayern conceded the least number of goals in the domestic league. In the Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid, he saved penalties from Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo to take his side through to the final. So probably there is no other candidate who could stake his claim as the keeper of the team more than Neuer.



Defender: Branislav Ivanovic

The Serbian defender was probably the most consistent performer of the Champions League winning Chelsea backline. He is not a traditional right-back but was preferred in the position ahead of the inconsistent Jose Boswingwa. Ivanovic always provided security at the back with his no-nonsense approach, at the same time he was never shy of going forward and helping out his strikers. Chipping in with a few goals added further dimension to Ivanovic’s repertoire (five goals, which includes the winning goal against Napoli, from a defender in a season is an asset to any team). Chelsea’s topsy turvy season took a complete U-turn under their care-taker manager Roberto Di Matteo and it was his defensive organisation that won plaudits. Ivanovic’s virtuoso performance in the way to the final, especially against Barcelona in two legs of semi-final, deserves special mention.

Defender: Mats Hummels

It can be safely said that Mats Hummels is the most talented upcoming defender in Europe. At such a tender age, the maturity shown by this lad is tremendous. His game-reading, positioning, tackling is top-notch and in spite of being a centre-back, his ability to bring the ball out of the defence to initiate attacks marks him special. His vision and eye for a pass is quite exceptional unlike other rugged German defenders of recent times. For the last two seasons, his partnership with Neven Subotic has been a hallmark of the brilliant Die Borussen side and when Subotic was absent for a period last season due to injury, Hummels single-handedly marshalled the defence to see his side through that difficult phase. Keep an eye out for Hummels as he will continue to develop as one of the finest modern defenders.

Defender: Vincent Kompany

It has been quite a fairy tale season for Vincent Kompany, the captain of the Manchester City side that reclaimed the League after a gap of 44 years. Kompany was a true leader of the side in every sense of the term. He led from the front with his solid displays right through the season. It is hard to remember a single match where he took a wrong step. With the experienced Kolo Toure absent at the start of the season, he took up the responsibility to settle City’s defence. Kompany was so important to Roberto Mancini’s plan that when he was absent in City’s line-up due to injury and suspension, his team’s performance clearly suffered and coincided with a slump in their form. Along with this, Kompany’s ability to chip in with important goals was crucial in City’s success. City fans will fondly remember his header against their archrival Manchester United in probably the championship deciding match.

Defender: Giorgio Chiellini

The Italian defender who is considered by many as a suitable successor to Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta and Paolo Maldini was a standout performer of the unbeaten Juventus side. In what has been a standout season for the bianconeri, the side only let in a staggering 20 goals throughout the season. Chiellini who is strong in the air and never hesitates to go in for tackles stood up for the challenge every time and together with his fellow defenders formed a defence which was nothing short of a rock wall. At the same time it is interesting to note that Chiellini had one of the highest conversion rates in terms of accurate passes which shows how he helped his team to build up attacks from the back, thus providing a solid foundation on which the team’s success was built.

Midfielder: Yaya Toure

What a buy this Ivorian midfielder has proven to be for the newly crowned English champions! For the last two seasons, he has justified every penny that has been spent after him. This season he has gone from strength to strength and has responded every time City has looked to him to get out of a crisis situation. There are opinions that bench strength of City is what that makes them stronger than their closest opponents, but Toure is probably one of the fewplayers who can’t be replaced in this brilliant City side. When he was away on duty for his national side in AFCON, City was visibly short of options to replace this midfield dynamo. What makes Toure special is his ability to adjust his game according to his team’s need and situation. Mancini has preferably used him as a deep-lying midfielder but whenever required pushed him up to create havoc in the opponent box. His consistency throughout the season was a treat to watch.

Midfielder: Xavi Hernandez

It’s sometimes very difficult to assess the level of impact of this midfield maestro’s contribution to the all-conquering Barcelona side. May be a few statistics will make clear the high level of standard that Xavi maintains week-in and week-out. He made an incredible average of more than 100 passes per game with an ability to find his teammate at 92.6% accuracy. In terms of creating goal-scoring opportunities, Xavi plays second highest number of key passes in the team behind the one and onlyLionel Messi. Make no mistake, he is the man who makes this genius Barcelona side tick. His contribution will only be felt properly once he decides to hang up his boots.

Midfielder: Andrea Pirlo (C)

The best masterstroke of Juve coach Antonio Conte was signing of this midfield general. The way Pirlo inspired the Turin giants to their dream season is quite exceptional. In the opening game of the season that saw Juve demolish Parma 4-1, Pirlo created two goals and completed 110 passes! Gigi Buffon later told La Repubblica: “It’s the bargain of the century for us. Seeing him play in front of my back line, it made me realize that God does exist.” Pirlo carried this form throughout the season and lived up to his nickname of l’architetto (the architect) . On the field, his poise, control and vision was remarkable to say the least, he played the second most number of passes after Xavi in the continent and conjured up the maximum number of assists (13) in Serie A. Along with these, his class, composure and leadership skills helped Juve to its record-breaking season.

Forward: Cristiano Ronaldo

Just look at Cristiano Ronaldo’s statistics for the season (60 goals in fifty-five games!); except the genius of Leo Messi, it is difficult to see which other present day footballer can scale those heights. He led Madrid to their 32nd La Liga title last season thereby ending Barca’s reign for the last three seasons. Ronaldo scored the winning goal in the season’s last El Clasico derby at Nou Camp which literally ended Barca’s hopes of a consecutive fourth La Liga title. It was also a big response from Ronaldo who has been previously criticized for his lack of match-winning performances in the El Clasicos. It will be interesting to see whether Ronaldo manages to win his second Ballon D’Or this year.

Forward: Lionel Messi

The boy wonder has continued to amaze the football world with his exceptional talent this season too. He managed a staggering 73 goals this season, by far the highest ever scored by a player in a single season. In terms of assists, he is second highest behind Mesut Ozil. In terms of trophies, he and his Barcelona team may have ended the season on a disappointing note but on the personal front, he has pushed the level higher and higher – the highlight of his season being the scoring of five goals in a single match against Bayer Leverkusen. The Messi magic has continued to startle us for the last four seasons and words are no longer sufficient to describe his achievements.

Forward: Sergio Aguero

Last season was his first in English football and what a special one it turned out to be for Sergio ‘Kun’ Aguero. He scored quite a few crucial goals that helped Manchester City to their title after 44 years. Every City faithful will probably remember for years the goal Kun scored in the stoppage time against QPR that ultimately clinched their title from the grasp of their fiercest neighbour Manchester United. He became the talisman for City as the season progressed and scored goals when it mattered the most. His partnership with David Silva was quite exciting at times and besides scoring goals, Kun helped his team with some assists too.

So that’s the team selected as representative of Europe’s Best XI for the season 2011-2012. There is no denying the fact that some wonderful players had to be left out of this team in spite of their brilliant individual performances throughout the season. Special mention must be made of Robin Van Persie, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Mesut Ozil, David Silva, Joe Hart, Mario Gomez, Franck Ribery and Antonio Valencia who were brilliant last season. However, it doesn’t matter whether these gifted players get into a team or not, they will continue to perform at top level for coming seasons and mesmerize every football fan.

The 7 Wonders of Football

Truth at times is painful, but let’s not avoid it: there’s an awful lot of bo***cks talked about football and this is not just a recent phenomenon. You could possibly trace it back to the first caveman who propelled a dinosaur turd between two mammoth tusks in the first rough approximation of football. The jubilant caveman might have turned round to his mate and uttered one of the unkillable shibboleths that have dogged the game since. “Did you see the way that turd picked up speed off the greasy surface?” he might have grunted.

In today’s world, we should do better, but unfortunately we don’t. Even in the 21st century we cling to half-truths, superstitions and inventions that have become the very fabric of the game. In a bid to stamp out the twaddle once and for all, here’s exploding some myths that stick to football like sherbet to a blanket.

Myth 7 | The wide open spaces provided by Wembley

Before the old place was abandoned, how many times did we hear that players turning out at the English national stadium would end up knackered after running around the ‘wide open spaces of Wembley’? Commentators made the pitch sound like the vast plain of the Serengeti, stretching away as far as the eye could see. Neither was it the biggest pitch in north London nor did it feature in the top 20 biggest playing areas in the country. Thank God, that old chestnut died with the rancid old stadium itself.

The Old Wembley Stadium

Myth 6 | George Best wasted his talent

Best was 29 when he left top-level football, so one can hardly say that his career was sawn off in its prime. He won a European Cup, two league titles, Player of the Year and European Player of the Year in 1968. He played 466 games for Manchester United, and scored 178 goals. On the international stage, it wasn’t his fault that he was Northern Irish. Not bad for a wastrel, actually.

George Best had a reputation as a wayward drinker and womanizer but he did his bit on the football pitch

Myth 5 | The ball gained pace off the greasy surface

Isaac Newton went through a good deal of trouble formulating his Three Laws of Motion, only to have his work thrown in his face by footballing ignorami. Newton pointed out, quite correctly that every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it. The chancers who insist that footballs pinged across rain-sodden pitches fly increasingly quickly should bear two things in mind: first, the ball is expanding energy in the form of friction as it bumps over the ground, and second, what about gravity, for crying out loud?

Myth 4 | It’s harder when you are playing against 10 men

Jose Mourinho was at his cynical worst when he had said that he was making his team Real Madrid practise with 10 players before the El Clásico series in the latter half of the last season. However, neither he nor any other football manager ever chose to start a game a man down, at least there is no recorded instance. Still this is the hackneyed line spewed very often when a team has a man sent-off. If this was for real, you would imagine that if not Mourinho, some superior tactician would have kicked-off minus the 11th man, rather than wait on the whim of a referee to hand his side the advantage of having one player less than the other lot.

Myth 3 | Lionel Messi is not special without Xavi and Iniesta

First, let’s look at pure numbers. Out of the 53 goals that Messi had scored last season, only 7 were assisted by Xavi and Iniesta, and Messi himself had 24 assists. If you combine the last 2 seasons (and this season is no different either) then too Messi has more than two times the number of assists than Xavi and Iniesta combined. Then he scores an awful lot of solo goals. Although goals and assists aren’t everything in football, Messi makes a frightening number of passes during a game and breaks the opposition defense with his tireless runs. The Barcelona football team virtually revolves around Messi.

Messi, yet again, was the difference between the two sides in this year’s Spanish Super Cup Final

Myth 2 | There are no easy games in international football

Try telling that to Australia, 31-0 conquerors of American Samoa national football team in the 2002 FIFA World Cup qualifying. Just two days before that, the Australian team had defeated Tonga 22-0. Those must have been fairly easy. In Europe, the only time you’d fear Liechtenstein is if someone asked you to spell it. Throw in the likes of Andorra, San Marino, Luxembourg, Faroe Islands and Malta, and you can see that there are plenty of simple games in international football. To say otherwise is providing lame managers with mealy-mouthed excuses.

Myth 1 | Pele scored over a thousand goals during his career

Of course, he did. When you factor in the goals he scored playing headers and volleys as a lad in the back streets of Sao Paulo, for his school teams, for the Cubs, in training with Santos and, most ludicrously of all, for New York Cosmos in the NASI. His final career tally is listed at 1282. True, he netted 77 in 92 games for Brazil, and hit over 200 for Santos in competitive games. However, should goals scored in non-competitive domestic games indeed be counted? I leave the readers to draw their own conclusions.


Indranath Mukherjee loves football and hates myths. He can be followed on twitter @indranath