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16 February 2023

Could rule change make penalty shoot-outs fairer?

Would Lionel Messi have triumphantly held up the World Cup in Qatar if he hadn’t won the coin toss and opted to kick first in the penalty shoot-out?


After a gripping 3-3 draw against France back in December, Argentinian captain Messi called the coin toss and elected for his side to kick first in the resulting shoot-out, which his side won 4-2.

But would history have been different if French captain Hugo Lloris had called the coin toss instead and chosen to kick first?

According to new research, there is a good chance Argentina may have lost had France kicked first. In elite tournaments, kicking first confers a sizeable advantage—with the first-kicking team having a 22 per cent higher winning chance than the second-kicking team.

In an effort to combat this bias in favour of the first-kicking team, and restore fairness to the penalty shoot-out, Professor Steven Brams (New York University), Dr Mehmet Ismail (King’s College London), and Professor Marc Kilgour (Wilfrid Laurier University) have proposed a new scoring system in penalty shoot-outs.

Under their proposed system—dubbed the ‘m-n rule’—the team that opts to kick first in a shoot-out must score five times before the end of the round in which the team taking second scores its fourth goal.

For the team taking second to win, it must score four penalty kicks before its opponent scores five. If both teams reach (5, 4) on the same round—when they both kick successfully at (4, 3) —then the game is decided by round-by-round sudden death, whereby the winner is the first team to score in a subsequent round when the other team does not.

An example of how the proposed new system could work.
An example of how the proposed new system could work.

The game’s governing and rule-making bodies, FIFA and IFAB, have already recognised the unfairness in penalty shootouts and attempted to address it with a 2017 trial of the so-called ABBA rule, which changed the standard order of kicking from ABAB to ABBA. This, however, proved difficult to implement and confusing for spectators and was later dropped.

“The m-n rule is far simpler to implement because it does not tamper with the order of kicking, which may be confusing for fans to keep track of,” says Marc Kilgour. “Instead, it focuses on the targets each team must reach to win.”

Mehmet Ismail, who organized a workshop on fairness in sports and games in 2018 at King’s College London where David Elleray, the technical director of the IFAB, gave a keynote speech, adds, “David Elleray emphasized the importance of simplicity in a rule change, as it increases its chances of being universally applied in football.”

“As the beautiful game continues to evolve, I hope that soccer authorities will test the m-n rule on the field as they strive to make the sport fairer and more competitive” says Steven Brams.


You can read the working paper, Fairer Shootouts in Soccer: The m-n Rule, here.

In this story

Mehmet Ismail

Lecturer in Economics