(Picture via Forza.)
Pirlo's penalty against England last night was a work of art. Like art, its beauty was entirely surplus to requirements. This was the quarter final of the European Championships, after extra time; Pirlo was the lynchpin and talisman of the team; it was quite possibly his last international championship. Had he missed, he would have been humiliated, his teammates devastated, his country closer to being knocked out, and by a far inferior opposition. Yet instead of ramming the ball home into one of the corners, he chose to float it delicately into the middle of the goal, over the goalkeeper's prostrate body.
It took superhuman nerve it took to do this. It also took a perverse determination to make something extraordinary; to achieve beauty as well as victory. Like any masterpiece in a great tradition it drew on antecedents: Pirlo was making an allusion to an earlier work, Panenka's legendary penalty in the 1976 European Championship final.
Apart from a lesson in the art of football, Pirlo was also teaching us about politics and human nature. I recently wrote about the imperative for politicians to be seen as "strong and wrong" rather than "weak and right". Although any politician who aspires to exercise power must recognise this rule, it's an unfortunate one for society generally. After all, it does by definition lead to mistakes, like wars and unnecessary austerity programmes. What this rule is really about is the appearance of action - being seen to be doing something, even when doing nothing is the sensible course of action.
Joe Hart could have saved Pirlo's penalty easily if he had done nothing instead of something: if, instead of diving, he'd just stood his ground. There was no force to Pirlo's shot: Hart could have taken a swig of water and let the ball bounce off his chest. In fact, standing still would have been quite a rational strategy for Hart to adopt, as a group of economists demonstrated in a recent study of penalties:
Ofer Azar and colleagues in Israel watched hours of archival footage and noticed that goalkeepers save substantially more penalty kicks when they stay in the centre of goal than when they jump to the left or right. Yet paradoxically, in 93.7 per cent of penalty situations, keepers chose to jump rather than stay in the centre. In fact, analysis of 286 penalty kicks taken in elite matches around the world showed that keepers saved 33.3 per cent of penalties when they stayed in the centre, compared with just 12.6 per cent of kicks when they jumped right and 14.2 per cent when they jumped left.
But goalkeepers hardly ever stay in the centre, and the reason is that they have a particular horror of what will happen if they do so and the goal is scored. Dive to one of the corners and at least they will look like they tried to do something, even if the ball goes into the net. If they stay in the centre and the ball flies past them for a goal, it will be very tough to explain to their teammates that, statistically, they followed the rational course of action. In other words there's a conflict between doing the right thing, and doing the thing that will make them popular with their teammates in the event of it not working out. It's a dilemma that politicians know all too well.
Pirlo was offering us a lesson in the dark ironies of governing in a crisis. Doing nothing is sometimes better than doing something - and yet, of course, if Hart had done nothing, Pirlo might have humiliated him another way. There are no easy answers. That, at least, will have Europe's leaders nodding along, as they go through the agonising process of deciding which way to dive.
BPS Research Digest report on penalty study here.
More on penalties and game theory from Tim Harford here.
UPDATE: Pirlo has tried this before. But that time it didn't work: the goalkeeper (Pinto) did nothing, and saved it (which makes it all the more extraordinary that Pirlo tried it again).
UPDATE II: I was on BBC Radio 4 discussing this today; if you missed it and you're interested, it's on iPlayer, starting 53.00.