Calling The Toss

In our previous post, Arguing The Toss, we published as comprehensive a history of the coin-toss in European club competition as you are ever likely to want to read. Never let it be said that BTLM is not willing to plough the most fallow of furrows and produce, against the odds, a second and just as compelling post on the subject.

There were 21 European ties between 1957 and 1969 decided by a coin-toss and BTLM got to wondering if there was any discernible pattern of success and failure on a country-by-country basis. The Germans, Czechs and Portuguese are thought of as being useful when confronted with penalty shoot-outs; the opposite is considered true of the English and the Dutch. Now of course there’s plenty of skill involved in shoot-outs, teams broadly are masters of their own destiny and trends of success should reflect this. There is no skill whatsoever in guessing the correct outcome of a coin-toss and often the winners do not even have to participate in the process as they stand back and watch an opponent guess wrongly.

But hey, let’s take a look anyway at what teams and countries did best and worst in the footballing pot luck stakes.

The teams above listed in capital letters won their respective coin-tosses. Teams from five nations won two more coin-tosses than they lost (England, France, Holland, Scotland and Yugoslavia.) Portuguese sides lost out in all three of their attempts and Italian teams were unluckier still: all but one of the five they were involved in resulted in failure. Bologna suffered the worst individual luck losing twice this way; Dinamo Zagreb and Leeds United were the most fortunate with two successes apiece.

BTLM has never seen a match decided in this manner either in person or on television, so we got to wondering what the general practicalities would be when the referee took out the coloured disc from his pocket and called over the team captains. We know well the special rituals of the penalty shoot-out and we wondered if a coin-toss had something similar. Did players not participating in the actual process stand in a group with their arms around each other’s shoulders in a show of unity for example? It’s often seen as better to take the first penalty in a shoot-out, so was there a preference for a captain to take fate into his own hands and make the call, rather than be the one who watched his opponent guess?

In the Soviet Union v Italy European Nations Cup semi-final of 1968, the Soviet captain Albert Shesternyov had the choice, decided to make the call and lost. In similar circumstances at the end of a Napoli v Leeds Fairs Cup tie the option to call rested with the Napoli captain Antonio Juliano. He could not face the responsibility and preferred Billy Bremner to guess instead, which the Scot did correctly. Bremner was something of a lucky charm for Leeds and he actually won three coin-tosses as captain for them; twice to decide matches against Italian opponents and a third time to decide the venue for a play-off game (ultimately lost) against Real Zaragoza.

Then there is the general winning and losing etiquette once a coin-toss has been decided. If BTLM was a winning captain in such a situation, we’d picture a wry smile, a self-effacing ‘oh well’ shrug of the shoulders to our opposite number and some muted and discrete celebrations afterwards with our teammates. However important the match was, we just couldn’t imagine celebrating wildly as you would with a victory secured via a penalty shoot-out.

BTLM is obviously more sporting than our late compatriot, Billy Bremner. In the brief clip below, Billy correctly calls the toss to beat Bologna and promptly goes ape. Not even offering a consoling handshake for his opposite number, the Leeds man might as well have run over and flicked the v’s right in his face.

Ron Harris was little better. He told the journalist Gregory Tesser how he called the coin-toss correctly after a play-off against Milan, then proceeded to dance right the way around the San Siro pitch with manager Tommy Docherty. BTLM doubts he managed the limpest of jigs when DWS Amsterdam called their toss correctly a couple of seasons later to put his Chelsea team out of the Fairs Cup.

Italian goalkeeper Dino Zoff managed to remain a little more circumspect about that Nations Cup semi-final win over the Soviets: “The two captains and the referee went off to the dressing rooms. We won the toss. Then everybody was back on the pitch where the fans were waiting to hear what had happened. It was a great triumph to come through all the qualifying rounds and get into the Final – even if it was on the toss of a coin.”

The cruelest coin-toss of all came in Lisbon in 1969 and was the very last one seen in European competition before it was abolished as the method for deciding deadlocked ties. Celtic had beaten Benfica 3-0 in their European Cup tie at Parkhead. Benfica won the return in Lisbon by the same score and there were no more goals in extra-time. This toss-up was performed in the referee’s dressing room with a packed Estadio da Luz crowd waiting for word of the outcome. A Lisbon radio commentator announced over the public address system that Benfica had won and the home crowd erupted in celebration. The commentator was mistaken though; it was the Celtic players actually jumping around in delight and it took several agonising minutes before the awful truth dawned on the jubilant Benfica supporters.

The only thing worse, surely, than exiting a tournament by losing on the toss of a coin must have been exiting a tournament by losing on the toss of a coin, after you had thought you had won on the toss of a coin.

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