No stretch of grass has been the site of more glory or heartbreak in the world of sports than the few dozen paces between goalkeeper and penalty kicker in soccer. In theory, it’s simple: place the ball beyond a single defender and secure a place in history. But once the chosen players make the lonely march from their respective sides of the pitch, everything changes, all bets are off, and anything can happen. Drawing from the hard-won lessons of legendary games, in-depth statistical analysis, expert opinion, and the firsthand experience of coaches and players from around the world, journalist Ben Lyttleton offers insight into the diverse attitudes, tactics, and techniques that separate success from failure in one of the highest-pressure situations sports has to offer.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.34(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.72(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Shay Given is a man of few words, and when he was twenty, even fewer. The goalkeeper had just signed for Newcastle United when I went to Dublin to interview him before his debut for the club, a friendly against PSV Eindhoven. He was a little anxious about his first appearance, having spent the previous season on loan at Newcastle’s rivals Sunderland. Celtic, his first club, were possible opponents in the final of this preseason tournament at Lansdowne Road.
I told him I was nervous too. His glove manufacturers had arranged for me to compete in a sudden-death penalty shoot-out at halftime with Packie Bonner in goal. Bonner was an Irish legend, still playing at Celtic (it was his presence that forced Given to look elsewhere for games) and immortalized for one save: a dive to his right that kept out Romanian defender Daniel Timofte’s penalty kick in a shoot-out at the 1990 World Cup. That one moment changed Bonner’s life: when David O’Leary scored, Ireland reached the quarterfinal for the first (and so far only) time in their history.
Given perked up. “Ah, you’re taking a penalty against Packie. Good luck then—you’ll need it.”
I appeared to have taken his mind off his worries, but he had hardly helped mine.
“Give me some advice then,” I said. “What should I do?”
“The first thing is, don’t change your mind. Decide where you’re going to kick it, and stick with it. And when Packie’s in goal, don’t play silly games. No use trying to psyche him out.”
When game day arrived, I tried to remember Given’s words. Newcastle were 2–1 up at halftime, but the game had barely registered. I was standing next to the tunnel as the players walked off and I tried to catch Given’s eye. That didn’t work. My mind had gone blank. Had he told me to change my mind or not to change my mind? Did he say I should try to psyche out Bonner, or not? My brain was turning to mush, and I was not yet on the pitch.
I consoled myself with the fact that, as it was preseason, there were only 25,000 fans at Lansdowne Road; and as it was halftime, most of them would be getting a cup of tea, nipping to the loo or reading the match program. I was wrong. Bonner, of course, was an Irish hero and as many fans had turned up to glimpse him as to watch the game. I was quite surprised when one of my penalty opponents (there were three of us competing) was booed when he placed the ball on the spot. Fans behind the goal tried to put him off by waving and jumping. One dropped his trousers and flashed his bottom. It didn’t work: he kept his head down and, off a long run-up, hit the ball hard and low to Bonner’s right. Goal.
I was next up. I also kept my head down, and slowly put the ball on the spot. I took three steps back, and looked up. Deep breath. The goal looked big. But so did Bonner. Another deep breath. I had recently rewatched the Ireland–Romania shoot-out and noticed that Bonner dived to his right when players took shorter run-ups. It made sense: to generate power off a short run-up, a player is more likely to strike the ball to his natural side (that is, a right-footed player would kick to the keeper’s right).
One more breath, a little skip, and I was off. My first movement was a step to the left to widen the angle of my run-up. After three steps forward, I opened my body and struck the ball cleanly with my instep. I can still see the slight curl on the ball as it headed for the inside of the side-netting, the dream target for a striker. Bonner, whose first movement was a step to his right, was wrong-footed. I had wrong-footed Packie Bonner! On his home turf, no less! I wanted to tell Given what had happened. I wondered if he had been watching on a monitor in the dressing room.
The drama wasn’t over. My last opponent had missed, and I was left with another kick to stay in the competition. My mentality was different now. Nervous tension had given way to confidence. Confidence had been supplanted by arrogance. I knew I was going to score this one. Bonner’s legs had gone. He couldn’t read me. I had him just where I wanted him. And this time, in front of his adoring fans, I was going to show him.
I chose a straighter run-up this time, slightly longer. It suggested power, and a kick to Bonner’s right. Instead, I wanted to attempt a chip down the middle, known as a “Panenka” after Antonin Panenka, the Czech midfielder whose penalty won the 1976 European Championship final—the first and last time a German national side lost a shoot-out. I later discovered that Panenka had spent two years working on that one kick, on the disguise, the run-up, the contact and the pace of the shot. I had never even practiced it.
It showed. As I approached the ball, my feet got in a tangle. My left foot was too far from the ball for me to kick it, and when I took another step forward, I stumbled. I was leaning over the ball when my right foot made contact, and it rolled apologetically toward Bonner in the center of the goal. Had he not been there it might not even have crossed the line. It was my Icarus moment. I, not Bonner, had been humiliated. I could not even hear the crowd cheer, jeer or laugh; they must have felt sorry for me. That didn’t help either.
In the space of five minutes I had endured the glory and the pain of penalties. There were more nuances behind the penalty battle between goalkeeper and striker than I realized: body language, how to spot the ball, eye contact, angle of run-up—and that’s only what you see before the ball has been kicked. I had underestimated the mental battle, not so much with the goalkeeper but within myself; and of course, like a true Englishman, I had failed to practice correctly. Well, I was hardly going to be able to re-create the same atmosphere and pressure in my back garden, was I?
Not that I hadn’t tried. The majority of my childhood soccer memories, from a playing point of view at least, involve penalty kicks. I would spend hours taking penalties at home, using a sponge-ball and a radiator for a goal. It was a form of fantasy soccer: I’d choose two teams in my head, pick five kickers from each team, and replicate a shoot-out. My response to those players every weekend was invariably based on how they had performed in my home-game shoot-outs. As I got older, I took the game to the park, and to friends’ houses: the same rules, with imagined players, but this time a goalkeeper to get past. I thought my sponge-ball practice had given me the edge—but it was not quite enough to beat Bonner twice.
After the game I caught up briefly with Given, and congratulated him on his debut. (I’d seen even less of the second half, too busy replaying my moment of shame over and over again, but others had told me he’d done well. I had convinced myself that Bonner had let me score the first penalty, as the late change to my run-up was an obvious tell. I still think that’s true, but no longer feel bad about it.) He asked how I got on, and I didn’t miss a beat.
“Yeah, pretty good, thanks,” I replied. “I scored one and Packie saved one, so fairly happy with that.”
“Nice one,” Given said.
I prayed he had not been watching on a monitor after all.
Thirteen years later, almost to the day, I watched the 2010 World Cup final unfold between Spain and Holland. Spain were the better side and deserved to win the match, but I was hoping that Holland would hold on and reach the end of extra time with a 0–0 draw. The reason? By this time I had cofounded a soccer consultancy business called Soccernomics and we were working with Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, a professor of game theory at the London School of Economics. Palacios-Huerta wrote a paper in 1999, “Professionals play minimax,” which is still seen as the seminal academic work on penalty kicks.
Using regression analysis, Palacios-Huerta is able to detect trends and patterns in the penalty habits of kickers and goalkeepers. If the majority of penalties, say 70 percent of them, are struck to the kicker’s natural side—right of the keeper for right-footed kickers, left for left-footed ones—he can detect the player who kicks his penalties only 60 percent to his natural side. That in itself is useful, but of even more value is his ability to spot patterns in players: Diego Forlán, a Copa America champion with Uruguay, kicks to the left, then the right, then the left again; Miroslav Klose, a two-time World Cup Golden Boot winner, always kicks to the same side if the score is goalless; Frank Lampard’s penalty tactic is very different when faced with an English goalkeeper who may have trained with him during international meet-ups.
Soccernomics had been in touch with some teams in the build-up to the tournament; one took Palacios-Huerta’s full analysis for a knockout match, but lost before they reached penalties (and there were no spot kicks in the game). Another team asked for a penalty report twenty-four hours before their knockout match, but Palacios-Huerta needs three days to pore over the data for new teams, so that wasn’t possible. That team was eliminated inside ninety minutes.
Before the final we had made contact with the Dutch FA and they were interested in the penalty analysis. Palacios-Huerta, a Spaniard, supplied a report on his compatriots and the Dutch were delighted. “We were highly impressed,” said goalkeeping coach Ruud Hesp. “It gave us valuable additional information and analysis on each player.”
Before the second period of extra time was up, Spain’s two most regular penalty takers, Xabi Alonso and David Villa, had been substituted, and when the whistle went Spain had only one player on the pitch, Fernando Torres, who had taken more than five spot kicks in his career (but even then, Torres only took them for Atlético Madrid, not Liverpool, where he had been playing for three seasons). The report showed that players who rarely take penalties have a clear preference to kick to their natural side. On the other hand, Torres had a slight bias to kick to his nonnatural side. Iker Casillas, Spain’s goalkeeper, dived more than average to his natural side, giving those kicking to his nonnatural side a greater chance of scoring. He also, in fifty-nine penalties faced, had never stayed in the middle before.
No wonder the Dutch bench was totally deflated when Andrés Iniesta scored four minutes before the end of extra time. After the game Holland, who for so long had been a byword for penalty failure—they remain the only team to miss five penalties in one tournament match, a ridiculous Euro 2000 semifinal against Italy—said they felt sure they would have won a penalty shoot-out, and a first ever World Cup.
For Holland at least, the penalty report became meaningless. For another team, in another big game, it might just make all the difference. Penalties have always been a part of soccer, but because of their apparent simplicity their significance is easily overlooked. After all, for professional soccer players who play and practice every day, it shouldn’t be so hard to score from twelve yards. But it is, often, and that’s what makes the penalty so fascinating.
This book tries to solve a simple question: how do you score—or save—from twelve yards? To answer that, you need to know why in the case of certain teams or individuals they have been failing in the first place. I have looked into the reasons behind the struggles of these teams and players and learned innovative solutions to avoid future failures. My biggest delight was that despite its inherent cruelty, everyone loves a penalty. Every player and fan has a penalty story to tell—the best one, the worst one, the one that wasn’t given, the one that was. Let’s be honest, we have all watched a match in extra time and hoped for no more goals so we can enjoy the drama of a penalty shoot-out. The penalty is soccer in its purest form: kicker, goalkeeper and ball. Nothing else. A test of technique and nerve. It’s the essence of the game, soccer at its most elemental. And even then, it is far from simple.
The penalties I’ve written about in the following pages were included because they tell a story about the history, culture or tactics of the spot kick. If your favorite is not here, don’t worry: just go to the Web site www.facebook.com/twelveyards and nominate the penalty that means the most to you. You can also watch all the penalties here.
I want to thank all the players, goalkeepers, coaches, academics and athletes from other sports who took time to speak to me, and helped me learn what taking penalties is all about. If I faced Packie Bonner again today, I don’t think he would stand a chance.
I have seen England win a penalty shoot-out. I was at Wembley that Saturday afternoon on June 22, 1996, when England beat Spain 4–2 on penalties in the quarterfinals of the European Championship.
If only I’d known then what I know now: that England would lose their next five shoot-outs; that players who never take penalties would miss, and players who regularly take penalties would miss; that high-status players would miss, and low-status players would miss; that defenders would miss, midfielders would miss and strikers would miss. Back then it was “just” a quarterfinal against Spain. But still, if only I’d known. If only any of us had known.
Instead, four days later, England lost to Germany, again, on penalties. At least the team had come closer this time: they scored their first five spot kicks, which made it nine in a row if you included the Spain game. Two years later, at the 1998 World Cup, Argentina beat England on penalties. At Euro 2004 and at the 2006 World Cup, it was Portugal. At Euro 2012, Italy beat England on penalties.
Every time a major tournament comes around, England now dread the penalty shoot-out. It has got to the point where some opponents play for penalties because they know they have a psychological advantage. Even though England have had different players in every tournament—four different goalkeepers have played in those last five losses—it’s the same outcome. And the excuses . . . well, they don’t often change either:
1990: “The important thing was that the team played well. In the end nobody could beat us in open play.” (Bobby Robson)
1996: “I was surprised that the coach had picked me to take one. I had never practiced taking penalties and had only taken one in my life before that, which I’d missed.” (Gareth Southgate)
1998: “You can never re-create on the training ground the circumstances of the shoot-out.” (Glenn Hoddle)
2004: “It was as much down to the penalty spot as anything. When you get into that it is a lottery.” (Gary Neville)
2006: “We practiced penalties so much, I really don’t know what more we could do about it. We have trained so much—almost every day—but when it comes to the pressure we are not good.” (Sven-Göran Eriksson)
2006: “You can practice all you like in training and we had, throughout the tournament, but it’s never the same as real life.” (Wayne Rooney)
2012: “The practicing didn’t help us too much on this occasion. Maybe it’s just fated at the moment that we don’t win on penalties but . . . you can’t reproduce the tired legs. You can’t reproduce the pressure. You can’t reproduce the nervous tension.” (Roy Hodgson)
I’m fed up with England losing on penalties now. I’d rather England lost in normal time, or extra time.* I wanted to find out why England kept losing, and to see how they could improve their chances of success.
But first I needed to know what England had been doing wrong. I assumed they had been missing too many penalties and not saving enough. I looked into the penalty records of all major national teams that had participated in more than ten shoot-outs.*
Figure 1: All-time penalty shoot-outs—penalties scored/missed ratio
The table in Figure 1 suggests that the England coaches might have a point. England’s goal conversion percentage, 66%, may be below the average conversion rate of around 78% (significantly, this figure drops in tournament shoot-outs) but their win percentage, 14%, is woeful. Mexico, for example, have a worse conversion record but their win ratio is 43%—a figure England can only dream about. France could also consider themselves unlucky, with a 50% win rate despite an 81% conversion record.
Figure 2: All-time penalty shoot-outs—penalties conceded/saved ratio*
Figure 2 looks at the impact goalkeepers have on their teams’ penalty chances and the saving records of these eleven teams in world and continental competitions. Winning a shoot-out is about stopping penalties as much as scoring them, and it’s clear that England and Holland lag behind the rest. Brazil and Germany have an above-average (22%) save percentage which in part explains their positive records.
After every England defeat, the focus, naturally enough, is on the players who missed, or the coach who bemoans fate—the “lottery” of the shoot-out—or, in Eriksson’s case, practicing hard but still not quite so hard as to do it every day. But we never hear from the opposition, the winning side, the team that progressed to the next round because they were lucky enough to take England to penalties. So I set out to speak to one player from every team that has beaten England on penalties and find out where they think England have been going wrong. It might not bring me to the ultimate solution for England’s penalty-spot problems, but if it shed some light on how to improve the team’s chances, it was worth a go.
The man who has contributed most to England having the worst record from penalty shoot-outs of any country in international soccer is Ricardo Alexandre Martins Soares Pereira. Ricardo, as he is known, is the Portugal goalkeeper who in the 2004 European Championship quarterfinal ripped off his gloves before saving Darius Vassell’s penalty, and then converted the winning penalty himself. Two years later, in the 2006 World Cup quarterfinal, he saved three England penalties—the first player ever to do so in a World Cup shoot-out. FIFA gave England midfielder Owen Hargreaves the Man of the Match award, Ricardo put it, “just because he was the only player able to score a penalty past me.” The referee, Horacio Elizondo, gave Ricardo the match ball, with his signature on it, because he felt so bad about FIFA’s decision.
England, as we know, already had an issue with shoot-outs by 2006. Against Ricardo across those two matches England took eleven penalties and only scored six. Ricardo’s intervention turned England’s problem into more than that. A complex. An obsession. A crisis. The upshot? England’s next shoot-out, six years later in the 2012 European Championship quarterfinal against Italy, was yet another defeat waiting to happen.
There are not too many Portuguese golfers at the Oceanico Vitoria course in Vilamoura early on a Monday morning in spring. This is the time of year when serious golfers, after months of playing in the cold, flock to the Algarve to play two rounds a day. The clubhouse fills with the chatter of Irish, Swedish and German players; the sun-dappled putting green is a kaleidoscope of fashion disasters. Just beyond that, on the driving-range, one man stands out, not so much for his swing, which actually looks pretty good, but for his outfit: white shoes, lime-green trousers and navy T-shirt with lime trimming. You have to be decent at golf to get away with that. Or be one of the most successful goalkeepers in Portugal. Ricardo is both. He has been playing golf for five years, and already plays off a handicap of four. He said the game helped improve him as a goalkeeper, made him concentrate better and taught him to refocus quickly after making a mistake.
Ricardo was seeing out his soccer career at Olhanense in the Algarve when we met, mostly on the bench. He suggested the reasons were political, the coach threatened by his presence as a senior player “with status,” but he did not seem too fussed. He has been able to improve his golf and, I noted as he sipped on a lager shandy, he had the air of a man who realizes his playing career is almost over.
Ricardo is also an Anglophile. He spoke perfect English, wished he had spent more than six months playing in England, and wanted to help England get over the penalty demons he has helped to create.
The 2006 defeat to Portugal was different from any of England’s previous “deaths by twelve yards.” For a start, England scored one penalty out of four, their lowest total in a shoot-out. They had at least managed three against West Germany in 1990 (World Cup semifinal) and Argentina in 1998 (World Cup first knockout round). Two of the players who missed against Portugal were regular penalty takers for their clubs: Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard. Portugal even managed to miss two penalties themselves and still win. It was the nadir of all England penalty defeats.
Despite having a one-man advantage, after Wayne Rooney was sent off for stamping on Ricardo Carvalho, Portugal were in no great hurry to push for a winning goal. “Did we play for the draw?” Ricardo said. “Well, we didn’t take any risks because we were confident about winning the shoot-out. That’s purely because we won in 2004: they had extra pressure on them. I spoke with Sven before the game, and he told me: ‘I don’t want the game to go to penalties because I know my players don’t want to face you.’” Already, the England coach was afraid of the inevitable.
As we sat overlooking the putting green, I showed Ricardo a video of the 2006 shoot-out on my phone. Reliving it with him was like watching a movie with the lead actor sitting next to you. He drew my attention to moments I had thought insignificant, and elements that seemed important to me had barely registered with him.
Portugal took the first penalty and, with a confident run-up, Simão Sabrosa scored past Paul Robinson. He pumped his fists at shoulder height as he returned to the center circle. Lampard was first up for England; he had scored past Ricardo in the shoot-out two years earlier. He grimaced as he walked to the area, then dribbled the ball to the spot. After spotting the ball, he turned his back on Ricardo, adjusted his collar, and waited for the whistle to blow.
“I knew Lampard would be coming first,” said Ricardo. “This is a guy who had not missed for two years or something like that from penalties.* I said to the guys before we started, ‘If I save their first kick, we’ve won.’ Because I knew if they see Lampard miss a penalty, they will never recover.”
Lampard shot to his natural side, to the right of the goalkeeper, and Ricardo dived to punch it away. The TV cameras focused on the England players, and you can see Gerrard looking up to the heavens, almost in tears. As Lampard trudged back to the halfway line, Ricardo saw the same reaction. “When I saved it, I saw Ferdinand and Gerrard, and they just went pffffff . . . Their heads went down, and I knew we had the advantage. I saw them deflate. The best guy they have has missed. ‘Pssshhh, what chance have we got now?’”
Whenever it was Portugal’s turn to kick, Ricardo would look away from goal and directly at the crowd. It was not an act of nervousness, as I had thought, but of strength. “Looking at the crowd, I could see one or two Portuguese fans, but everywhere else was English, all in white shirts. The whole crowd were nervous. I could see they were thinking, ‘Not again.’ That was another advantage for me: it may be a little thing but everything counts. These little things can make a big difference.”
Hugo Viana, up next for Portugal, hit the outside of the post; as he ran back to the center circle, Simão, Hélder Postiga and Maniche broke away from the group, moved forward and clapped. I felt that was a significant and supportive response; Ricardo did not register it.
Next for England, Owen Hargreaves: he carefully spotted the ball, adjusting it at least three times, then shot hard to his natural side. Ricardo got a finger to it but could not keep it out. “I was very close, but it was a great penalty by Hargreaves.”
One-all, after two kicks each; and soon England had the advantage when Petit’s penalty went wide of the post. England players pumped their fists in the center circle, Ferdinand and Hargreaves shouting “Come on!” as they grabbed each other round the neck.
Gerrard had the chance to put England ahead. As he took the ball from the referee, Gary Neville linked arms with Hargreaves in the center circle and smirked at him—a hint of confidence suggesting that England felt their hoodoo might be ending.
Ricardo had other ideas. “I’m behind my goal line, I’m not rushing. No time-wasting, no talking. I don’t need to go to Gerrard and say, ‘Hey, you’re going to miss.’ If I’m doing that, I wouldn’t be focusing on what I need to do, on what I’m trying to do. I watch him, I study him, I read his behavior. But when I see him walk toward me, man, I could see his face. He didn’t want to look at me! He never looked at me! I saw that face, all their faces, when they came toward me, they look at me like they’re saying, ‘Oh my God, oh my God!’ I’m just cold, concentrated, and that kind of behavior passes to the other players. I think if you are confident, the spirit is different.”
Gerrard struck his penalty hard, to Ricardo’s left, but nowhere near enough to the post. “That one was my best save because when the ball came to me it veered up at the last moment,” he said. “My right hand had to move up very quickly to grab the ball. I walked past Robinson to my position and he looked at me out of the corner of his eye and said, ‘Fuck, fucking hell! Again!’ And mentally I could see his confidence was going. He was thinking, ‘If I don’t save this, we will lose.’”
Postiga made it 2–1 to Portugal with a smart penalty. In 2004, he had chipped the ball down the middle, Panenka-style, and his straight and long run-up this time suggested a similar effort. Robinson stayed central but Postiga found the left corner.
Jamie Carragher was next for England. He had come on two minutes before the end of extra time, as a substitute for Aaron Lennon, specifically, it seemed, to take a penalty. He had scored from the spot five years earlier, the victorious penalty in Liverpool’s Worthington Cup final win over Birmingham, but had not taken one since then.
He spotted the ball, turned away from Ricardo and without a break in motion started his run-up. The referee had not blown his whistle, and two steps before Carragher reached the ball Elizondo blew twice to signify the kick would not count. Could Carragher have stopped? There was time if he had wanted to, but he kept on going, and struck an excellent penalty which Ricardo watched go past him.
“Carragher turned away and before I knew it, he was running toward me. But I knew the referee hadn’t blown so I just put my hands out and went, ‘Wait, wait.’ The referee smiled at him and said, ‘Wait for my whistle.’ I looked at him then and I thought, ‘You’re fucked, I’m going to save this.’ This guy was screwed, his mind was fucked up, he was too nervous.’”
Would Carragher go the same way, or change his mind? “I felt he was going to change his mind,” said Ricardo. “Second time, he ran almost straight and it’s harder to open your body that way.” Ricardo was right: Carragher switched sides and the goalkeeper pushed the ball on to the crossbar. Portugal were 2–1 up and only needed to score the next to win.
“When Cristiano Ronaldo walked up to take the last penalty, he looked at me. I put my hands out to make it look like it was over. ‘It’s finished,’ I said. I knew he would score. England were already defeated.”
Ronaldo took his time; he kissed the ball before spotting it and took a deep breath. He waited a while after the referee had blown his whistle. His penalty was perfect.
I asked Ricardo why England had lost, yet again. “These big players miss and that’s not because they are the wrong players to take penalties. These players are at the best clubs in the world, but in these big games, I just don’t know what happens to them. It’s a mental thing. They need to do some mental work.”
Ricardo felt he had another advantage during the two games against England: he was a former striker who was a penalty taker himself. At his first club, Montijo, he would play in attack but switch to goalkeeper when the opponent was a bigger team, like Sporting Lisbon or Benfica. He was excellent in the air, and when he joined Boavista at seventeen he played some youth matches at center forward before being persuaded to stay in goal if he wanted to make it as a professional.
He would always practice penalties, though, and often just on his own, with no goalkeeper to stop them. “I would try and hit the ball where I wanted to hit it. Simple and often. No problem.” Before long, he was Boavista’s penalty taker. He scored five from the spot, including in a shoot-out against Málaga in the 2004 UEFA Cup quarterfinal.
If Ricardo’s best save was against Gerrard in 2006, his best penalty strike came two years earlier—against England at Euro 2004. He was actually down to take Portugal’s penalty number six, but after Rui Costa missed the third kick he had lost count. He was concentrating on the score, not the numbers. The Lisbon crowd did not give Portugal as much of an advantage as you might have thought—Ricardo felt the support was about fifty-fifty—but instead he drew confidence from a surprising source.
“I noticed the linesman,” he told me. “Every time I almost saved a penalty, he breathed out really heavily. I looked at him and thought, ‘He wants us to win.’ It was like he was relieved every time one of our penalties went in. I felt like he wanted us to win. I don’t know if he did, but that’s what it felt like. Probably I was just grabbing on to something to give me confidence, but it helped.”
After six penalties each, the score was 5–5. Postiga had taken the sixth penalty, the one Ricardo was due to take, and scored. Ricardo then had a surprise. “We had practiced for penalties in training, and I had watched some DVDs looking at where England players had taken their penalties,” he recalled. “But when I saw Darius Vassell coming toward me, I thought, ‘Fucking hell, hang on! I have seen every player score a penalty on this DVD but not this guy. Nothing! Has he even taken one before?’
“I looked at my hands. Fuck, I have to do something. I ripped off my gloves, just took them off. Vassell looked at me, and he looked at the referee, who said, ‘That’s fine.’ To this day I still don’t know why I did that. I have never done it before, or since, but I felt I needed to do something. I was in that moment; and even now when I think back to it, the one thing I can’t remember is the noise. I can’t hear anything. It’s all totally silent.
“I saw Vassell was very nervous and he did not want to be there. I knew I was next up to kick and said to myself, ‘I will save this one and score the next.’”
Sure enough, Ricardo dived the right way and saved it. Then, when he saw Nuno Valente walking toward the ball—he was down to take one after Postiga—he shooed him away. “It was my turn as I missed my go. Nuno ran back so fast to the center circle. I had never seen him run so fast!
“David James was in goal, and when he spread his arms, he looked as big as a building. ‘Where do I put the ball, man?’ Just in the place where he can’t reach, because he is a very big guy. The corner. I had a cold mind. It was a great moment for me.”
Once the Portuguese celebrations had died down, Ricardo received a phone call from the company that makes his gloves. They were pleased he had contributed to the victory, but not so happy that the important penalty was saved gloveless. “They told me not to do it again, and I never did.”
Seven years later, Ricardo joined Leicester City, playing in the Championship. The coach who signed him was Eriksson. On his first day at the club, Ricardo was sitting in the dressing room when he heard a roar from across the room. “Morning, morning, whaaaaaa— What are you doing here?!” It was Vassell. “He was a very nice guy, and we spoke about that moment a lot.”
On that first day, his teammates made Vassell take another penalty against Ricardo. Again, Ricardo saved it. “We laughed, man, that was so funny! But then he told me that before the Portugal game he went to Eriksson and said, ‘Coach, if it goes to penalties, I don’t want to take one because I’m not prepared for it, I’m too young to do it.’ The guy was just a kid.” After his missed penalty against Portugal, Vassell never played for England again.
So what can England do to avoid future penalty angst? Ricardo gave me three solutions, because “I want to see England win and I want to give them confidence.”
1. Only focus on the positive.
“This is an opportunity, not a problem. Lampard and Gerrard always score in the league, they score a lot. So how in big moments did they miss? It has to be mental. They must only prepare for good things, not for failure.”
2. Block out the media.
“We do read the papers at these tournaments and every day you’re speaking about penalties, praying for no penalties. ‘We don’t want penalties, we don’t want penalties.’ If you have bad memories of it, just don’t talk about it. Get on with it.”
3. Forget about the history.
“The players need to stay mentally strong, and learn what works for them. But when they lost to us, you could see them thinking, ‘Oh, we lost again on penalties.’ It was almost like it was fate. These guys suffer too much. We felt with the England team that it was like their world was falling apart. It’s like a film going round in their head . . . and they know how it always ends.”
Six months after our meeting in the Algarve, Ricardo had won his place back at Olhanense. In October 2013 he even scored with a free kick from outside the box. It’s some consolation that England will never face him in a shoot-out again.
If Portugal had England’s number when it came to penalty shoot-outs, then so did the Germans. Lothar Matthäus told me that confidence and consistency were the reasons why West Germany beat England in the 1990 World Cup semifinal in Turin. It was England’s first shoot-out experience, while West Germany had beaten France 5–4 and Mexico 4–1 in the previous two World Cups.
Matthäus took West Germany’s second kick that day. Captain of his country, he was one of four players who were regular takers for their club sides, and that was the major difference. “Look at us,” he said. “Brehme-Matthäus-Riedle-Thon.” He reeled them off as though they were one person, even twenty-three years after the event. “It’s all about confidence and especially with penalties. We definitely had confidence. We didn’t worry about it: we thought less and concentrated more, and focused on having specialists in the side.”
Matthäus forgot to point out that Stuart Pearce, the player who missed England’s fourth penalty in 1990—the first six in the shoot-out were all converted—was a regular penalty taker himself, for Nottingham Forest. It was only after his miss, and after Olaf Thon scored, that a nonregular taker, Chris Waddle, stepped up.
And this is where some of that “lottery” factor that the England coaches and players referred to may come into play. Waddle was not slated to be England’s fifth taker; it should have been Paul Gascoigne, but the midfielder, the breakout star of the tournament, had been shown the yellow card that would rule him out of the final if England won and was too emotional and distressed to take one. England were also missing the injured pair of Bryan Robson, who had scored a penalty for England before, and John Barnes, scorer of five penalties for Liverpool that season. So it was Waddle, taking his first major penalty. And he missed.
England coach Bobby Robson was fuming after the game, but not at Pearce, or Waddle, nor at goalkeeper Peter Shilton, who seemed to wait too long before diving for every kick (he went the right way but never made up enough ground to save one): he was angry at the system. “There is a way,” he said. “You have to beat them. You play on, to the first goal or another quarter of an hour, because eventually somebody will crack. Football’s a game of stamina and temperament and fighting spirit and that will come out.”
His opposite number, Franz Beckenbauer, seemed bemused by Robson’s reaction. “It’s the rules and that’s how it is,” he said. “It’s slightly better than tossing a coin. There’s no other alternative.”
FIFA president João Havelange was asked at his prefinal press briefing whether it was appropriate for a World Cup semifinal to be decided on penalties. “How unsurprising I should be asked this in English,” he sneered. “As I understand it, unlike the English, the Germans actually practice penalties.” Robson, though, had set the tone: losing on penalties was not England’s fault. This time, the first time, it was the format to blame.
It was a different story in 1996. For a start, England did actually win a shoot-out, beating Spain after Alan Shearer, David Platt, Stuart Pearce (with a vengeance) and Paul Gascoigne all scored. England coach Terry Venables had been in charge of Barcelona when they failed to score any penalties in the 1986 European Cup final defeat to Steaua Bucharest, and ten years later he made sure his players practiced their penalties.
In the semifinal against Germany, it turned out that the England team were more organized than their opponents. England’s five kickers—Shearer, Platt, Pearce, Gascoigne and Teddy Sheringham—all scored. Germany, on the other hand, were in disarray. Dieter Eilts, who was named Man of the Match and subsequently made it into UEFA’s Team of the Tournament, had asked to be substituted at the end of extra time so he wouldn’t have to take a penalty. “I felt I was guaranteed not to score,” he said. Coach Berti Vogts only had four players willing to take a penalty and he asked Thomas Helmer if he felt his Bayern teammate Thomas Strunz, on as a very late substitute for Steffen Freund, was up for the task. “Absolutely,” came the reply, and Strunz grabbed the match ball from referee Sandor Puhl and did some keepy-uppies to get his eye in. Vogts then told Markus Babbel to sort out who would take penalties seven and eight with Marco Bode. “Marco, the boss said you are on penalty number seven,” Babbel told him. “My legs were getting weaker and weaker,” remembered Bode. Matthias Sammer, who would go on to win the Ballon D’Or for 1996 European Footballer of the Year, was desperate, along with Eilts, not to take a penalty. “There would probably have been a punch-up between us to avoid it,” Sammer said.
None of Germany’s players in 1996 had ever taken a penalty in a major tournament, but Thomas Hässler, Strunz, Stefan Reuter, Christian Ziege and Stefan Kuntz all scored. It was 5–5 after ten penalties.
England’s remaining outfield players were Tony Adams, Darren Anderton, Paul Ince, Steve McManaman and Gareth Southgate. Even now it seems surprising that Southgate and not Anderton or McManaman took England’s next kick. His effort against Germany was poor: struck to his natural side but nowhere near the corner, and with little pace. Andy Köpke went the right way, and saved it easily.
A few months after the game, German writer Ronald Reng spent an afternoon with Southgate in Birmingham, where the player opened up about the miss. “I think it was because I was a German, and he wanted to get things off his chest,” said Reng. “It was that feeling of guilt that sometimes makes you do illogical things.”
The interview ran in Süddeutsche Zeitung and in it Southgate told Reng that he knew the penalty would define his career. “Living with it is extremely difficult,” he said. “It was my first major tournament for England and I played very well; but the only thing people remember is this small, silly mistake. The only opinion people have about Gareth Southgate is that he can’t take penalties . . . For a lot of other people who have experienced pain, I’ve sort of become a source of help and encouragement. People are writing to me not only to cheer me up but expecting assurances for their own problems. I’ve become something of an agony aunt.”
He admitted that it was a dreadful penalty. “But when the time came, how can I put it? I was surprised that the coach had picked me to take one. I had never practiced taking penalties and had only taken one in my life before that, which I’d missed. I can’t take penalties well.”
Southgate didn’t remember much of what happened after the penalty. “I lay awake that night and thought, ‘What will people think of me now?’ and it was frightening. Stuart Pearce had said to me, ‘Gareth, tomorrow I’m going home to feed my horses. I’ll look at them and say, “We lost to Germany on penalties again.” And they’ll answer, “What do we care? Give us some carrots now.”’”
Southgate later admitted that he knew things might not end well after Ziege had scored Germany’s fourth penalty. He had already decided where he would place the ball, “But around the point where the score reached 4–4 and nobody had failed, my mind switched to the negative. ‘What if I miss?’ That simple thought, which with better mental awareness could have been dismissed, was now nudging its way into my subconscious and, with hindsight, I know that was the tipping-point of my failure.”
Kuntz’s mood had also changed as the shoot-out went on. He was a regular penalty taker in club soccer—in fact, his thirty penalties put him eighth in the Bundesliga’s all-time list—but had asked Vogts to name him as the fifth kicker because he hoped the shoot-out would be over by then.
Vogts had proved himself a man of his word. Four months before Euro 96 began, he had promised Kuntz that because Jürgen Klinsmann was suspended he would start Germany’s first game—and he did. That allowed Kuntz, then thirty-three, to do some extra training at Besiktas, and the striker worked superhard. “I won my first Germany cap at thirty and when you’re older, these moments are more precious,” he said. “I knew this would be my last tournament for Germany and wanted to make it special.”
Kuntz, playing because Klinsmann was injured in a bad-tempered quarterfinal against Croatia, had scored Germany’s equalizer and had an extra-time header ruled out for a foul.
“Never a foul,” he told me.
As he watched England score penalty after penalty, he became angry. “It was terrible for me. I was fifth because I never wanted to take one, and when it came to it, my penalty was the most important of all. During that walk, you are so alone, so afraid. I had to find a way to conquer my nerves. So I made myself angry. That way, I forgot about the nerves.” Kuntz thought about his children, who were then five and seven, and how their school-mates would tease them if he missed the penalty. “I got so angry at the thought of these clowns upsetting my kids. I thought, ‘Don’t do this to your family!’” Kuntz, left-footed, hit Germany’s best penalty, high to his natural side. He was so wound up that afterward he forgot to smile. Just a deep breath as he returned to the center circle.
And next up was Southgate. “Of course I have sympathy with Southgate,” said Kuntz. “It is traumatic to be the guy who misses. But remember he had the courage to take one, and half the team did not do that.”
So why did England lose? “There was additional pressure because of the meaning of the game, the fact that it was against Germany. But also sometimes when you’re at home, you can feel the doubt of your own fans. I wonder if Southgate thought, ‘Even the fans don’t think I will score this.’ What is in your mind is often what will happen, and controlling your mentality is a huge part of the game.”
Kuntz said that the game is still the highlight of his career, above the final against Czech Republic, which he started and Germany won. “It was my first game at Wembley, it was against England, I scored in the game and the shoot-out . . . It was everything to me.” He is now focused on his job as chairman of FC Kaiserslautern, where he spent six years as a player. He doesn’t like to talk too much about the old days; he’s tried to steer away from it ever since he showed his grandma the blurb on his official sticker-card just before he retired. “It said ‘1990 Cup winner, 1991 Bundesliga winner, Euro 96 winner,’ and all my goal records. And my grandma said, ‘Very nice, but can you pay for groceries in the supermarket with it?’ And then I realized you just have to move on with your life. Stop looking back. And maybe England should do the same with penalties.”
After Kuntz’s successful spot kick, the Germans had still not decided who would take their sixth penalty. That is, until Southgate missed. At that point Andreas Möller broke from the group and headed to the penalty spot. “He put himself forward and said, ‘My turn now, hey?’” remembered Thomas Helmer. It was too late for anyone to object, and Möller scored. Game over.
Shearer had scored England’s opener in the third minute, and netted the first penalty in the shoot-out, just as he had against Spain four days earlier. “It’s all right people saying ‘Practice, practice, practice,” but you can never ever re-create the situation you will be in,” he told me. Despite his personal success in shoot-outs—he scored against Argentina in 1998 as well, making him England’s best shoot-out performer with three from three—his discourse was peppered with negative terms. “I wouldn’t wish that pressure on my worst enemy,” he continued. “The walk to the penalty spot feels like it’s forty miles. And it’s not so much the eighty thousand people watching in the stadium or the thirty million watching on TV that makes you nervous. It’s the ten teammates behind you. The pressure to do it for them is greater than anything else.”
Was that negativity still in place two years later, when England took on Argentina in Saint-Etienne? Certainly the trauma of England’s defeat in 1996 had been far greater than in 1990. England were the home nation, it was Germany, and on penalties, again. The press had been full of military metaphors—the Mirror’s “Achtung Surrender!” headline before the game took it too far and as a result team sponsors Vauxhall pulled their advertising from the paper—but once again England had fallen short. “We knew that the media had turned this game into a war but for us it was never like that,” Kuntz commented. “Look, even our parents were not involved in the war, it was two generations away from us, so we did not understand the headlines. It would have been more helpful for the England team if it was not about war or history, but if they just concentrated on football. I think the media built up this game too much and that added to the pressure for the players.”
This was the moment when the psychological issue with shoot-outs took seed. It was England’s great misfortune that they had to endure another one so soon after, against another nation with whom England have had a complicated sporting and political history: Argentina.
The soccer rivalry kicked off in 1966 when Antonio Rattin refused to leave the Wembley pitch for ten minutes after he was sent off against England. Alf Ramsey stopped George Cohen swapping his shirt with Roberto Perfumo, and declared the Argentine team “animals.” In 1977, Argentine forward Daniel Bertoni punched out two of Trevor Cherry’s teeth (his knuckle still has the scars to prove it), while in 1986, Argentina beat England with Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal. “Winning the World Cup that year was secondary for us,” Perfumo said. “Beating England was our real aim. Beating England is like schoolkids beating the teachers.”
Glenn Hoddle did not make his players practice penalties in 1998, subscribing to the Shearer viewpoint that the real thing is never the same. Ironically, as the first-choice penalty taker Shearer was the only player who did practice. The night before every international match he would take five kicks to the same side of the goal, and in the game itself would always kick it to the other side. He was convinced that, even in closed training sessions, the opposition would have someone spying on him.
Against Argentina, it worked: three minutes after Gabriel Batistuta had opened the scoring, Roberto Ayala was penalized for bringing down Michael Owen (a generous decision), and Shearer scored. Minutes later, Owen broke from the center circle and ran at the heart of the Argentine defense. He skipped past Ayala and chipped the ball into Carlos Roa’s far corner. Javier Zanetti equalized on the stroke of halftime, and after David Beckham was sent off, England were left defending stoutly in extra time to keep the score to 2–2.
Ayala, who was in Buenos Aires coaching Racing Club, was happy to discuss his memories of the game. “First of all, there was Owen,” he said. “The penalty he won, and then what a goal he scored. But I have to tell you: [José] Chamot and I, we made a lot of mistakes for that. We were too far apart, I was in the wrong position, but also, we didn’t know anything about this kid. Shearer, we knew all about, but Owen: nothing.”
England had a brief advantage in the shoot-out at 1–1 when David Seaman saved from Hernán Crespo, taking Argentina’s second kick. Paul Ince, next for England, failed to take advantage. Juan Verón and Paul Merson scored; Marcelo Gallardo and Owen scored; then it was Ayala’s turn.
“I was no specialist penalty taker and we had not practiced penalties in training,” he said. “The first four guys, they were all regular takers, but I wasn’t. I would never say no, though I never asked the coach [Daniel Passarella] why he picked me to take number five. I decided straight away where I was going to kick it. I figured that Seaman would think I was a lumbering defender, that I would kick it to my natural side, so I would go the other way.”
Ayala also had none of the fear factor that Shearer spoke about. “I felt no pressure walking to the spot. In fact, it was exciting. There are so many dreams behind a team and I thought about all the people supporting us, and me. Missing it never crossed my mind. I knew I was going to score. I didn’t even look at Seaman. I just spotted the ball, and kicked it. And I scored. That was it.”
Roa shouted out to Ayala after his penalty: “Hey! What happens if I save this one?”
“We win!” replied Ayala.
Roa had a habit of forgetting teammates’ names. Ayala thinks this forgetfulness helped him in the shoot-out.
David Batty stepped up for England. He had replaced Anderton to shore up the midfield after Beckham’s dismissal. He had never taken a penalty, and before leaving the center circle had asked Shearer where he should kick it. “I told him to blast it down the middle, but by the time he got to the spot he had changed his mind,” said Shearer.
Batty struck it to Roa’s left, and the goalkeeper dived the correct way to win the shoot-out for Argentina.
“Roa did great,” said Ayala. “But I still can’t say for sure why England lost this shoot-out. We were disappointed not to win the game in normal time, but we didn’t practice penalties either. I think Roa was quicker to move than Seaman, and we were just able to do better from the penalties. Sometimes, that’s how it happens.”
For Gianluigi Buffon, penalties will always remain a mystery. The Italy goalkeeper won the 2006 World Cup final against France after a shoot-out, and was in goal when England lost on penalties in the Euro 2012 quarterfinal. “I’d rather lose a match in normal time than on penalties,” he said. “But for me it comes down to which of the players are least exhausted, and those who can focus a little better.”
Buffon is an intuitive goalkeeper: the day before the game, while Joe Hart was talking about analyzing the patterns of the Italian players, he joked that he had been watching adult videos instead.
When it came to the Euro 2012 shoot-out, Hart saved no penalties and Buffon saved one, from Ashley Cole. [Riccardo Montolivo, for Italy, and Ashley Young, for England, both missed the target.] “I could see he was waiting for me to dive but I stood tall for as long as I could. Then, when I went the right way, I was able to save it.” By then Italy already had the momentum, as Andrea Pirlo, with his side 2–1 down, shifted the mood of the shoot-out with his perfectly chipped “Panenka” penalty down the middle of the goal. “That gave us huge belief to go on and finish it off,” Buffon confirmed. “Pirlo turned the shoot-out into our favor; after his penalty, the England players looked frustrated, like they had lost some determination.”
Despite that 2006 World Cup final shoot-out win, Buffon still is not sure that there is a winning strategy for spot kicks. “I don’t think you can give anyone advice for penalty shoot-outs,” he said. “If you tell the keeper to wait until the last minute to dive, even if he goes the right way, he will not get there if the kick is well taken. Some players prefer to kick to a certain side, but everyone knows that. There is luck involved in a shoot-out, but history also plays a part, because that affects your confidence. Italy overcame that: we lost so many shoot-outs in the 1990s [four, in 1990, 1994, 1996, 1998], but then won the World Cup on penalties in 2006. So I guess you just never really know.”
Pirlo himself didn’t even know he was going to attempt that outrageous effort when he started his run-up to the ball. He only decided at the last second, because, as he put it, “Joe Hart was doing all his dramatics on the line.” As soon as Hart moved, Pirlo made his decision. “I had to find the best solution in order to reduce the margin of error to the minimum,” he said. “It was improvised and not predetermined. I felt it was the only way I could get closer to that 100% margin of success. I wasn’t showing off. It’s just not part of myself. Before that game, we didn’t even have time to train properly because of all the trips between Poland and Ukraine, so how could I have tried that trick again and again? I did it because of pure calculation—in that moment it was the least dangerous thing I could do. It was the safest and most productive one at the same time. After the game, teammates asked me, ‘Andrea, are you a fool?’ They were astonished. But I wasn’t. I knew why I did it.”
I asked England’s two scorers against Argentina, Alan Shearer and Michael Owen, why the shoot-out had now become such a problem for England.
Shearer told me that we need some luck. “We need five guys to hold their nerve at the right time and we need luck and we need courage. That should get us over the line.” I pointed out that we had five such guys against Germany in 1996, and that wasn’t enough. “Yes, but not many shoot-outs go beyond five kicks. If we could just get that first important win under our belt, then mentally we will be over it.”
Owen was convinced that previous experiences of penalty shoot-outs played on players’ minds. “Confidence is a huge factor in taking penalties and as I had scored during the ninety minutes against Argentina I had a strong belief I would score when I took my penalty. It’s hard to put my finger on why England lose shoot-outs but I would have to think that having been knocked out of so many tournaments through penalties, there is always that seed of doubt in the back of minds.”
So it is a mental rather than a technical issue? Shearer thought so. “Yes. The longer we go on without winning, then the harder it is, as it becomes a mental problem.”
Owen added that players have to manage expectations. “The mind is a powerful tool,” he said, “and external pressures certainly play their part.”
Shearer went further on the fear factor: “I can only talk for myself, but my biggest pressure came from my teammates, the twenty-two guys in the squad and the backroom staff who I’ve been living with for a month and don’t want to let down. You can’t be afraid to take a penalty. If you are, you’re losing already.”
I put one final question to the two strikers. Will England ever win a shoot-out again?
Shearer: “With some luck, yes.”
Owen: “Of course we will!”
PENALTY ICON —
Matt Le Tissier watched the 1998 World Cup defeat to Argentina at the house of his friend and Southampton teammate Francis Benali, tearing his hair out as the shoot-out approached. Le Tissier had not missed a penalty for over five years and his omission from Hoddle’s squad was surprising (not least because he scored a hat-trick for England B the week before it was named). “I did think it was odd that my penalty record did not help me get a call,” Le Tissier told me. “In a squad of twenty-three players, you always get four or five who come back without playing a single minute, so why not take a specialist penalty taker, just in case you need one? My record from the spot was good.”
It was more than good: in his entire professional career Le Tissier missed only one penalty, against Nottingham Forest in 1993, and scored his other forty-seven. He practiced more when he hadn’t taken one for a while, and would incentivize youth-team goalkeepers, then earning £40 a week, by paying them £10 for every penalty they saved. “There were a few occasions when I paid out,” he remembered. “But only a few.”
Table of Contents
1 The English Disease 9
Penalty Icon Matt Le Tissier 33
2 The Oslo Solution? 35
Penalty Icon Antonin Panenka 55
3 The DNA of Penalties 63
Penalty Icon Harald Schumacher 101
4 All the World's a Stage 116
Penalty Icon Martin Palermo 144
5 Big Data, Big Decisions 149
Penalty Icon Rik Coppens 192
6 Status Anxiety 196
Penalty Icon Sebastián Abreu 221
7 The Goalkeeper Turns Poacher 225
Penalty Icon Alex Molodetsky 244
8 The Search for Justice 247
Penalty Icon Brandi Chostain 276
9 The Art of Kicking 280
Appendix I The Birth of the Penalty Kick 309
Appendix II The Origins of the Penalty Shootout 314