Suffering the penalty

Why England’s ‘golden generation’ turned into a bunch of bottlers when it came to spot kicks against Portugal.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

It was entirely apt that ITV chose Johnny Cash’s wrist-slashingly poignant version of Hurt as the mood music after England’s defeat to Portugal in the World Cup at the weekend. The England cricket team were reportedly inspired by another Cash song, Ring of Fire, before their series-salvaging test match victory against India in Mumbai earlier this year. I’d rather not speculate why Cash’s classic ode to sexual passion got our cricketers’ endorphins pumping, but Hurt seems altogether more apposite for our footballers.

In fact, forget about God Save the Queen, Ten German Bombers, or Embrace’s forgettable World At Your Feet, I reckon Hurt should be our national anthem. Broken toes, missed penalties and grown men weeping – hurt is what we do best.

‘I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel pain’, sang the Man in Black. Oddly enough, as the game drifted towards its inevitable denouement, a strange zen-like aura of calm enveloped me. As the shoot-out commenced, I realised that, after so many years of hurt, I had become immune to the pain. The missed penalties couldn’t hurt me anymore. Defeat is only emotionally devastating if you believe that you can win. But one heroic failure after another has long since drained away any belief that England could win on penalties. England have now lost four out of five penalty shoot-outs at major tournaments – a wretched record. Even our one and only spot kick victory – in the quarter-finals of ’Euro 96 – was achieved against Spain, who are even bigger tournament chokers than us.

‘England’s penalty fools are out!’ taunted the German tabloid Bild. And, painful though it is to admit, the phrase ‘penalty fools’ just about sums us up. But why are we such serial losers when it comes to spot kicks? Coach Sven-Goran Eriksson, who reportedly joined the post-match weep-in in the dressing room, was at a loss to explain. ‘Losing again on penalties, it’s not good enough to miss three penalties. We have trained so much – almost every day – but when it comes to the pressure we are not good.’ And therein lies the answer. England’s superstars, for all their medals and accolades, cannot handle the psychological pressure of spot kicks. Our so-called ‘golden generation’ are a bunch of bottlers.

Does it follow, therefore, that practising penalties is pointless? Was Glenn Hoddle right all along? Are shoot-outs a total lottery for which no amount of practise can prepare you? Hoddle, as you will recall, justified his refusal to practise spot kicks by insisting that you cannot replicate the pressure of a big match. But he was wrong. While you can’t replicate tournament conditions, it is entirely possibly to improve and hone a player’s technique through practise.

Effective penalty taking involves a combination of technique and nerve. The more a player perfects his penalty-taking skills, the less scope there is for his mind to mess with this kicking technique. As psychologist Dr Peter Naish has explained: ‘The more we practise, the more our actions become automatic skills – unconscious memories of how to react. These memories take over when thinking fails, such as in front of 80,000 fans.’

Boffins at Liverpool John Moores University claim to have discovered the elusive formula for spot kick success. Apparently, the optimum waiting time before running up to take the kick is three seconds and the ideal run-up is 4-6 steps. The researchers analysed every penalty taken by England players in key matches since 1962 and concluded that Alan Shearer’s spot kick against Argentina in 1998 was the perfect penalty.

‘A well-placed ball, high to the corner, will not be stopped by the goalkeeper even if he anticipates it’, said Professor Tom Riley. ‘There is not enough time to react, so a kick placed in this area would have a 100 per cent strike rate.’ Where did Cristiano Ronaldo put his winning penalty? High to the left of Paul Robinson. Did any England players hit their penalties towards the top corner of the goal? Of course they didn’t.

Obviously you cannot legislate against choking, but there is plenty of scope consciously to influence the outcome of shoot-outs. You don’t need a mathematical formula to figure out that goalkeepers’ mind games can make a big difference. Remember Bruce Grobbelaar’s wobbly leg routine in the 1984 European Cup Final or Jerzy Dudek’s ‘starfish with jelly legs’ homage to his Liverpool predecessor in 2005? If a keeper cannot predict the direction of the kick from the player’s body shape then the next best option is to cavort like a demented baboon on the goal line.

Germany have won almost every penalty shoot-out they have been involved in at major tournaments. Success in shoot-outs breeds confidence and further success. By contrast, successive England penalty failures have created a hoodoo that is devilishly hard to break. Whereas the German players exuded self-confidence against Argentina, fear was written all over the faces of the English players. ‘I could see in the eyes of the English players that they were not okay’, said the Portuguese goalkeeper Ricardo. ‘The goal was shrinking for them. I just had to prolong their suffering.’

The inability to take penalties is not the reason England have returned home without the trophy – Sven’s squad selection, the underperformance of key players and the lack of creativity and a goalscoring threat hampered the campaign throughout. But there was always a strong likelihood of a penalty shoot-out in the knockout stages. The first step towards breaking the spot-kick curse is to understand that shoot-outs are not entirely down to chance – players can improve their penalty-taking technique while goalkeepers can psyche out the opposition.

England’s quarter-final exit has deprived the world of the chance to see Peter Crouch’s robot dance. Crouch called a halt to the bodypopping goal celebration earlier in the tournament. But perhaps, just perhaps, if Paul Robinson had performed a robot dance before each Portuguese penalty, the outcome might have been very different.

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spiked-issue: World Cup 2006

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Topics Politics


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