What we can learn from German football
If England is ever going to improve, we need to stop singing songs about the war and learn to be more Kraut-like.
Penalties. Again. Jesus, it’s like bloody Groundhog Day.
Admittedly, this wasn’t as gut-wrenching as previous defeats. There was a grim inevitability about it. The brief flickering of hope, kindled by a bright start to the quarter-final, had long since been snuffed out as familiar English failings resurfaced – poor ball-retention, predictable tactics, lack of composure. It was due to these congenital flaws that, a few weeks ago, I vowed on these very pages to eat my underpants if England won the tournament. As I said, the Englishman’s Fear of the Penalty would be a critical failure factor. And, while this wasn’t the most difficult prediction of my oracular career, it sadly proved to be correct. My underpants were never in any danger.
It was Pirlo’s ‘Panenka’ kick wot won it. His penalty was a moment of jawdropping brilliance from the classiest player on the pitch. The audacious dink was pioneered by Czechoslovakia’s Antonin Panenka, whose outrageous penalty settled the 1976 European Championship final against West Germany. Pirlo’s insouciant chip altered the psychological balance of power in the shoot-out. It was a psy-ops masterstroke. It was cool, assured and arrogant. ‘I’m the daddy’, was the message. The Juventus playmaker knew very well that a Panenka penalty would spook his opponents. ‘Joe Hart was doing some strange movements, so when he dived I decided to take it like that and it went well’, Pirlo said afterwards. ‘It put a bit of pressure on their takers and in fact Ashley Young missed his penalty after that.’
Why do England always lose on penalties? It’s like one of those big ontological questions which children ask – like ‘Why is the sky blue?’ – which invariably stump parents. These are self-evident truths, but we struggle to explain them. The players practice spot-kicks regularly. The goalkeepers meticulously study the penalty traits of their opponents. And yet we always, always bottle it. Why? Roy Hodgson was at a loss to explain what went wrong. ‘I don’t know how to answer why we cannot win penalties shootouts. It can go either way. It is a difficult one. Anyone can win’, he said. ‘I think penalties is always down to luck. It is a lottery. It is just the way it goes in football.’
It’s an old cliché that penalties are a lottery. It also happens to be nonsense, as I’ve argued before. Sure, luck plays a part. But, ultimately, penalty shootouts are tests of psychological strength. They are won and lost in the mind. It’s all about keeping focused, banishing the doubts and holding one’s nerve under extreme pressure. Easier said than done, of course, but successive penalty shootout defeats are imprinted on our sporting psyche. The inevitability of failure has become a myth that all of us – footballers included – have come to believe. Did you see the terror in Ashley Young’s face as he was about to take his ill-fated kick? The ghosts of all those missed penalties had returned to haunt him.
Invariably, a motley crew of psychologists, positive-thinking gurus and snake-oil sellers will be forming a queue outside FA headquarters, offering cures for the English penalty curse. I think there’s a simpler solution. Let’s campaign for spot kicks to be scrapped. We should use whatever arguments we think might work. I’d play the inclusion card. Penalty kicks clearly discriminate against the mentally frail. The English, who suffer from a collective, penalty-induced trauma, will always get a raw deal. How can that be fair? If FIFA wants a truly level playing field, the answer is to get rid of the pseudo-lottery of spot kicks. What we need is a proper lottery. We don’t want skill or nerve to play any part. Tossing a coin, rolling dice, drawing straws, a game of scissor-paper-stone – anything is better than a shootout. Come on Mr Blatter, give us chokers a chance.
Do Germans suffer from angst or indulge in schadenfreude? The English have imported these German words but they don’t seem to feature in the German mindset. Schadenfreude, I’d suggest, is not something that successful teams have much need for. They’re too busy winning to derive pleasure from the misfortune of others. Maybe it’s not a statistically valid sample but the Germans I know – namely my wife and her relatives – don’t find it amusing to see the English lose. Likewise the German nationalmannschaft appears to be completely bereft of angst. They possess the most incredible self-belief. It’s a winning mentality that has been cultivated by years of achievement.
Even when the Germans suffer a setback it doesn’t seem to traumatise them. They just figure out what went wrong and fix it. Take the famous Panenka penalty in 1976. That was Germany’s first and last penalty shootout defeat. They weren’t psychologically scarred. They didn’t make self-deprecating pizza commercials. They simply started practising to ensure that they would never suffer another defeat on penalties again.
Germany’s humiliating group-stage exit at Euro 2000 was another watershed moment. Sure, there was a degree of self-examination. But once the problem was identified, the German FA and the clubs acted quickly and decisively to correct it. They overhauled youth development and established a new academy system. The youthful German side that has been the must-watch team of Euro 2012 is the product of those reforms. Contrast that with the English who’ve been bemoaning the technical shortcomings of homegrown players for years but only now have a strategy in place – the deeply flawed Elite Player Performance Plan – to tackle those problems. Likewise, the plan for a national football centre was hatched 15 years ago, but financial problems have meant that building work only started in 2010.
I used to hate the German football team. I swallowed all that lazy stereotypical claptrap about Germany being boring, ruthless and efficient. But now I’ve seen the light. German football is everything the English should aspire to be – technical, tactical and adventurous. We already love their beer, their high-performance cars, their autobahns and their krautrock. It’s time we stopped singing stupid songs about the Second World War and learned to do things the German way.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.