The joy and pain of penalties

The quarter-finals of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ served up no shortage of penalty drama. First to step up to the plate was Ghana striker Asamoah Gyan. Presented with a golden opportunity to seal his side’s tie against Uruguay deep into extra time, the Rennes player crashed his spot-kick against the crossbar. The South Americans took full advantage in the shoot-out that followed, winning 4-2 to book their place in the last four.

The following day it was the turn of Paraguay and Spain to serve up another high-octane bout of penalty drama, both sides missing second-half attempts, one of them retaken, in the space of just two minutes. The penalty heroes and villains of the quarter-finals are merely the latest in a long list of players to experience the joy and pain that this most demanding test of skill and nerve can bring. And as Socceringhana recalls, the story of the world football’s showpiece tournament is littered with great names who have met triumph and disaster from 12 yards out.

Few games in the history of the FIFA World Cup have served up quite as much penalty-spot theatre as that fabled meeting on a baking June afternoon in Guadalajara. The French eventually won through in a shoot-out but not before Michel Platini, who had never missed from the spot in his career, skied over. “I scuffed the grass as I hit the ball,” said Platoche, reliving his agony. “When I saw it go over the bar my head started spinning, and it felt like the walk back to the halfway line would never end.”

“As we say in Brazil, penalties are so important that only the president should be allowed to take them.” Former Brazil coach Dunga probably made that observation with his country’s quarter-final against France at Mexico 1986 in mind.

Fortunately for Platini and France, he was not the only great to miss out that day. Zico had a penalty saved by Joel Bats in normal time, with the inimitable Socrates then missing in the decider as the French set up a semi-final meeting with West Germany, the side who had beaten them on penalties at the same stage four years earlier.

No side are as deadly from the spot as the Germans. Die Nationalmannschaft have won all four of their FIFA World Cup shootouts, converting 94 per cent of their kicks in the process. At Italy 1990 they won a memorable tussle with England in the semi-finals, capitalising on famous misses by Chris Waddle and Stuart Pearce.

“The world just collapsed around me,” Pearce later commented. “The walk back to the centre circle was a nightmare and I could feel the first tears welling up in my eyes.” The left-back is not the only Englishman to experience that feeling. In contrast to the steely Germans, England have lost all three of their world finals penalty deciders, missing half of their 14 attempts.

Singer Diana Ross got in on the act at the USA 1994 Opening Ceremony. As part of her routine, the artiste had to kick a ball into an exploding goal from only six yards out. Memorably, she poked her shot wide, setting a precedent for the unfortunate Roberto Baggio, who brought the tournament to a close when he blazed over from the spot in the Final against Brazil. “I never shirked my responsibilities,” he said later. “Only those who don’t have the courage to take penalties do that.”

Twelve years later it was David Trezeguet’s turn to experience that selfsame sinking feeling, the French striker hitting the bar as Italy took the honours in the Germany 2006 Final. In normal time in that game team-mate Zinedine Zidane had shown plenty of pluck from the spot, chipping home a Panenka-style penalty to give France an early lead, one they were unable to hold on to.

Uruguay forward Sebastian Abreu took a leaf out of Zizou’s book in last Friday’s dramatic meeting with Ghana, settling the shoot-out with an equally audacious dink into the middle of the goal. “What word did you use to describe Zidane’s penalty?” asked the man they call El Loco afterwards. “Crazy? No, magical. So why not Abreu? Those are the decisions you have to take. And at the same time you have to try your best and make sure the ball goes in.”

As cool as Abreu’s effort was, not many FIFA World Cup penalty takers have had quite as much sang-froid from the spot as Germany’s Andreas Brehme, the left-footed full-back who won the Italy 1990 Final with a perfect penalty taken with his right.

Figuring among the competition’s other legendary penalties is the one taken by Italy’s Giuseppe Meazza in the 1938 semi-final against Brazil, which he converted while holding up his ripped shorts. And who can forget Ronald de Boer’s miss in a last-four shootout with Brazil at France 1998, which earned him a reprimand from twin brother Frank, the scorer of the Netherlands’ first kick in that decider?

As that little anecdote shows, when it comes to penalties on the biggest stage of all even brotherly love is put to the test.


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