The tragic story of penalty

The tragic story of penalty
Brazilian legend Zico, right, in action during the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal against France. File photo: AFP

The second week of FIFA World Cup maintained the same tempo of excitement as the first. The highlight of this week was the exit of defending champions Germany following a shock defeat at the hands of South Korea.

Argentina scraped into the knockout phase while Japan moved into the last 16 stage by virtue of the fair play rule on account of having committed lesser number of fouls. But the Argentines were sent home by the French in their round of 16 clash.

Brazil showed signs of moving into top gear with victories in their last two games while Uruguay, Belgium and Croatia topped their respective groups winning all the matches.

Egypt and Panama were the only sides to return home losing all their matches in the first stage.

The week also showed what a great leveller this sport could be. Cristiano Ronaldo was on a high during the first week after scoring a hat-trick in the first match and netting the winner in the second.

However, he would have found how fickle fortune and fame could be when he missed a penalty against Iran in the last group match, in which Portugal was held to a draw by their opponents.

This meant that they were pitted against the strong Uruguay side in the last 16 stage, on account of being placed second in their group. Uruguay beat the European champions 2-1 to set up quarterfinal clash with France.

The sight of the two top footballers of the world missing penalties made one think about the relative ease or otherwise of scoring a goal through this process.

Since the entire objective of a side in this game is to score more goals than their opponents and the penalty kick offers a opportunity for doing so from close quarters we would expect that this is the easiest thing to do on a football field.

But the fact that even the best of footballers can mess up the chance shows that taking a penalty kick is not as easy as it appears from outside.

More often than not it is the mind that plays the spoilsport as the pressure cooker atmosphere in the stadia act on the nerves of the players resulting in misses.

Since World Cup offers the biggest stage as far as football is concerned, the worst penalty misses have also taken place on this arena.

France vs Brazil in 1986 WC

The 1986 World Cup quarterfinal between France and Brazil is considered to be one of the greatest matches of all time and would always remain in the minds of all those had the fortunate to watch it.

Brazil went ahead in the 17th minute through a goal by Careca but Michel Platini scored the equaliser for France before half-ime. Brazil went all out into attack after the break bringing enormous pressure on the French defence.

In the 72nd minute Tele Santana, the coach of Brazil, made a substitution, replacing Mueller with Zico, who was making a comeback after an injury.

Immediately thereafter Branco was brought down inside the French area, resulting in the referee ordering a penalty.

Zico, arguably the best footballer of his time, took the kick but French goalkeeper Joel Bats anticipated the direction of the kick to perfection and blocked it with a superb dive.

French defence held against Brazilian attack during the entire playing time and the additional time of 30 minutes and finally the match had to be decided in a penalty shootout.

Socrates took the first kick for Brazil. He walked in to take the kick with his hallmark confident stride but it was obvious that Bats had done his homework well.

Instead of going into a pre-meditated dive, Bats stood his ground throwing Socrates off guard and he fired the shot straight ahead.

The kick came at the speed of a bullet but Bats was in a perfect position to punch it away. Thus Brazil started the shootout by missing their first kick.

The next six kicks were converted into goals with Yannick Stopira, Manuel Amoros and Bruno Bellone scoring for France, while Alemao, Zico and Branco scored for Brazil. With the scores levelled at 3-3 in the shoot out, Platini took the fourth kick fro France. He was in top form and seldom missed penalties.

However, the pressure took its toll on the French captain and his effort sent the ball soaring high into the stands, bringing Brazil back into the reckoning.

Julio Cesar took the last kick for Brazil. He had already made a name for himself through the goals he had scored in two of the group matches.

The power contained in his kicks had carried the ball effortlessly into the net from more than 30 yards and he had also shown a unique ability to find the target from impossible angles.

He blasted the kick and this time Bats, for a change, dived in the wrong direction. But, as luck would have it, the ball which was travelling at terrific speed struck the goal post and bounced back into the field of play.

All eyes centred on Luis Fernandez as he took the last kick for France.

Facing him was Carlos, the Brazilian goalkeeper, who was having a terrible time during the shootout, having dived in the wrong direction during each one of the previous kicks.

This time Carlos dived in the correct direction but missed the ball, which went past his outstretched hands. But such was his bad luck that the ball hit the post, rebounded and struck a diving Carlos on his back side and rolled inside the goal line!

It was obvious that fortunes were not on the side of Brazil on that fateful day. Two their best players, Zico and Socrates missed their penalty kicks, though the latter redeemed himself by scoring during the shootout.

Julio Cesar’s thunderous shot was foiled by the goal post. And finally when one kick from a French player hit the goal post, it went inside the goal line from a rebound off their own goalkeeper.

Thousands of fans of Brazil, who thronged the stadium and cheered their side, would have earnestly wished that Carlos had dived in the wrong direction, as he did during the previous four kicks.

One can state with reasonable certainty that the height of misfortune in football is to miss a penalty kick during the final of the World Cup and end up on the losing side.

Baggio and Trezeguet's ill luck

Two players had the same fate - Roberto Baggio of Italy and David Trezeguet of France. Baggio was in brilliant from during the 1994 championship and had guided his side to the final where they met Brazil.

During the penalty shootout that followed when scores remained tied after regular and additional playing time, Baggio took the last kick for Italy with the score reading 3-2 in favour of Brazil.

A goal from Baggio would have restored Italy’s chances but unfortunately his kick sailed over the bar, thus gifting the trophy to Brazil.

His performance during the earlier matches, when he had dazzled with the ball at his feet, was all but forgotten in the wake of this lapse at the critical moment.

In the 2006 World Cup final, France had held Italy to a score of 1-1 despite playing with 10 players after Zinedine Zidane was sent off the field following the infamous “head butt” incident.

When the penalty shootout started, Sylvain Wiltord scored for France from the first kick but Trezeguet, who took the next one, shot straight to the crossbar thus missing his chance.

With Italy not losing any of their opportunities, this miss by Trezeguet sealed the fate of France and they had to return home without the trophy.

Trezeguet was one of the stars of the French side having been a member of the World Cup-winning side in 1998 besides scoring the winning goal in the Euro Cup final in 2000.

However, this mistake would continue to haunt him as it blew away his side’s chances in 2006.

An analysis of success rate in penalty kicks in international and top level club matches would indicate that conversion percentage is only in the range of 70 per cent.

Thus, it would emerge that the apparent ease of converting a kick into a goal is actually a deception.

Further, the whole process places the striker who takes the kick in a psychologically disadvantageous position vis-a-vis the goalkeeper, who is generally seen as the underdog, having very little to lose. Thus, there is invariably enormous pressure on the striker, which makes him try extra hard, causing the kicks to soar over or hit the bars.

It is obvious that a goalkeeper would not get sufficient time after a kick is taken to move and block it.

Hence goalkeepers, without exception, dive to one side or the other, in the fond hope that ball is kicked in that direction.

Though intuition also plays a role, these movements are usually based on the study of the strategies adopted by the persons taking the kick.

For instance, Socrates used to delay his kick till the goalkeeper makes his move and would then slam the ball straight.

To counter this, Bates adopted the strategy of not diving to either side, with the result that Socrates was caught on the wrong foot and ended up kicking the ball straight to the goalkeeper.

Goalkeepers would also study the side and angle that is normally preferred by the player taking the kick while making his move.

But, since all top level players are adept at placing the ball at the exact location they wish to, goalkeepers would be forced to make their move more with “hope in their minds and prayer in their hearts”.

Since statistics show that they are effective in foiling penalty kicks in almost 30 per cent of the cases, this strategy cannot be faulted with either.

Converting a penalty kick is not as easy as it appears to be from the gallery.

This is an area where even the best have tumbled and a player would require nerves of steel and good fortune on his side, besides expertise and skill for taking up this challenge successfully.

(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

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