The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
Why do a Panenka?
The penalty is the embodiment of the dread of choice. As Andrew Anthony notes in his book On Penalties, “Sport is largely an intuitive endeavour which rewards honed instinct […] With a football penalty, though, the taker is presented with a genuine decision.” The kicker is removed from his usual learnt improvisation and thrust into a situation where he must consciously plot his next move, which will have a consequence far greater than most. Moreover, the extra thinking time allowed by this scenario lulls the taker into contemplating the unknowable variable and the root of the dread—the goalkeeper.
This can become a tortuous psychological game, as related in the movie The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty (and as quoted in On Penalties):
The goalkeeper wonders into which corner it will go. If he knows the opposing player, he knows the kicker’s favourite corner, but the kicker knows he knows. So the goalkeeper wonders if he might choose the other corner this time. But the kicker knows that, too, so maybe he’ll go for his favourite. And so on and so on.
And some players can’t handle it. Nor can some managers, come to that. Fear rules. It is seen as acceptable managerial practice to forgo the responsibility of choosing which players will take the kicks in a shootout, reflecting a belief that the penalty is guided by some force beyond anyone’s control. Chance, perhaps; penalties are frequently explained away as a lottery. What they are really about is playing the game on terms which are not entirely the taker’s, but those of the goalkeeper and of the taker’s powers of decision-making. And how can you trust either?
Antonín Panenka’s penalty, which won Czechoslovakia the 1976 European Championship, was a challenge to the received notion of penalties. Or maybe a kind of pre-emptive challenge to today’s received notion of penalties: that you can’t practise them, that they are governed by some capricious deity. Because here’s a question whose answer I don’t know but am fairly sure I could guess—did the penalty neurosis exist as pandemically back then as it does now, with decades of shootout-induced paranoia and superstition behind us?
In any case, the kick had, in effect, been planned and honed for some time prior to that momentous night. Panenka had noticed a problem: he could never beat his goalkeeper clubmate in their regular training-ground penalty competitions. He pondered on the matter and detected a flaw in the goalkeeper’s approach: the keeper always started to dive a beat before the kick. So Panenka determined that a chip down the centre would, if well enough disguised, do the trick. It did, and did again in some friendlies and a couple of domestic league games, presumably unbeknownst to the rest of the world, and certainly to Sepp Maier. Panenka’s achievement was to subvert the dread of choice by finding a new option—one that Maier, and therefore the dread, were unaware of, and powerless to counteract.
It was like the will of god. I was one thousand percent certain that I would take the penalty in that way and that I would score.
Subsequent attempts to replicate Panenka’s kick miss the point. What Panenka did was to pull off the trick of appearing to put a live round in the chamber before firing the gun at his temple, when in fact he had done nothing of the sort. It subverted the game by virtue of its certainty, which came from its originality. These qualities are now gone from the kick. It has become part of the repertoire—it is the Panenka, something the possibility of which any decent keeper is prepared for. It pretends to be the ultimate display of defiance: defiance of the norm, defiance of the dread. It fails on both counts: the former because it is a part of the norm and no longer shocks; the latter because it actually acknowledges and re-affirms the goalkeeper’s centrality to the act—it pretends to thumb its nose at the goalkeeper’s game despite being born out of it. Its flourish is utterly superficial; a firm shot down the centre of goal would be just as, perhaps more, effective. It is a stylistic empty gesture, as much a cliché as the pointless stepover, or the penalty nervously blasted over the bar, for that matter. It’s as lame as reciting the “royale with cheese” scene with your friends and thinking it’s still the zenith of cool.
The Panenka can still be potent if circumstances allow, like how a stock chord progression can be turned into something beautiful. But it’s a pastiche more often than not. Even Zinedine Zidane’s penalty in the 2006 World Cup final wound up being stylistically sheepish, both with it having been so nearly botched and with the subsequent momentary uncertainty as to whether it had crossed the line.
And the Panenka’s hollowness is shown up when it is botched. In the case of Dimitar Berbatov’s miss against Everton in the FA Cup semi-final, it only served to exaggerate the caricature that threatens to define him.
In missing the point of the ur-Panenka, the neo-Panenka also misses a wider one. As long as the Laws of the Game contain that pesky clause which allows the goalkeeper to try and stop a penalty, it is impossible to completely avoid playing the goalkeeper’s game. But the closest thing to taking the keeper out of the equation is not, any longer, by means of a Panenka, but by hitting a firm shot into the corner of the goal. It is difficult to perfect, but if it’s hit well, it’s unsavable. The tragedy of Javier Casquero’s miss against Real Madrid lay not just in its consequence—that is, costing Getafe a victory at the Bernabéu and dealing a blow to the club’s hopes for Primera División survival. It also resided in Casquero’s succumbing to the dread. Here was someone who “can hit a ball like Hotshot Hamish”, having his brain short-circuit. He choked. He, to borrow once more from Anthony, “returned to first principles and started thinking”. The Panenka has become so routine that it seemed like a good idea at the time.
It’s the thinking, the “good idea at the time”, that does for the penalty taker. The best way to avoid the dread of choice is to make the decision long before you step on the pitch. The best way to circumvent the goalkeeper’s power is to take a kick he can’t do a thing about. Panenka understood that. That’s true subversion. That’s true swagger.
Fredorrarci is the author of the ingenious Sport Is a TV Show.
Read More: The Unwritten Peter Handke
by Fredorrarci · April 26, 2009