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.

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The Striker’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick

The keeper has this odd habit—it could be strategic, it could be a mind-game—of setting himself up not in the middle of the goal mouth but to his left. Standing in this peculiarly off-centered position, he turns towards the gap he has created, readying himself to leap across. He seems to be daring me to strike the penalty hard enough and accurately enough to beat his spring towards the vast opening.

As eccentricities go, this one is rather unnerving. That gap is tempting indeed, especially since most penalty-takers prefer to swing hard and pull the ball, and I’m right-footed. He’s playing right to my strengths. But then this is an exceptionally athletic keeper; and he gives the appearance that he knows what he is doing. Maybe I should try wrong-footing him instead: approach the ball with my body angled so that it looks for all the world that I’m going to pull the ball into the lower left corner—and then at the last moment alter my leg swing, turn my right foot outward, and push the ball into the right corner.

I think about this perhaps too long. I take a short run-up—just a step or two—and lash the ball as hard as I can towards that temptingly big gap. The ball hits the post and rolls back onto the field of play. The keeper leaps forward to take it before I can even regain my balance.

But I think it would have beaten him, had it been a just few inches in. So what to do the next time?—for soon there will be another opportunity, this I know.

When the time comes, I am sure that I’m going to try the same shot, taking care to emphasize accuracy over pace. But then as I approach I think I see him move early: I make a last-second adjustment, opening my foot and trying an inside-out swing—and he somehow manages to stop his momentum, even as he’s launching his leap, and the ball thumps into his ribs. My hands fly up to cover my eyes, then slide slowly down my face to reveal my dismay.

Third time the charm? I pull it, hard, right into the gap—but he’s too quick. He leaps and snatches the ball in his mouth. Then he trots towards me wagging his tail, clearly wanting and expecting praise. “Who do you think you are, Lev Yashin?” I ask, irritably. But I scratch his chest anyway, and he drops his green plastic ball, his eyes half-closing in bliss.

This keeper, with whom I have had so many battles at the goal that separates my living room from my dining room, is Malcolm, my Shetland Sheepdog. Before Malcolm came along, I disliked penalty kicks and consequently lacked interest in them. They now fascinate me, and I have become the most exacting of judges. I just saw Ashley Young take and make a penalty against Blackburn: it was struck well-enough, I suppose, but his run-up was far too elaborate, and he didn’t get it that close to the corner—if Robinson had guessed right he very well might have been able to palm it away. And shouldn’t Robinson have suspected that Young was going to pull the ball? Doesn’t he almost always? Come on, man!

My experience with Malcolm should make me more generous. After all, don’t I know what it’s like to make a decision and then, inexplicably, alter it when it’s really too late, thereby ensuring a weak or inaccurate shot? Don’t I know what it’s like to second-guess myself? Haven’t I been rattled by some twitch or feint from the keeper? Haven’t I tried, unsuccessfully, to keep my eyes low enough that I can’t even see the damned keeper? My own pain should open my heart to the pain of others. But what has it done instead? It has made me a critic.

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The Striker’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick

by Alan Jacobs · March 1, 2011

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