‘Penalty kick goals come from inner strength’

The mind games when converting a penalty kick can be an engrossing topic for a case study in sports psychology.

Lionel Messi joined this list of legends who misfired from the penalty spot in 2018 World Cup opener for Argentina against Iceland and walked back dazed.   -  Getty Images

The mind games when converting a penalty kick can be an engrossing topic for a case study in sports psychology. Famous footballers missing to score from a penalty spot located only 11 metres away, with only the goalkeeper to beat, includes big-match players Diego Maradona (1990 World Cup), Michel Platini and Zico (both 1986 World Cup), Roberto Baggio (1994 World Cup).

Lionel Messi joined this list of legends who misfired from the penalty spot in 2018 World Cup opener for Argentina against Iceland and walked back dazed. The reasons due to which experienced match-winners struggle to score from a penalty spot remains a mystery. The extent of pressure which forced these living legends to freeze in front of goal remains to be quantified.

Brahmanand Sankwalkar, ex-India men’s football captain and later national goalkeeping coach, feels that ability to overcome the pressure of responsibility and expectations is critical. “Focussing on the ball and self are important. Players taking the kick should switch off the pressure of leading the country. The pressure of captaincy should not be on the mind, it messes up everything.” Platini, Maradona, Messi wore the captain’s armband. Zico and Baggio felt weighed down by reputations.

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There is something about kicking a stationary ball into the net beyond the goalkeeper’s reach, which seems more difficult than what it looks on a television screen. Messi’s goals for Argentina in normal play and from setpieces like free-kicks have been scored from various angles, at times his sense of direction is so sharp that the ball is fired in without looking at the target.

So have Maradona for Argentina, Platini for France, Zico for Brazil, Baggio for Italy in World Cup games. The area between goalposts a custodian needs to cover (2.44m high x 7.32 wide as per FIFA regulation) is so vast that the kicker has the goalkeeper at his mercy and can place the ball anywhere into the net with right or left foot.

Iceland’s Hannes Halldorrson swatted away a left-footed penalty kick placement from Messi at Moscow’s Spartak stadium. Watching the moment of misery in the stands was Maradona. Twenty-eight years ago at1990 World Cup at Florence’s Comunale stadium, Yugoslav goalkeeper Tomislav Ivkovic dived to his right and collected a weak placement by the left-footed Argentina genius.

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Asked to explain this contrast between clarity in decision-making by Messi and Maradona in tense matches and agony from the penalty spot, Brahmanand, in an exclusive chat from Goa, said: “Big players score in important matches because they are composed. At that moment, during a penalty kick, they may feel short of courage or feel over-confident. A goalkeeper has nothing to lose.”

One of India’s goalkeeping greats tried to read Halldorrson’s mind on World Cup debut for Iceland, as Messi walked up to take the penalty. “Courage and focus in the goalkeeper came into play. Hannes (Halldorrson) had only one thought in his mind. He wanted to save the penalty kick and deny the world’s greatest player his glory. It gave him the courage to face the situation.”

For kickers with reputations, converting from the penalty spot is a mind game where custodians like the Iceland hero are better placed due to high motivation. “I think at that moment, most of the greatest players require inner strength and the rest is luck. Goalkeepers, who have saved kicks against such players have risen to the occasion, are aware that one effort can make him famous. The kicker may be feeling that he is already a champion.”

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Iceland drew 1-1 against mighty Argentina and celebrated with fans as if it had won the match. Tapping into decades of international goalkeeping experience, including the 1986 Seoul Asian Games, the ex-India captain explained the Argentine’s predicament. “Messi waited for the goalkeeper to be still and placed the ball so surely as if expecting his rival to go the wrong way. He was very confident about the goalkeeper’s shift to the other side that when it did not happen, he had no option but to stick to the decision.”

The 2018 World Cup in Russia is the Argentina spearhead’s fourth World Cup appearance. He had rescued the nation with a hat-trick against Ecuador to overturn a possible defeat in World Cup Qualification into a stunning victory. Four years ago at 2014 World Cup final against Germany, the maestro finished on the losing side in Brazil. Argentina is chasing its first title in a World Cup since the Maradona-inspired win in 1986.

Kicks and misses

1986: France goalkeeper Joel Bats saved a penalty kick by Brazil substitute Zico in regulation time during the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal, played in Mexico. The latter converted in the tie-breaker, teammate Socrates failed. France captain Michel Platini missed his penalty in the tie-breaker with a wild shot over the crossbar, but his team won 4-3 on penalties (full-time 1-1) to book a semifinal berth.

1990: Diego Maradona missed a penalty kick against Yugoslavia in 1990 World Cup quarterfinal in Italy. Argentina went through 5-3 on penalties after full-time ended 1-1.

1994: Taking the fifth and final penalty kick for Italy, celebrated playmaker Roberto Baggio aimed for the roof, but the ball flew over the crossbar in the 1994 World Cup final in the USA. Brazil was crowned the world champion, 3-2 after Baggio’s missed penalty.

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