A dozen yards, a million demons!

The penalty spot, 12 yards out from the goal, can make heroes or zeroes of both the strikers and the goalkeepers. Ayon Sengupta explores the mechanics of the penalty kick.

“The final moment was decided between two people: Baggio and I… I noticed he kept his head down and looked insecure. I grew more confident. When I saw that ball flying well above the poles, all I wished to do was to kneel and glorify God for I knew victory was His. After all, neither did Baggio score a goal nor did I make any defence at that last moment of the 1994 World Cup.”

— Former Brazilian goalkeeper Claudio Taffarel about the 1994 final, when a shootout picked out a World Cup winner for the first time.

The dreaded penalties, which decide the victor if there’s a stalemate after 120 minutes of conventional play, are an antitheses that effectively reduce a 22-man team sport to a manufactured test of the will of an individual.

The shootout was introduced for the Argentine World Cup of 1978, but made its first appearance in Spain 1982. And Costa Rica’s recent (5-3) victory over Greece was the 24th in the tournament’s history (see box). Keylor Navas dived to his right to spectacularly keep out Theofanis Gekas, Greece’s fourth attempt.

Germany, with four wins out of four in World Cup shootouts, has only missed one of its 18 such spot-kicks (so far). Gary Lineker had said quite sometime ago (in 1990): “Football is a simple game — you play for 120 minutes and then the Germans win on penalties.” Lineker’s Englishmen, however, are rather inept from the 12 yards out and physicist Stephen Hawking lost no time in ridiculing them: “England couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo.”

Argentina’s Sergio Goycochea, who rose to fame during Italia 90, continues to be the most decorated of shot stoppers with five saves in this Russian roulette. Taffarel, Brazil’s ’94 hero, too has similar credentials, though two efforts against him — by Franco Baresi and Roberto Baggio — were hit wide during the 1994 final.

Baggio’s miss, when he ballooned the ball high up into the stands, till date ranks as one of the worst efforts from the spot and that one solitary mistake robbed the Italian of all the goodwill he had earned for his instrumental role in his side’s run to that finale.

“There is no easy explanation for what happened at Pasadena. When I went up to the spot I was pretty lucid, as much as one can be in that kind of situation,” the Divine Ponytail writes in his autobiography Una Porta Nel Cielo (A Goal in the Sky). “I knew Taffarel always dived so I decided to shoot for the middle, about halfway up, so he couldn’t get it with his feet. It was an intelligent decision because Taffarel did go to his left, and he would never have got to the shot I planned. Unfortunately, and I don’t know how, the ball went up three metres and flew over the crossbar.”

Many established players have actually faced similar heartbreaks from the feared spot. Though the odds are heavily in favour of the strikers, the collective burden of carrying the hopes of millions often makes them an emotional wreck, prompting mistakes.

The more a striker thinks, the more the demons creep in to sully his head.

Bulgaria’s Dimitar Berbatov, then with Manchester United, saw his effort saved in the 2009 FA Cup semi-final against Everton and remarked: “I was looking for the goalkeeper, and in the last moment he took the angle I was going for, so he saved it.” Penalties, as a rule, should be practised ad infinitum, making it an involuntary muscle action for the player, thereby reducing pressure and the gaffes attributed to it.

Chile’s Mauricio Pinilla and Gonzalo Jara undoubtedly let stress get the better of them during their team’s recent shootout loss to Brazil (2-3). Alexis Sanchez, who scored Chile’s equaliser in Belo Horizonte (encouraging a Chilean journalist to lift her top and display Chilean flag-embossed inners in the press box), was by far the most energetic of the players during the 120 minutes of play, but unfortunately came out a pauper from his personal battle against Julio Cesar and the 12-yard spot.

Cesar, who was held responsible for Brazil’s quarter-finals exit from South Africa in 2010, saved Chile’s first two efforts and was visibly emotional after these late heroics. “After the last World Cup to be labelled as the villain was very hard for me. This was very special,” he said. “I’d like to dedicate this to my mum and dad, the staff and 200 million Brazilians. I apologise if I talk too much. But I am trying to sum up four years’ work here.”

Protecting an area of 192 square feet, a goalkeeper’s job is never easy as the ball takes only about 400 milliseconds (according to the Journal of Sports Sciences) to travel the 12 yards from the penalty spot to the goal. Clearly, starting from a position of disadvantage, ’keepers, even the best of the lot, need about 200 milliseconds to process and react to a kick. So, usually, they end up relying only on guesswork to thwart the opponent.

Thus, to counter this imbalance and gain some psychological advantage, goalies, at times, resort to unusual methods. Goycochea, going a little extreme, preferred to relieve himself in front of the stadium audience, perhaps trying to gross out his opponents. “If you have any necessary human urges, you have to go on the field. So that is what happened against Yugoslavia (in the 1990 World Cup quarter-finals). At the end of the game I really had to go so I had no choice. But we won, so then when the semi-final against Italy went to penalties I did it again — and it worked! So from that moment on I did it before every shoot-out. It was my lucky charm,” he says.

The 2014 World Cup has championed attacking play, with 145 goals scored at the end of 52 matches (a healthy average of 2.79).

Colombia’s James Rodriguez, a relatively unknown player from AS Monaco, has upstaged the more elitist stars of the game to lead the goal-scorers’ pack with five strikes at the time of writing.

The 22-year-old’s thundering left-footed first-time volley against Uruguay will surely be a strong contender for the goal-of-the-tournament as well and Rodriguez, who has displayed great dexterity and a cool head, will have no dearth of suitors when the tournament ends. Clearly, a man on form, he too can’t guarantee a goal from 12 yards out. At times, even God can’t be spot on.