Paying the Penalty: Looking At The Dreaded Spot Kicks

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Here we go again. It’s not just about England and Germany facing off against each other yet again in an international tournament on Sunday you know. It’s the relentless scrutiny over the prospect of the second round match going to penalty kicks.

It’s a well-worn statistic that England have lost five of the six penalty shoot-out’s they’ve been involved in since the semi-final of the 1990 World Cup, where the then West Germany triumphed en route to winning the trophy. The Germans didn’t miss a penalty whereas Stuart Pearce (now part of England’s coaching staff) blasted his at the goalkeeper and Chris Waddle’s effort went so high over the bar that people are still looking for the ball. Germany got the better of England at Wembley Stadium during the same stage of EURO 1996, with poor old Gareth Southgate the villain on that occasion. Even his mother weighed in, memorably asking, “why didn’t he just belt it?” England’s also suffered twice at the hands of Portugal, as well as Argentina during the 1998 World Cup (and chances are the teams would meet again at this year’s quarter-final if England wins on the weekend). The sole success came over Spain at EURO 1996, with Pearce making amends with his spot-kick, though Spain felt cheated by two goals being disallowed over the course of the 120 minutes.

As for Germany, it’s clearly been a case of the opposite. And when it comes to the World Cup, their consistency is not just, to use one of many English words about our German neighbors, efficient but downright frightening seeing as they haven’t lost a World Cup game decided in this manner. What’s more, they haven’t missed a kick in a shoot-out since 1982, only missing two in total, scoring all their kicks in 1986 (vs. Mexico), 1990 (see above!) and Argentina at the last World Cup. Intriguingly, if Germany defeats England, we should have a re-match of that 2006 quarter-final. And this blog’s dear friend, Franz Beckenbauer, is up to his old tricks, telling the BBC on Friday that, “I hope it’s a draw then penalties and Germany win!”

But if England is trying to take any comfort from Lucas Podolski’s miss in regular play against Serbia last week — the first fluff during a World Cup game by a German since 1974! — they should think again. And, to be fair, they are. Under Capello (and Stuart Pearce must take plenty of credit too), the players have regularly been practicing, with the backroom staff monitoring which part of the goal is the most successful for each player, and who has the best conversion rate. In fact, if he wasn’t speaking in his mother tongue, you could be forgiven for thinking that Pearce was, well, German in his reasoning. “We spent two years working on those lessons. From years gone by the one thing that comes out is that when a manager walked out to the center circle they had no idea who his best penalty takers were. He would ask who fancies it. That is not exactly a precise science, is it?”

And for all the histrionics surrounding the Italian coach’s abject refusal to let the squad know who’s starting until just before kickoff, Capello has wisely gone early in announcing who his chosen five takers will be should it come down to the dreaded kicks. Messrs. Lampard, Gerrard, Rooney, Milner and Barry (in that order) are expected to be the men in the frame. At the other end, goalkeeper David James spoke in Friday’s press conference at length about the prospect of penalties (indeed, the press officer had to instruct the notorious English press pack to move on to other issues) and revealed that, “The key issue is homework,” and, “we’ve had videos on penalty takers from the three sides we’ve played already.” This is a marked difference from previous campaigns where, as James confessed, “I think it has been documented we did not have access to as much information as we could have done, so it is a homework issue and I’m confident we have got that right this time.”

History — such a key term when it comes to anything to do with England and Germany, and as Marina Hyde points out in The Guardian, one Englishman was overheard at the airport saying it’s like WWII as, “the French surrender early, the U.S. turn up late and we’re left to deal with the bloody Germans” — suggests that penalty kicks are quite possible. All four World Cup matches between them have been level after 90 minutes. Naturally, I can’t say with my hand on heart that I want the best team on the day to win (I’d take a terrible performance by England in a scrappy 1-0!) so can only offer the following advice: if/when the match does enter extra-time, do as the Italians did in their semi-final against Germany in 2006 and go all out for the win. It was fascinating to see the side, who usually pride themselves on defense (not this year!) emerging from their shell and scoring twice because the fear of facing up to Germany after 120 minutes is sure to end in defeat.

Still don’t believe me? Then let’s see what the excellent journalist Simon Kuper had to say on the subject before the World Cup even started. He and his fellow writer Stefan Szymanski have written extensively about England and penalties. They predicted that England would meet Germany in the second round — though that would be because they felt England would top their group and Germany would come second in their one — before concluding, “Yet when the match goes to penalties, Germany win … All that will then remain is the ritual English selection of the national scapegoat.”

But before any England fan reading this loses all hope entirely, may I leave you with one small sliver of hope: good old superstition. By virtue of winning their group, Germany had the choice of kits for Sunday and went with their traditional white shirts, black shorts and white socks. England could have played in their traditional change strip of red shirts, white shorts and red socks, but after going with the “lucky” all red outfit against Slovenia, they’re sticking with more of the same. If England does overcome Germany in penalty kicks, you shouldn’t expect them to ever wear anything else. And as every tabloid newspaper will note, Don’t Mention the Score.