It has been suggested more than once that the inner beauty of football is to be found in its mixture of simplicity and complexity. For the game to get under your skin in the first place isn’t difficult but, for all the analysis of tactics and formations which seems occasionally to dominate all other discussion of matches in themselves, football remains enchantingly out of reach. What we can say, however, is that the most celebrated moments in the history of game have involved extraordinary luck, brilliant skill, intuitiveness, improvisation or occasionally even a little sang froid, and somewhere between this assortment we find a part of the culture of the game that has grown with the televising of the game – the penalty shoot-out.
The origins of this peculiarly exquisite form of torture are not easy to define. The question of how to end a match that has ended in a draw but requires a winner is, of course, as old as the game itself. For league matches, this has never been a major issue. From the very first day’s Football League fixtures in September 1888, the answer was simple – award one point to each team involved in a drawn match – and the first drawn League match was played out between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Aston Villa on that first weekend. For knock-out football, however, things were different and in the early years of the FA Cup tied matches were often scratched because teams couldn’t afford the travel expenses for replays. The first FA Cup match to be decided after a replay by the toss of a coin was between Sheffield FC and Shropshire Wanderers in 1873, and extra-time was brought into play for both the 1875 and 1876 Finals. The penalty kick was introduced by the Football League for the start of the 1891/92 season
For tournament football, however, a neater solution to drawn matches was required. The 1919 Copa America was decided after one hundred and fifty minutes after finalists Brazil and Uruguay couldn’t be separated after extra-time, and replays were introduced to the World Cup finals in 1934, with Italy beating Spain by a single goal in Florence after the two sides had drawn their first match. As the television age began to dawn, however, replays became a less attractive option. Scheduling and policing replays was a headache for those putting on tournaments, and as football became increasingly defensively orientated the likelihood of big matches ending level started to increase. Although they weren’t introduced formally at the time, penalty shoot-outs were introduced to domestic competitions in Yugoslavia and Italy, and were used in several less formal international tournaments throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
The origins of the modern version of the penalty shoot-out, however, are disputed. Karl Wald, a hairdresser and former referee from Bavaria, claimed to have written to FIFA with the idea in 1970, but Israeli Yosef Dagan also claimed to have written to the governing body in 1969, suggesting it after Israel lost a quarter-final match at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico to Bulgaria through the drawing of lots. Wherever it originated from, the idea was recommended by a working party on behalf of the International Football Association Board recommended it, although the minutes from the meeting suggest, somewhat tantalisingly, that the IFAB were “not entirely satisfied with the proposal”, without going into any detail over what these reservations were.
Regardless of this, FIFA adopted the recommendation at a meeting held during the 1970 World Cup finals. The 1972 European Championships passed off without a need to utilise them and the 1974 World Cup finals, however, only had one genuine knock-out match – the final itself. All of this brings us the 1976 European Championships. This was the last of the four nation tournaments before UEFA opted to increase the number of nations competing in the finals of the tournament to eight, and the final four – this time playing in Yugoslavia – again came from either side of the Iron Curtain, with Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia representing the east, and the Netherlands and West Germany – who had played out the World Cup final two years earlier – making the short journey over from the west.
The semi-finals proved to be eventful enough in themselves. In the first match, Czechoslovakia took an early lead against the Dutch in Zagreb, with the Dutch equalising with thirteen minutes to play and both goals coming from Czechoslovakia’s Anton Ondruš. In extra-time, though, the first signs of what would end up being the decline of the the Dutch team would start to become apparent, and goals from Zdeněk Nehoda and František Veselý sent Czechoslovakia through to the final of a match that was otherwise most notable for Welsh referee Clive Thomas sending off three players. The following day, Yugoslavia and West Germany provided even more drama in Belgrade. The hosts rushed into a two goal half-time lead, before West Germany pulled a goal back. It was the introduction of 1. FC Köln’s Dieter Muller as a substitute, however, that changed the course of the match. Muller levelled for West Germany with eight minutes left to play and scored a further two goals in extra-time to send West Germany through to the final.
With the host nation eliminated, only 30,790 people turned out in the rain at the The Red Star Stadium in Belgrade for the final between Czechoslovakia and West Germany. Ján Švehlík gave Czechoslovakia an early lead which Karol Dobiaš doubled before Muller – promoted to the first eleven following his hat-trick in the semi-final – pulled on back for West Germany, and a second consecutive escape for the West German team was confirmed with two minutes to play, when Bernd Hölzenbein equalised. The two teams couldn’t be separated over the course of thirty minutes of extra-time, so for the first time in the history of football, a major tournament would be decided by a penalty shoot-out, although another curiosity was involved with this decision. A replay had been scheduled for the match by UEFA, but the two sides – who may well have been looking forward to the start of their truncated summer holiday - were informed shortly before the match that, in the event of a draw, they would face a penalty shoot-out instead.
Czechoslovakia went first, and the next six consecutive penalty kicks were all converted. As we have subsequently found to so often be the case, however, these shoot-outs can suddenly change complexion with one kick, and this one suddenly tilted heavy in Czechoslovakia’s favour when West Germany’s Uli Hoeneß fired his shot – West Germany’s fourth kick – well over the crossbar. The next kick, then, could win the 1976 European Championships for Czechoslovakia – step forward Antonín Panenka, then of the Prague club Bohemians. What must have been going through his head at that moment? This was unprecedented. One kick to win a major international tournament, and his country had at the time never been this close to winning a major trophy before.
This wasn’t the only issue facing him, either. After all, twelve yards away from the ball as he took his run up was Sepp Maier, by common assent the best goalkeeper in the world at the time. Panenka, however, had been practicing this for some time and was, “one thousand percent certain that I would take the penalty in that way and that I would score.” Whatever passed through his head at that precise moment, what happened next would go on to become one of the most iconic moments in the history of the tournament. He stepped up, and feigned a shot to his right. That micro-second of doubt was enough to cause Maier to chance his arm and dive, and Panenka chipped the ball straight down the middle of the now near-empty goal, and with that one kick Czechoslovakia were the champions of Europe. Moreover, they had managed this by beating arguably the two best teams in the world at that time.
There would be further success for Czechoslovakia, with gold medals won at the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, and Panenka himself would end his career playing in Austria, where he appeared for Rapid Vienna in their 1985 European Cup Winners Cup Final match against Everton. For West Germany, this match would mark the beginning of a transitional phase. Although they would go on to enjoy success in the next European Championships and make three consecutive World Cup finals between 1982 and 1990, Franz Beckenbauer – who made his one hundredth appearance for West Germany against Czechoslovakia – would play just three more matches for them before retiring from international football and with his departure from the scene the timbre of the West German national team would change. By the beginning of the 1990s, both Czechoslovakia and West Germany would see political events dramatically unfold that would change the face of international football in their countries forever.
Penalty shoot-outs, however, remain with us and are now instutionalised, whether rightly or wrongly, as a fundamental part of the game. Over the last three and a half decades, many of the mental images of the game that we hold – The Divine Ponytail missing his date with destiny at the Pasadena Rose Bowl in 1994, Stuart Pearce’s miss and tears in Turin in 1990, and his subsequent catharsis at Wembley six years later, John Terry slipping on the wet Moscow pitch in 2008 – but what is significant about the way in which we have chosen to interpret these moments is that they largely focus on failure rather than success. The penalty shoot-out has become the best friend of the serial cynic, the moment at which schafenfreude dominates all other emotions. The goalkeeper may be momentarily celebrated for pulling off an unlikely save, but our gaze almost invariably falls upon the player whose shot is blocked, misses by inches or sails high and/or wide of the goal. Perhaps it is this that is so delightful about Antonín Panenka’s chipped shot for Czechoslovakia – his goal was a positive moment of improvised brilliance from something that is normally most notable for being associated with what we consider to be mistakes.
It is, of course, a deeply imperfect way of completing a match, focusing as it does upon one specific skill which has little to do with the one hundred and twenty minutes which have immediately preceded it. Yet over the last forty years, no-one has come up with a better way. In the United States of America, the NASL and, initially, MLS, both tried having a player running in on goal to shoot at a goalkeeper but, while attractive in principle, this method is surprisingly unsatisfactory when seen in action. FIFA have experimented with “golden” and “silver” goals, but these were also ended after it became apparent that the near-indefinable “excitement” that was craved by the authorities was often being sacrificed at the altar of a fear of losing. Others, meanwhile, have considered the notion of awarding the result to the team that won the most corners or the most shots on goal, but the inherent flaw in this sort of thinking is clear enough.
It seems, then, as if we are stuck with the penalty shoot-outs until somebody comes up with a clearer way of resolving tied matches. Perhaps it would be more beneficial if all players on the pitch at the end of one hundred and twenty minutes had a go at a penalty kick (with, in the case of matches in which an odd number of players had been sent off, the team with more players getting to choose which one of theirs to withdraw from the shoot-out in the first place), but what is notable about the history of the penalty shoot-out is that, whilst FIFA have attempted in the past to minimise the likelihood of them taking place in the first place, there have been very few serious proposals to replace them altogether. Perhaps it is appropriate that this is the case. As with life, penalty shoot-out isn’t fair, and that might just be the way that we like it – a game of skill and luck, but also one that reflects the fact that to err is human and that we can’t all win all the time.
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