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Penalty Shootout: ‘Russian Roulette’

Posted July. 03, 2006 03:28,   


It is terrible. It is dismal just to think about it. It is an 11-meter Russian roulette. The goalkeeper facing a penalty shootout feels uneasy. However, in reality, the kicker feels even tenser. It is acceptable for the goalkeeper to allow a goal, but if a kicker fails to score, from that moment on he becomes a traitor.

Italy and Brazil went to a penalty shootout to decide the final game of the World Cup U.S. in 1994. Brazil led the shootout 3-2. Italy’s last kicker Roberto Baggio placed the ball at the spot 11 meters from the goalpost. Until that moment Baggio was the primary reason for Italy’s advancement to the finals. He scored two against Nigeria in the round of 16, an equalizer two minutes before the end of regular time and an additional penalty goal at overtime. Two goals against Spain at the quarter-finals, including the game winning goal that came two minutes before the end of regulation, came from his feet. He had another pair of goals against Bulgaria at the semi-finals where Italy beat Bulgaria 2-1. Taffarel was guarding Brazil’s goalpost. Baggio took a deep breath, ran full throttle and kicked the ball hard. However, the ball sped way above the post and headed towards the bleachers like a homerun.

From that moment, Baggio turned into Italy’s public enemy. He had become an idiot. Baggio muttered to himself, “I just kicked as I normally do, but I don’t know why the ball ended up there.” The winner, Taffarel, consoled him telling, “You are still great.” Nevertheless it did not help. Italian fans turned cold toward him. Baggio complained to little avail, “No one remembers me scoring that penalty kick against Nigeria. However, a missed penalty shot is remembered forever.”

That it is. Penalty shootouts are ultimately a mental game. Theoretically the kickers are supposed to win all penalty kicks or shootouts. However, in real life it doesn’t happen to be so. Strikers that score well during games by shooting at the corners of the goalpost kick absurd shots during the actual shootout. That is because their minds were shaken. Baggio is a Buddhist that considers meditation as his highest priority. However, he lost his mind control at a single moment.

Italy and England are frequent losers when it comes to shootouts in the World Cup. Since penalty shootouts were adopted in 1982, at World Cup Spain, they lost all three shootouts. The Italian press was so frustrated that they called the penalty shoots as creations of the devil. Brazil and Spain have gone 2-1 in shootouts, Spain 1-2, while Netherlands lost once and Mexico twice.

On the other hand, Germany and Argentina are strong when it comes to shootouts. Until this current World Cup, both teams had won all three of their shootouts. Those same two teams met at this World Cup’s quarterfinals and had to decide the winner by shooting it out. Germany turned victorious extending its shootout winning streak to four, while Argentina’s record is now 3-1. German players are ice cold. They are calm to an icy point. In contrast, generally those with hot tempers such as Italy, Spain and Mexico are not so good in shootouts.

The soccer ball is a living organism that moves endlessly. Most of the shots taken during a match kick are lively. However, during a shootout, a static ball has to be kicked. An unmoving ball has to be kicked inside an obstinate goalpost. The keeper is like wind: when the kicker’s mind is read by the wind, it is over. When the mind is read by the wind the goalpost turns pitch dark. So is life. One should be placid like water. No one knows what’s underneath placid waters, while the wind is just an illusion.

Hwa-Sung Kim mars@donga.com