The long walk from the centre circle, the placing of the ball on the spot, the hush of expectation from the crowd, the pounding heart as you feel the weight of a nation on your shoulders – a penalty shoot-out can make and quite often break a professional footballer. The Czech Republic and Turkey face that nerve-jangling prospect if their final Group A game on Sunday ends in a draw after 90 minutes, in which event a shoot-out from the spot will decide which team advances to the last eight, and which goes home.
As they await kick-off in Geneva, some may be dreading the prospect, some may relish the idea, but it is unlikely none will handle the pressure in such a unique way as Antonín Panenka did 32 years ago. The Czechoslovakia midfielder's cheeky chip to beat legendary West Germany goalkeeper Sepp Maier and win the 1976 UEFA European Championship rightfully earned Panenka a place in the pantheon of football greats. However, his ground-breaking spot-kick was not the moment of pure inspiration it appeared, but rather the fruit of many hours spent perfecting his technique on the training ground with another Czechoslovakia legend, goalkeeper Ivo Viktor.
"After each training session I used to stay behind after a game with our goalkeeper in which I would take penalties and we would always play for a bar of chocolate or a glass of beer," said Panenka, now 59. "And since he was a very good goalkeeper it became an expensive proposition for me. And so sometimes before going to sleep I tried to think of ways of getting the better of him, to recoup my losses."
Practice makes perfect
"So I got the idea that if I delayed the kick and just lightly chipped it, a goalkeeper who dived to the corner of the goal could not jump back up into the air. This became the basis of my philosophy and I started slowly to test it and apply it in practice. A side-effect of this is that I started to gain weight, because I was winning the bets, and then I started to use this in friendlies, in minor leagues, and eventually I perfected it so that I used it in the main league as well, and the culmination was when I used it at the European Championship."
Since that dramatic night in Belgrade, Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic – after the so-called 'velvet divorce' with Slovakia in 1993 – have boasted an unblemished record in shoot-outs. Panenka was part of the squad that finished third at the 1980 UEFA European Championship by beating hosts Italy 9-8 from the spot, and 16 years later an unheralded Czech squad came through a shoot-out with France to reach the final of EURO '96™. The French were also on the receiving end of the Czechs' nerves of steel in 2002 as seven of the current senior squad won the UEFA European Under-21 Championship in Switzerland with Petr Čech stopping two French penalties.
Čech, of course, felt what it was like to be on the losing side in a penalty shoot-out when Chelsea FC lost to Manchester United FC in last month's UEFA Champions League final in Moscow. Some players never recover from the blow of knowing they held victory in their grasp - and let it slip. Maier is still haunted by his failure to stop Panenka's penalty, but the former FC Bohemians Praha player insists the German has no reason to feel ashamed. "I never wished to make him look ridiculous," said Panenka. "I am not aware of anyone who would be able to make fun of someone when the European Championship is at stake."
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