17 March, 2008

Paying the Penalty

Call it what you will… bottling it, cracking under pressure, choking…it all amounts to the same thing: history repeating itself. As both Tottenham and Everton crashed out of the UEFA Cup this week by losing a penalty shoot-out, it’s starting to become an actual curse of the British Isles, infecting even foreign-born players. In all, English clubs have won just nine out of 21 shootouts in major European club competitions, while at international level the success rate is embarrassingly even worse, with historically just one win (against Spain in the Euro ’96 quarter-finals) in six attempts. So why can’t we take penalties, it’s surely the easiest part of the game, especially for a professional footballer? People often call penalty shoot-outs a ‘lottery’ but this is obviously a misnomer, as it isn’t pure chance but just a test of nerve. With a stationary ball from 12 yards out, any goalkeeper in the world should not have a chance of saving a shot, so it is clearly down to mental strength and concentration; two of the key factors that footballers are paid so highly to maintain at all times. In front of the press last night, Everton captain Phil Neville spoke candidly about his feelings going into Wednesday’s shoot-out with Fiorentina:

“We just need to be a bit more mentally tough. I know I don’t enjoy penalties and wouldn’t give anyone advice on taking them, but it’s something we need to get better at. It comes at the end of 120 minutes and I think we have the mentality of ‘Oh, we couldn’t have done any more.’ But then we still have the penalties to take. That’s where we have to toughen up. They were going in in training but it’s easy to score penalties in training — you can’t recreate the real thing. But the bottom line is an English club has lost another penalty shootout and that’s something we definitely need to improve on.”

It’s interesting that he talks about mental exhaustion, because you would think that having both come back from first-leg deficits, the momentum and confidence would definitely have been on Spurs’ and Everton’s side. But as Neville says, the strain of that uphill struggle felt like a victory in itself, and at the crucial moment after 120 minutes, neither team could believe that they hadn’t done enough to win it already. It sounds ludicrous to suggest that motivation was a problem with a UEFA Cup quarter-final place at stake, but it seems that English teams just don’t have that edge to get them over the final hurdle.

Is it something you can teach though? The Germans and the Italians, for example, have that winning-mentality drilled into them at a young age, and they are used to fighting for success. With English players it seems almost too taboo a subject now, and as soon as game goes into extra-time even, you can almost see the mist of comprehension of what’s ahead descend over the team. Part of being a professional, in any field, is overcoming the mentality that you can’t do something, whether it be delivering a public presentation or taking a penalty. There is always expectation, nerves, excitement, fear of failure, the desire to prove yourself, and most importantly, a stigma to subvert.

After all this time, a penalty shoot-out for an Englishman should be a matter of pride, and dictated by a desire to succeed, but instead what we find are guys under to take the pressure. The experienced Steed Malbranque, for example, has been publicly castigated by many Spurs fans this week for opting to not take a penalty, leaving defender Pascal Chimbonda to put his head on the block. You play football in the first place to essentially see how high a level you can handle; find yourself in the professional circuit and surely you live for European Cup, or international, glory? As the old saying goes, to be the best, you have to beat the best. If that means in open play, great; but if it means through penalties, then that should be fine too. As a nation we need to place more emphasis on relishing the challenge of playing in the true upper echelons of the European game and the spoils of success, rather than a continuation of the doom-and-gloom pessimism of failure.