DOHA, Qatar — Few players have ever experienced the feeling of a penalty in a World Cup shootout. After more than two hours of grueling knockout football, with the nation’s hopes and sometimes history resting on your shoulders, it can all come down to a single 12-yard shot. It’s not for the faint of heart.
“I used to take penalties in games, but in a World Cup shootout with that kind of pressure? It’s different,” former Uruguay striker Diego Forlán told Sportzshala.
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Croatia, Japan, Morocco and Spain have already experienced the unique stress of a World Cup shootout in Qatar, and there are likely to be several more before the tournament ends.
Before every match since the start of the round of 16, every coach has been asked about the imminent prospect of penalties. They hang over every game, and this thought becomes more prominent as the score stays tied and time shrinks.
Forlán took the lead and scored against Ghana in 2010, helping Uruguay reach their first World Cup semi-final in 40 years. He may be smiling about it now, but for every player tasked with taking one, it’s a sliding door moment: hit and you’re a hero, miss and your country will never forget.
“If I missed, I would feel guilty,” Forlan said. “I would feel this responsibility. But when you see the ball go into the ball, you just think, “I did my job.”
Not everyone is so lucky. Italy striker Roberto Baggio has played around 650 games in a career spanning over 20 years. He won Serie A titles and the World Player of the Year award in 1993. However, even after all this, he is still remembered for missing the decisive penalty in the 1994 World Cup final against Brazil.
“I will never forget it,” he said years later. “It was a childhood dream come true, and then it ended in the most absurd way, and I never got over it. I’ve had a thousand opportunities to miss a penalty in my career, but this was one that I really couldn’t miss.” “
On the opposing side that day was Brazilian defender Branco at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. He scored in Brazil’s unsuccessful shootout against France in Mexico in 1986 and reached the final again eight years later.
“It’s not easy to score a penalty at the World Cup,” Branco told Sportzshala. “A lot comes to mind. In 1994, I had already scored against the Netherlands in the quarter-finals that gave Brazil the lead, but in my head I was thinking, “What if I miss in the final?”
“Taking a penalty is a very personal moment for a player. Everyone feels it in their own way. I think that as hard as it is, it’s important to stay calm at this moment.”
This is easier said than done, especially while walking from the middle line to the penalty spot, when only your thoughts occupy your mind. “It’s the loneliest walk in football,” Andy Townsend, who scored for Ireland against Romania in a shootout at the 1990 World Cup, told Sportzshala.
“Football is a team game, and when you are in the middle lane, you are all together with your hands clasped. stay single for the rest of your life.”
It’s only about 100 yards from the center circle to the penalty mark, but the pressure can make it all a bit of a blur.
“As I was walking, I felt very fast, but must have been quite slow, because then I was told that when I took a step, my mother ran out into the garden, and by the time my brother came out to drag her back, I still haven’t taken it,” Townsend added. “So either I was very slow, or my mom is faster than me!
“This is an uncomfortable walk and you have time to think about many things. By the time you get to the edge of the 18-yard box, I think you should know what you’re going to do with it. .
“[Republic of Ireland manager] Jack Charlton told me to put my head down and tap on it, but I liked putting them on. He asked me what I was going to do, and I said, “Put it on,” and he said, “No, you have to hit it.” Luckily, I stayed true to my gun and scored.”
Former Liverpool midfielder Ray Houghton was also involved in Ireland’s shootout against Romania, volunteering to take a penalty in front of Townsend. “I’ve never scored a penalty in my life,” he told Sportzshala. “We were in the crowd and could not even find three applicants, we only had two.
“I did well enough in the game, but I felt confident enough to win because no one else was going to do it. up because you need to feel confident.
“My dad said, ‘If you take a penalty, don’t change your mind.’ But when I got there, the keeper looked like he was touching both posts, reaching up and touching the crossbar, and all of a sudden you start thinking, “Where can I put this?”
“You know what is at stake. The pressure is huge.”
Getting there is such a big part of the process that when Forlán was in Uruguay in 2010, they tried to recreate a tense situation. “When you have to go from the middle to the penalty mark, it’s tough,” he said. “When you have to go, you think of many things. You should try to relax and focus.
“After we got through the group stage, we practiced after every practice. And we did everything. you get a little idea of what it’s going to be like and how much time you have to think.”
Even after all the preparation, when it comes time to shoot, any advantage is a bonus.
“In the final of ’94 I knew [Italy goalkeeper Gianluca] Pagliuca, because he was my rival at Genoa,” Branco recalled. – I played for Genoa, he played for Sampdoria, and I already scored against him. But I changed the way the penalty was taken. Usually I used more force, but because I knew him and he knew me, I changed and converted the penalty more accurately. He filed for a corner, and I for another.
Houghton added: “The biggest moment was running up to the net and I had already chosen my spot, but then all of a sudden the goalkeeper crouched down and started to look smaller and I was like, ‘There are a lot of goals I can hit.’ currently.’ It changed my perception and that was the biggest difference for me.”
For players who miss, this could be something that stays with them for the rest of their lives. Even for those who score, the sight of the ball hitting the net can give off a strange feeling.
“There was no joy, just pure relief,” Houghton recalled. “I remember thinking how glad I was to get him out of the way and that it was someone’s turn. I returned to the middle line, and Tony Cascarino, who was walking next, turned white as a sheet. The blood drained out completely. dripped from his face.
“The guy who missed in Romania, Daniel Timofte, was never the same and after that he had a very hard time because you were left with the feeling that you let everyone down.”
Forlán added: “When you score, it’s a relief and nothing else. Then it’s someone else’s turn.”
Brazil, Croatia, Argentina, the Netherlands, France, England, Portugal and Morocco will practice penalties before the quarter-finals. Preparations had reached such a level that when Liverpool won the FA Cup final in May by beating Chelsea on penalties, Jurgen Klopp dedicated the victory to a company hired by the club that monitored players’ brain activity to optimize performance in stressful situations. .
Success, however, still depends on the ability to control yourself when pressure is on you.
“I’m not sure how much you can really prepare for this moment,” Townsend said. “I don’t think you can. I appreciate that practice makes perfect, but nothing prepares you to sit in the middle lane and wait your turn. I’ve seen some of the best players in the world miss in situations like this, which is why I don’t think you can really prepare for what you’re about to experience.”
Few players will ever go through with it, but for those left behind in Qatar, it remains an ominous prospect.