Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Penalty Shoot-outs: Not for the Faint Hearted

All I can say is that it's a good thing the semi-final encounter between Italy and Germany was settled in extra time (Italy 2, Germany 0). Because I don't think I could have watched a penalty shoot-out if there was one.

I used to be one of those people who could watch a penalty shoot-out with a mind of steel and a hardened heart. It was part of the game and I rationalized it on the thought that since the same set of rules applied to both teams, it was perfectly all right to decide a game via penalties.

Of course, that rationale still holds true, but my approach to the shoot-out changed drastically as I watched the duel at midnight between England and Portugal.

I was perfectly fine during the Germany-Argentina shoot-out a couple of nights earlier. In fact, I sat there on my couch prodding N, who had dozed off, to stay awake in the waning hours of that Friday so he could watch it as well. We tried to guess who would miss and who would score. I was right on the money with the Ayala miss (more than guessing right, I was hoping he would miss given the way he was manhandling Ballack during extra time).

The Germany-Argentina shootout was enjoyable, the England-Portugal one was not.

The sense of unease began at the end of extra time. The match referee, Elizando, was waiting for something. But what? Players seemed to get increasingly nervous as the clock ticked away. The two goal-keepers, Robinson and Ricardo, after receiving last minute instructions from their coaches, walked up to each other, held each other at arm's length and exchanged a few words, wishing each other well, I presume.

They were suddenly in the limelight, no longer just another player in the team, forlorn at their ends of the field. They were it, now, the cynosure of all eyes, the names in the prayers of their team mates, the hero or the villain, depending on the result, although it seems like a hopeless task to stop a football from sneaking to the infinite number of corners within the posts of a goal.

The players were pacing around trying to get into their team huddles. Simao, the first Portuguese striker to take a shot walked around in the penalty area, spitting on the green grass. Robinson took a few swigs from a water bottle, then spat a few times as well. The crowd was going wild, chanting, booing, whistling. Little lightning bugs seemed to be swarming the stadium as camera flashes popped with undying frequency.

The English coaching staff was in its own huddle, but the Portuguese coaching staff was entwined with the players in their huddle. The tension was palpable. Camera close-ups showed sweaty brows; foreheads creased with worry lines; some eyes fierce in their determination; some eyes unfocused, not knowing where to look, many choosing to look down on the ground; even trembling fingers as the ball was nudged onto the perfect spot on the circular white chalk mark across from the goal.

Finally it was time. Elizando walked up to Robinson, gave him a reassuring (at least I felt reassured) pat on the arm walked away from the goal to about midway between the striker and the goal-keeper and blew the whistle. Simao did a little two-step with his feet, perhaps trying to throw off the goal-keeper with the false motion, ran up confidently to the ball and the punched it into the left corner. He scored.

Next up, Lampard for the English team. The commentator supplied a little nugget of information that did not bode well for Lampard. He had missed a penalty against Hungary two years ago. "Surely, he won't disappoint," intoned the commentator. Lampard positioned the ball, walked back, ran up slowly, almost as if he was dragging his feet, and picked the right corner of the goal to kick the football into. Ricardo read Lampard perfectly, both the nervousness on his face (surely Ricardo's research must have brought up Lampard's past failures) and his placement of the ball. He lunged to his left and saved Portugal a goal. Gerard, Lampard's team mate could not hide his disappointment as he grimaced in reaction.

Hugo Viana up next for the Potuguese, with the opportunity to go up 2-0 against the English. Another little nugget of information from the commentator. "England have never won a World Cup penalty shootout." Uh. Oh. Viana looked good to go, confident, but to no avail. He even spared Robinson from having to save a goal, ramming the ball into the goal post. England had a reprieve.

After three penalty shots, the score was still 1-0 in Portugal's favor. Hargreaves got ready to take England's next shot, spending some time trying to get the ball right on the chalk mark, fingers trembling. But he did his job and England was back in the game. Not for lack of Ricardo trying though. He had guessed the general direction of Hargreaves' kick, but could not stretch himself far enough.

The minute the camera focused on Petit, who was going to take the next shot for Portugal, you knew he wasn't going to make it. Nervousness writ large on his face, he did not look at anyone or anything but the ball. Robinson had his one save of the entire shootout. Petit's face crumpled as he walked away, eyes glazed over.

Following this, the rest of the shoot-out settled into a pattern. A confident Ricardo, an inept Robinson, an English side shaking in its boots and a by now cocky Portuguese side meant there could be only one result - Portuguese victory over the English. Ricardo was right on the money with his lunges to save goals from Carragher and Gerard's shots. Robinson was left stranded as Postiga and Cristiano Ronaldo found the net. Carragher's little snafu (he jumped the gun and kicked the ball even before Elizando had blown the whistle) reinforced just how jittery the English side was.

The half-smile that played over Ronaldo's face before he took his shot gave some indication of just how much the young striker was loving the whole experience. A few quiet steps after he landed the ball in the goal, he vented his energy in a full-blown war cry as Scolari gave him company with a war dance on the field, quite appropriate for a coach who swears by Chinese General Sun Tzu's book, Art of War.

Come penalty shoot-out time, the Portuguese were clearly the aggressors, the English merely trying to hang on to their confidence, which had already taken a hit when Rooney was sent off with a red card.

Ricardo said it best,
I could see in the eyes of the English players that they were not okay.... The goal was shrinking for them. I just had to prolong their suffering.
Perhaps it was all this fear that made watching that shoot-out a nerve wracking experience. Perhaps with two confident teams it won't be so bad.

Perhaps there is hope, yet.


remainconnected said...


You watch football too :-) and if I can re-collect sometime back you did an interview with "Amritraj",the Indian brand ambassador of lawn tennis and now football, good good ..

I do agree with you as the outcome of 2 out of the 4 quater finals were decided on the basis of penalty shoout-outs. I know no football fanatic would want this when the game is played at this altar.. But then "Zindane" broke the jinx ... If you would have watched the matches religiously ( i do a few ) then my observation is the referees have often changed the course/result of the game ...

Now don't tell me we can have a third referee as we have a third umpire :-) ...

I am a Azzurri fan and my other team was Argentina but since one is out, I still have my hopes high.. Whom do u support, Sujatha..

Also it would be great fun to watch the match with one "N" on either side and you on the couch :-)..How are both the "N" 's ..


remainconnected said...

again my mistake as I missed the Portugal Vs Ukraine match and so 2/4 now becomes 3/4 for the penalty shoot-out, was reminded tonite when I was about to see today's semi-finals ....

hope i am not shot for the information error in shoot-out...hmmm or am I ?

FifthBeatle said...

Interesting. But was the point you were trying to make, again? Somewhere down the line--and I'm not sure where--I completely lost it.

Sujatha Bagal said...

Hi Tanay, thanks for the comments. I don't think I'm rooting for anyone in particular, but I am looking forward to the Italy-France final. :)

Arnold, thanks for visiting. This is a post about that particular game/about penalty shoot-outs/about human emotions/about how your approach to something can change over time or within a space of days by what you see, etc. But you can take from it what you get. :)

Nandhu said...

great posts as usual.

Sujatha Bagal said...

Thanks Phoenix. :)

Sujatha Bagal said...

Thanks Oso!

And why did you not like the shoot-out? Were you rooting for Argentina (I'm guessing given your geographical location).