By CHRISTOPHER DAVIES
PELE said he must either be a genius or a madman. One French journalist called him a poet. Genius, madman or poet Antonin Panenka ensured he became part of football folklore with one kick – the most audacious penalty of all-time.
As we approach the 36th anniversary of Panenka’s chip-shot that won the 1976 European Championship for Czechoslovakia his humiliation of West Germany goalkeeper Sepp Maier remains one of world football’s most memorable moments.
It is now known as a Panenka and has successfully been copied by, among others, Zinedine Zidane and, on Sunday, Andrea Pirlo. There can be no finer endorsement for the man who redefined penalty taking.
The inventor, now 63 and president of Bohemians 1905, said: “I’ve seen a player take a penalty like that on television, and every commentator in every country never fails to describe it as a Panenka penalty, which is naturally very gratifying.”
If penalties paid royalties Panenka would be a rich man.
It happened in the 1976 European Championship final in Zagreb, then part of Yugoslavia. With the score at 2-2 after extra-time a penalty shootout was needed to decide the winners. The shootout had been introduced after the 1970 World Cup; the 1972 European Championship and 1974 World Cup passed off without the need for the lottery of penalties.
In fact, a replay had been scheduled by UEFA should the 1976 final be drawn but the two sides were informed shortly before the match that, in the event of a draw, they would face a penalty shootout. History was about to be made. And how.
The score was 4-3 to Czechoslovakia when Uli Hoeness put his effort over the Czech crossbar, the first and almost the last German shootout miss.
Next up for Czechoslovakia was Panenka but he was facing Bayern Munich’s Sepp Maier, by general consent the best goalkeeper in the world. But the hapless Maier made to look almost a fool. As Panenka ran up he feigned a shot to the right, causing Maier to move in that direction. Panenka, the coolest man in the stadium, chipped the ball down the centre of the now almost empty goal and Czechoslovakia had won the first major honour in their history.
He could not have known that almost 40 years later his penalty would have its own name and become part of the footballing vocabulary.
THE PANENKA was not a sudden moment of inspiration, it was two years in the making. He said: “I came up with the idea because I used to practise penalties after training at Bohemians with our goalkeeper Zdenek Hruska. To make it competitive, we used to wager a beer or a bar of chocolate on each penalty. Unfortunately, because he was such a good keeper, I usually ended up losing money as he kept saving more shots than I could score.
“I ended up lying awake at night thinking about how I could get the upper hand. I eventually realised that the goalkeeper always waited until just before the last moment to try to anticipate where the ball was going and dived just before it was kicked so he could reach the shot in time. I decided that it was probably easier to score by feinting to shoot and then just gently tapping the ball into the middle of the goal. In this way the keeper had always dived by the time the ball was kicked and had no chance of recovering in time to save the shot. I tried it out on the training ground and it worked like a charm. The only problem was that I started getting a lot fatter because I won back all those beers and chocolates.”
As England players will testify, converting a penalty on the training ground is one thing, being successful in the heat of the battle is another. Panenka tried his technique in Czech League games, helped by the fact that in the mid-Seventies Eastern Europe was almost a no-go zone and football coverage on TV was still in its infancy. There were still football secrets in those days.
He said: “About two years before the European Championship I began trying it. At first I did it during friendly matches and then I did it once or twice during Czechoslovak league matches. It worked so well that I decided that I would use the technique if I got a penalty at the European Championship.”
Cometh the hour, cometh the penalty and against the nation that was to become the shootout kings of world football Panenka was not so much confident he would score but certain.
He said: “Of course, it was pure chance that the opportunity came in the final when it went to penalties. When the German player missed his kick it was my turn. It was like the will of God. I was one thousand per cent certain that I would take the penalty in that way and that I would score.”
With that in mind Panenka was a nerves-free zone as he placed the ball on the spot, walked back, turned and prepared for the moment that was to change his life.
He said: “I felt very relaxed. It didn’t really matter to us at that point whether we’d win or not because I think that our fans were already very happy with what we had achieved by then. Winning the final was a bonus.
“We were seen as outsiders, no one thought we could manage it and then we surprised everyone. Psychologically, we were in much better shape than the Germans.”
Panenka became a national and international hero, Maier the fall guy.
He said: “I don’t think Sepp Maier took it very well. He was and perhaps still is, somewhat discomfited. I suspect he doesn’t like the sound of my name too much. I never wished to make him look ridiculous, though. I am not aware of anyone who want to make fun of someone when the European Championship is at stake. I chose the penalty because I realised that it was the easiest way of scoring a goal. It’s a simple recipe.”
When it comes off the Panenka remains, for the taker, hugely satisfying but there have been some embarrassing mis-kicks with the goalkeeper barely having to move as the ball is chipped into his welcoming hands. Ask Gary Lineker.
PENALTY shootouts remain England’s Achilles heel in major tournaments but Panenka believes there is no magic formula to shootout success and that goalkeepers are helped by a more relaxed attitude from match officials in the modern era.
He said: “I think that penalty shootouts are more about psychology than technique. I know that some players focus on practising penalty kicks during training sessions. They can convert as many kicks as they want but when it comes to taking a penalty during a match, they often balloon their shots over the bar. This clearly shows that psychology plays a very important part in this.
“But one thing is clear – it’s a lot harder for players to convert a penalty now. In my time, the goalkeeper was not allowed to move, he had to stand still on the line and could only move when the ball was in the air. Now, the situation is different, the keeper is free to move as much as he wants along his line which can make the takers very, very nervous or make them lose focus.
“For me, it was the easiest and simplest way of scoring because at that time, no one was familiar with this particular style of penalty kick. No-one expected it, which made the success rate very high.”
Antonin Panenka was talking to Coilin O’Connor of Radio Prague.