The man behind the dinked penalty

As Antonin Panenka stepped up, a hush fell over the Marakana in Belgrade.

If he scored his penalty Czechoslovakia would beat West Germany and become the 1976 European champions. He began his run from just outside the box, accelerated towards the ball and, just in the moment of striking his shot, decelerated.

Sepp Maier, the West German goalkeeper, dived to his left and the ball, with a soft, slow loop drifted into the middle of the goal. Panenka ran away in celebration, the referee Sergio Gonella waved to the centre circle and Czechoslovakia had won.

That was the first anybody had seen of the audacious disguised dink.

It gained Panenka instant celebrity. That style of penalty is now named after him and, as England discovered on Sunday evening, panenkas can still be devastating. It wasn’t just that Andrea Pirlo scored his penalty, it was that to score like that, as Joe Hart sprawled on the ground limbs twitching like a stranded hermit crab, suggested Italian confidence and English haplessness. Psychologically it turned the shoot-out.

Panenka is 63 now but as sprightly as ever. He still plays tennis regularly while his impish sense of humour is reflected in a dial tone on his phone that, rather than ringing, asks a multi-choice question about who the greatest footballer ever with a moustache is. He admits he still feels a delight when he sees others performing his trick.

Helder Postiga did it for Portugal against England in the Euro 2004 quarter-final and Sebastian Abreu for Uruguay against Argentina in the Copa America quarter-final last year, but the players Panenka himself thinks have done it best since him are Thierry Henry and Zinedine Zidane. There have, of course, been famous, humiliating misses: Pirlo himself missed one for AC Milan against Barcelona in August 2010 while Gary Lineker muffed one against Brazil.

Perhaps most ridiculously of all, Jeff Whitley tried — and failed with — a panenka for Sunderland against Crystal Palace in the play-off semi-final in 2004.

“It’s always been a fight between shooter and keeper — who can keep his nerve longest?” Panenka explained in an extensive interview with Karel Haring that will be published in the September issue of The Blizzard. “No keeper will stay in the centre — that’s what I based my strategy on. The keeper is waiting and when I bring my foot to the ball, he is choosing one side or the other. When I kick the ball lightly, the opponent is already on the move and can’t recover. However if I kicked it too strongly, he could make some reflex save. And that’s why I used slow lobs. It takes a while but keeper can’t get back.”

That really was the key to Pirlo’s strike. It looked for all the world that he was going to drill the ball hard and low to Hart’s right but the dink was then almost mockingly slow. Had he struck it hard down the middle, Hart might have been able to stick up a hand as he went down and turn the ball away; as it was, he was grounded and unable to recover.

“You have to persuade the keeper that you want to kick it normally,” Panenka explained. “I always tried to do it with my movement or with my eyes. I wanted to get him where I wanted.”

Panenka developed the technique because he used to take on the Bohemians goalkeeper Zdenek Hruska in penalty contests at the end of training and found he was losing money as his shots kept on being saved. He practised the technique for two years before unveiling it in public and estimates he used it 35 times in games, missing only once.

He was helped, of course, by the lack of television coverage; it was impossible for opposing goalkeepers to study the technique and see when he was striking the ball hard or faking.

The famous strike against Maier was one of the earliest Panenka took in public — among the first 10, he thinks. The goalkeeper Ivo Viktor had warned him not to attempt it if Czechoslovakia got a penalty in the final.

“We shared a room together during the tournament and he told me before game that it would be an extreme audacity from me, that it was too risky and that if I did it, he wouldn’t allow me into the room. But in the end, he let me in...”

He admits it was an almighty risk. “If I’d missed, maybe my career would have been terminated, I don’t know,” he said. “It’s true that I heard an opinion at that time that they would punish me because they would take it as a ridiculing of the system. Maybe I would be something like a public enemy and I would have had to work somewhere as a stoker.”

He didn’t miss, though, and his name has gone into legend. And every time somebody like Pirlo floats a penalty into the middle of the goal, he is remembered.

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