Patient Zero: Antonin Panenka

By Ben Lyttleton  |  10 Mar 2015

I’m sitting with Antonin Panenka outside his local pub in a village just outside Prague, trying to name players who have had football moves named after them. “There’s the Cruyff turn,” I say. “Yes, the Zidane roulette,” he replies. We go quiet. Look into the middle distance.

Are we missing something here? Surely Pelé, Maradona, or Puskás trademarked a move to make it their own? What about today’s PlayStation generation: Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, or Neymar? It would seem not. So that leaves three players, I say. Cruyff, Zidane, and Panenka. “Not bad players!” he laughs. “Not bad at all!”

Panenka invented a new type of penalty. Cruyff’s turn and Zidane’s roulette don’t score goals. They don’t win matches. They don’t secure trophies. I believe that the impact of Panenka’s penalty, in a shoot-out, now has more value to the scoring team than a single goal because of its psychological advantage. Panenka’s penalty even has an abbreviated name: nowadays, everyone just calls it the Panenka.

You have to go back to 1974 for when his idea first took seed. Panenka was playing for Bohemians in a Czechoslovak league game against Plzen. He was the playmaker, the team’s most creative and skilful player, but not blessed with pace. He didn’t enjoy tracking back, and tended to neglect his defensive duties. “I hated tackling,” he remembers.

But he had an eye for a pass, and his team-mates forgave his occasional slackness because he would always set up goals. He also took excellent corners, free-kicks and penalties. Not against Plzen, though. He missed a penalty. The referee ordered a retake. He missed it again. Later in the match, a third penalty. This time he scored, but Panenka was so annoyed at missing the previous two that he resolved to practise harder.

For the next two years, after every training session, Panenka would stay behind with Bohemians goalkeeper Zdenek Hruska, and take penalties. His normal method was to wait for the goalkeeper to move, and then place the ball to the other side. They would bet on the outcome of the penalties, sometimes with money, but more often, chocolate and beer.

“To start with, he saved a lot because he was a good goalkeeper,” Panenka says. “But then I started thinking of new ways to succeed. I lay awake at night and thought about this. I knew that goalkeepers usually choose one side, but if you kick the ball too hard, he can save it with his leg. However, if the contact with the ball is lighter, he can’t dive back to the centre if he has already picked one side.”

Panenka’s new penalty was all about chipping the ball slowly down the middle of the goal. But he would only do it once he felt the goalkeeper was committed to diving to one side. “I tried it against Hruska and started to win our duels. The more chocolate I won, the fatter I got!”

Panenka started taking the penalty in friendly matches, then league games. One of the first times he tried it, he missed. It was against Vodnany, a village side in south Bohemia, and it was pouring with rain. “The goalmouth was really muddy and I’m convinced the goalkeeper saved the penalty because he didn’t want to dive and get dirty.”

Even when he faced goalkeepers he knew well, he would score. In May 1976, Bohemians played Dukla Prague, whose goalkeeper Ivo Viktor was his friend and room-mate with the Czechoslovakia national team. Viktor knew about the Panenka, but still failed to save it. “He didn’t stay on his feet. You have to persuade him with your eyes, with your run-up, with your angle, with your body, that you are aiming for a corner.”

Fast-forward six weeks to June 20, 1976. It’s the 1976 European Championships and surprisingly, Czechoslovakia are in the final after beating Holland 3-1 after extra-time. In the past, the Czechoslovakia team was a divided one: as well as eating separately, the Czechs and the Slovaks used to train separately too, making any coherent tactical preparation impossible. The 1976 side was different: united by coach Vaclav Jezek, a Slovak, and captain Anton ‘Tonda’ Ondrus, a Czech. The team had pace, leadership, technique, goals – and confidence. They were unbeaten for 20 matches before the tournament began.

They were up against West Germany, the reigning European and world champions. They too had had a tough semi-final, needing extra-time to beat Yugoslavia 4-2, and had one day fewer preparation time before the final. The Czechs raced into a 2-0 lead but West Germany fought back, Dieter Muller reducing the deficit before Bernd Holzenbein levelled the scores in the 89th minute. For the first time, a major tournament would be decided by penalties.

Czechoslovakia kicked first in the shoot-out, striker Marian Masny making no mistake. Bonhof scored. The next five all went in and the Czechs led 4-3. Up stepped Uli Hoeness. His shot flew over the bar.

It was now the turn of Panenka. Two years of practise, distilled into one kick: all those efforts against Hruska (and all that chocolate), the hours of honing the chip, perfecting the approach, convincing the goalkeeper. Viktor begged Panenka not to try it, but this was his moment.

“I saw myself as an entertainer and I saw this penalty as a reflection of my personality,” Panenka says. “I wanted to give the fans something new to see, to create something that would get them talking. To come up with something at a moment when no-one expects it. I wanted football to be more than just kicking a ball.”

And so, as we watch the video of the decisive penalty together, I note how long his run-up was; from behind the D outside the box. “I used the long run as it gave me time to see what the goalkeeper was going to do and how he was going to react,” he says. “I also ran fast, because then it’s harder for the goalkeeper to read your body language.”

Before there was even a name for it, he hit the perfect Panenka. The ball sails slowly, impudently, over Maier, who dives early onto his left side and wafts his right arm, as if letting the ball through. He knows he is beaten. There have been some fantastic Panenkas taken since – Zinedine Zidane, Francesco Totti, Andrea Pirlo have all scored dramatic and important ones – but this remains the pick of them, the original, and the best.

After the game, politicians told Panenka that if he had missed, he would have been punished as his penalty could have been interpreted as disrespecting the Communist system. What punishment? “Thirty years working down the mines.”

“That makes his achievement all the more remarkable,” says Spanish football writer Cesar Sanchez Lozano. “His penalty is fascinating from a visual point of view: it’s simply beautiful, like a piece of art. But then add the pressure, the shoot-out, the last kick, and that he is from a Communist country, and still comes up with something so spontaneous, well, it’s astonishing.”

Lozano was so taken by the moment that when he wanted to launch a new football magazine that focused on untold stories, unexpected characters, and embraced the romantic side of the game, there could be only one title: ‘Panenka’. “History is not only written with victories,” he says. “Sometimes it’s more important how people do what they do. No-one remembers any other player from that team. Panenka did something unique, and his impact goes beyond that one kick.”

I explain my theory that a successful Panenka in a shoot-out can be worth more than a single goal. Look at Spain and Italy at Euro 2012. First, Spanish defender Sergio Ramos in the Donetsk quarter-final against Portugal, at 2-2 after three kicks each, scores with a Panenka to make it 3-2. Portugal’s next kicker is Bruno Alves: he hits the crossbar. Spain eventually win 4-2.

One night later in Kiev, Italy are 2-1 down after two kicks each in the shoot-out against England, whose goalkeeper Joe Hart is looking confident, making windmills with his arms and pulling faces at the opposition takers. Up steps Pirlo who coolly takes a Panenka as Hart dives to his right. Almost straightaway, the momentum shifts: Italy’s players laugh and clap and England’s look nervous. The next taker is Ashley Young, who can’t even look at Gigi Buffon. Just like Bruno Alves the night before, he hits the crossbar. Two Panenkas, followed by two misses: coincidence, or not?

“It shouldn’t make a significant difference but it’s possible that it can play tricks in the mind of the guy who has take the next kick,” Panenka says. “It could distract their concentration. He might think, ‘What did he just do?’ and then lose focus on his own kick. It’s all in the mind.”

Sanchez is unequivocal on this point. “I agree 100 per cent that it has a greater value [than a normal penalty]. The Panenka gives confidence to the whole team, and will upset the goalkeeper for all the other penalties.”

I ask Panenka one more question. He had said, “I am a prisoner of this penalty,” and I wondered if that was how he really feels. “Well, on one hand I am very proud of it, and feel lucky that I scored it,” he says. “But then again, that one penalty has overshadowed my whole career: all my performances, my passes, my other goals. So it’s a bit of both.”

This is an abridged extract from Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty (Bantam Press), available here.

Ben Lyttleton is a football journalist and writer, best-known for his book 'Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty'. He is also a consultant for Soccernomics.
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