Monday, 17 May 2010

Paying the Penalty - The Miss That Makes a Man?

Fifty Five minutes in to the FA Cup final and the script takes a twist that many had wished for but few thought would happen. After a bright start to the second half from Portsmouth Dindane is brought down in the box by the first half substitute Belletti. The whistle blows and without hesitation a penalty is awarded and the thought maybe, just maybe dares to creep into the minds of all Pompey and neutral fans. Kevin-Prince Boateng steps up just as he had done in the semi final against Spurs so successfully. The 23 year old looks calm but Petr Cech cuts an imposing figure and a more than worthy opponent in this duel. Cech does not need to be at his best however, Boateng's tame strike does most of the work for him and with in seconds we are faced with an all too familiar camera shot for English viewers, that of a player stood in total desolation; team mates run past consoling him while in the background we can see Cech playing down his heroics while all around him players in Blue are exchanging high fives and adrenaline filled celebrations of anothers failure. The script twists again and within minutes Drogba does from 30 yards what Boateng couldn't manage from 12. That fleeting moment of hope now seems like some ancient memory.

The script has been so often played out to us that Boateng's performance of it may not stick in too many peoples minds. Despite being an FA cup final his chosen stage still seems almost small compared to the great reprisals of the script that we are so often reminded of. I am not concerned with simply evaluating the most costly penalty misses, rather I want to discuss the next performance of the player and the team and see where a moment such as Boateng's can drive a player? Does it necessarily become that players tag line for the remainder of their career?

It simply does not get bigger than a World Cup final. Maybe this goes some way to explaining how one of the worlds greatest and most proclaimed players had a moment of madness and blazed his spot kick over the bar in the 1994 World Cup final allowing Brazil to take glory from Italy. I am referring of course to Roberto Baggio. Two other Italians missed penalties in that same shoot out, one blazing over the bar in exactly the same manner as Baggio would minutes later. No one remembers them, of course Baggio was far more famous than Baresi and Massaro but it is more than just his fame that makes Baggio more memorable. In 1994 Baggio was the record signing in Italian football. He had played in the 1990 World Cup mainly as a substitute but still scoring. In the 4 years since then he had become the number one striker in Serie A and a national sporting icon. He carried Italy through the tournament and in to the final. With the score level at 3 scored each Dunga the Brazilian captain had walked up in a self assured manner and dispatched his penalty with ease. The Brazilian fans had never doubted that he wouldn't score. Now as Baggio walked up in his own confident manner Italian fans were filled with the same feeling, here was their star player and man of the tournament there was no doubt in their minds just as there were seemingly no doubts in his. His reaction to missing could almost have been a mirror image of what the thousands of fans around him were feeling. He was beset by sheer disbelief that he had missed. He didn't move, didn't fall to his knees, didn't do anything but stand. It seemed to be the first moment he had contemplated that Italy weren't going to win and that he was going to miss. He was in an unknown place of failure. Until then his career had been only headed upwards now he was facing failure square on. The circumstances of the miss are of course memorable, the collective feeling that there was no way Baggio was going to miss this after he had dragged Italy to the final almost single handedly obviously make this miss one of the more shocking and unexpected but it is Baggio's reaction to this that complete the story and completes the image of the icon that endure to this day. The fans although obviously gutted at the defeat did not hold blame against Baggio. It was clear to them that without him Italy would never have made the Final and this contribution went some way to atone for his final failings. Baggio was in a difficult place though as personally he still felt failure. He was painfully aware that just as in 1986 people remembered Maradonna winning the World Cup for Argentina, so he would have been remembered for winning it for Italy. His star still continued to rise and his hero status if anything had increased since the final. He returned to his club Juventus and in the next season helped them to win the Scudetto. He did not return a jaded player who had tried to hit a peak and failed. No he returned a driven player determined to prove himself and atone. He scored more and more goals and became a leader, an icon and a hero. His star began to wain toward the end of a spell at AC Milan and in 1997 he feared losing his place in the Milan side and a dip in form could cost him a place in the 1998 World Cup squad. So he took a difficult and brave decision and moved to unfashionable Bologna and the guarantee of first team football. The decision paid off, he recaptured his form and took up his place in the World Cup squad. Italy reached the Quarter finals when their game with France went to penalties. Baggio stood up to be counted when many would not have faced their demons. He took and scored a penalty. Despite Italy eventually losing the shootout a sense of atonement and justification came out of Baggio scoring his. It was a measure of the man and the sportsman he had matured in to since the 1994 miss. It was a measure of the man he may never have matured in to without that miss to put a stutter in to the confident swagger he had developed. Possibly Baggio learned more from his greatest failing than from his greatest victories.

England's long history with penalty shoot outs has been much documented. It is a little known fact that the first penalty ever awarded to England was in fact missed by Jimmy Crabtree in 1899 against Ireland. The most revered stories however are the redemption stories however which demonstrate a passion and a single mindedness with the fans similar to that of Roberto Baggio. Think of Stuart Pearce and David Beckham, now think of Southgate, Waddle, Batty and Vassell and the contrast of emotions that are evoked. Stuart Pearce transformed from the embodiment of English failure in 1990 to become a symbol of undying passion and redemption in 1996. Beckham who is one of only 3 people to miss more than one penalty for England, has been hero and villain so many times while wearing his nations colours. As captain in Euro 2004 he had a penalty saved in the group stages during a 2-1 victory over France. Then in the quarter finals he stood up to take a penalty despite his earlier miss. He again missed and England exited the tournament but the respect he gained for having the guts to stand up after such a recent failure helped him through the disappointment and he continued to show unrivaled passion and commitment to England's cause where others would have shied away. Others that is such as David Batty, Darius Vassell and to an extent Gareth Southgate. All three were guilty of similar misses to those of Pearce and Beckham but none of them showed the grit and dertermination to win back the respect of the England fans. They each allowed their misses to cast a shadow over the remainder of their careers. Batty once described his miss as a 'bad day at the office' something I can hardly hear Baggio uttering. For Southgate there is still hope. As Middlesbrough captain he took a side to a UEFA cup final where his experiences could have proved invaluable, and now as a manager he possesses an understanding of what he has gone through that most managers do not. Whether he will ever have the opportunity to use his specific experience to any effect will become clear, but it is this ordeal of missing and the vilification that followed which could set him apart from other managers, if he chooses to stand up and make a positive out of a huge negative in his career.

Domestic football offers greater opportunity for redemption. Penalties are awarded week in week out and a proven penalty taker will soon enough get a chance at atoning for a previous miss. It's been known for a designated penalty taker to be relieved of duties due to a spell of bad misses. Disagreements have also broken out over who will take the responsibility of the penalty especially if it is crucial it is converted, remember Paulo Di Canio petulantly wrestling the ball from Frank Lampard's hands. Fans are generally forgiving as the miss may cost 3 points but often not a trophy. Robbie Fowler however proves to be an exception to this rule. In 2004 /05 Fowler was playing for Manchester City. He started the season poorly but had improved and was soon scoring well and proving popular with the fans. On the final day of the season Manchester City needed to beat Middlesbrough to secure a UEFA cup place. With 90 minutes played the scores were tied and Manchester City were missing out on a European adventure. As hope seemed to be fading fast they won a penalty and a chance at glory. The Premier Leagues 3rd highest all time goal scorer steps up and strikes a tame kick which is easily saved by Boros Mark Schwarzer and City miss out on European football for another season. The following season Fowler is blighted by injury and does not feature in the first team often. He moved on a free transfer back to Liverpool later the next season never really having the oppurtunity to atone for his miss. That penalty will be an enduring image of Fowlers spell in Manchester.

Undoubtedly the pressure on a penalty taker is greater during a penalty shoot out. If he misses in the 90 mins the games goes on; if he misses in a shoot out it could be all over for his team and their dreams. Some of the greats (Lineker, Shearer, Terry, Ronaldo to name a few) have failed to convert from 12 yards, some through over confidence, some nerves, some poor technique and some simply slipping on the turf at the crucial moment. It is always going to happen, in a shootout there has to be a loser and when a team loses a shootout the blame so often can come down to one individual. It is then up to that individual to atone for the miss, take inspiration from it even and show to the fans it hurt him as much as it hurt them. Baggio, Pearce, Beckham set examples it is down to Kevin Prince-Boateng and many more to follow.

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