By James Francis
nly in England would penalty shootouts become a key topic of conversation in February — more than three months before a ball has been kicked at this year's Brazil World Cup.
The sorry sight of seeing England manager Roy Hodgson quizzed on the subject by Sky Sports is symbolic of the trauma England continues to suffer after countless spot-kick exits from major competitions. England holds the worst success rate of all international sides to have been involved in at least three penalty shootouts.
The statistics make for grim reading: Six defeats from seven attempts in the space of 22 years — not including a May 1998 penalty defeat to Belgium at a pre-World Cup tournament in Morocco, the precursor to the side's shootout despair against Argentina only a month later.
Among Hodgson's senior coaches is former right back Gary Neville, who played in the shootout losses to Germany in 1996, Argentina in 1998 and Portugal in 2004 and 2006. He insists that the sheer number of losses can't be blamed on bad luck.
"You might be unlucky the first time, but you're not unlucky the fourth and fifth," said Neville, who said team officials were probing ways to tackle the problem. Hodgson has already mooted the possibility of using a psychologist to help nurse fears of the 11-meter strike.
Neville is right of course. Pundits very rarely talk about players being "unlucky" when they miss a penalty awarded during open play. Either the spot kick isn't strong or accurate enough or the player loses his nerve and misses the target altogether.
The only luck associated with spot kicks is that referees are human. But penalty shootouts are not at all arbitrary. They're the result of drawn football matches that require an outcome in a competition's knockout stages.
Those who insist on England's unluckiness fail to see the bigger picture. Brazil and Argentina have also been unlucky in that they've been involved in 20 shootouts, 10 each, winning six out of 10 respectively. Germany has played out just one shootout less than England yet boasts an 83 percent success rate.
The bigger question is why England views a shootout from a position of weakness. After all, it gives two teams an equal opportunity to win. It's no greater disadvantage than having to beat a team over 90 minutes (or 120 with extra time). In fact, penalties provided England with a better opportunity to beat both Argentina at France 1998 and Portugal in Germany 2006. Red cards dropped England to 10 men on both occasions, giving its opponents a greater advantage over the course of 120 minutes than during the shootout itself.
Uruguay and Liverpool striker Luis Suarez proved this point in cynical fashion in 2010. He was sent off for a deliberate handball on the goal line against Ghana in the South Africa World Cup, seeing the blocking a goal-scoring opportunity as more important than keeping 11 players on the pitch, especially with penalties approaching. Uruguay went on to win the subsequent shootout.
Former England manager Glenn Hoddle, who watched the Argentines eliminate his side on that fateful night in Saint-Etienne, insists managers can rarely guarantee that they'll have their best five penalty takers available for a shootout. Playing 120 minutes of football inevitably leads to fatigue and injuries. Substitutions often come at the expense of goal-scorers. In 1998 and 2006, regular penalty takers David Beckham and Wayne Rooney were both sent off (for utterly reckless and avoidable fouls).
"The permutations (of a match) can change like that," said Hoddle of the 1998 match. "David had been sent off. We were down to 10 men. Four players said they didn't want it [to take a penalty]. I wasn't going to go to my goalkeeper, so I had the five [players] that I had. So all of the permutations that you plan for can go out of the window..."
By his own admission, Hoddle tried bringing on players noted for their spot-kick abilities, Paul Merson among them. The former Arsenal midfielder scored in the shootout loss.
In the absence of guarantees, the best possible remedy is confidence. All England players need to feel confident when they step up to take a penalty. Preparation is part of it. According to Neville, all England managers with whom he worked devoted training time to penalty-taking practice. But taking a penalty in front of tens of thousands of spectators at a World Cup game can't be simulated in practice.
England isn't alone in penalty woes. Even Italy's great Roberto Baggio, who made good on 76 out of 91 penalties, a success rate of 84 percent, sent his decisive spot-kick flying over the bar in Italy's 1994 World Cup final defeat to Brazil.
Preparation can help boost confidence but it is not confidence itself. My own view is that England's failures reflect an overly apologetic national psyche born from a culture in which children are often told they are doing more bad than good, even if the reverse is true. It may be simplistic to say, but English people and footballers need to think more positively.
Sadly, though, positive thinking is unlikely to blow in on its own before June this year, so the best advice I can give Roy is to win the darn thing over 90 minutes.
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