England players celebrate winning their penalty-kick shootout win over Colombia. (PA Images/Sipa USA via USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
Nothing lasts forever, and that even includes a penalty-kick shootout jinx that had endured for a generation.
Since 1990, six times England entered a shootout in a knockout-round match at the World Cup and European Championship and six times the British were shown the exit.
The English had struck out three times at the World Cup (my apologies for the mixed sport analogies).
They failed in 1990 (in a semifinal elimination to Germany on July 4), 1998 (in that match against Argentina in which David Beckham saw red) and 2006 (they were bounced by Portugal and a guy named Cristiano Ronaldo, who converted the game-winner, in the Round of 16) competitions.
Ditto for Euro 1996, 2004 and 2016.
It had been a tough row to hoe and for England and current coach Gareth Southgate, who had to endure wearing the Scarlet Letter P since he missed England’s final kick in the Euro 96 semifinals against Germany.
To Southgate’s credit, he did not allow that to define him; he even made light of it in a Pizza Hut commercial later that year. He went on to complete an 18-year playing career that included 57 caps before heading into coaching.
In fact, Southgate learned from his bitter experience. In 1996, wound up as the sixth man to attempt a kick after he asked by then head coach Terry Venables and Bryan Robson to take one.
The Daily Telegraph, quoting his co-autobiography, Woody and Nord, explained how it transpired:
“Terry Venables and Bryan Robson came towards me,” Southgate wrote. “‘Gareth, if it goes to six, will you take one?’ It hit me like a bolt from the blue. ‘Yeah, if you want me to take one, I’ll take one.’ About 30 seconds later Bryan returned. ‘Gareth, have you taken one before?’ ‘Yeah, Robbo,’ I said.
“With the shoot-out minutes away and tension mounting, Bryan didn’t ask for details. Suited me. My penalty career had been brief: one missed effort for Palace three seasons previously. I reassured myself that the sixth man was rarely needed. But once it got to 4-4, it was obvious the script had been written and I was part of it. Stefan Kuntz made it 5-5, and the wait was over.
“I didn’t look around, didn’t speak to anyone. I was the sixth man. It was my turn, nobody had forced me to volunteer. Inside my head, the struggle had already begun: ‘You can deal with this. Be definite, look confident, don’t change your mind, don’t look at the keeper, don’t fall over.’ Suddenly there was an eerie quietness around the stadium. I sensed the reason for it. ‘Who is it? Who is it?’ the crowd was thinking.
“The walk seemed to take forever. The crowd was trying to make me out: ‘It’s Southgate, the inexperienced lad’. My senses were razor-sharp. The whole world was watching me, and I felt it. The penalty would be side-footed to the left corner. Placing the ball on the spot, I stole a glance at the target and immediately sensed Kopke had noticed it. I then looked to the other corner, to give the impression I was going to put it there. But he had read my mind. Still, there could be no change.
“I wanted it to be firmly struck, but didn’t want to hit it too hard and risk putting it over the bar or wide. In trying to be precise, I hit a soft and badly placed penalty. Kopke saved comfortably. ‘What have I done?’ I put my arms over my head. The thought of the lads on the halfway line made me despair.”
Southgate learned from the fact that he was unprepared. Some 22 years later, he made sure history wasn’t going to repeat itself, not leaving anything to chance. He had his team practice penalties, from players taking their time to set up their shots and not rushing them to taking them again and again and again.
He wound up with a list of 23 players from which to choose the best bets to convert a penalty.
“I’ve learnt a million things from the day and the years that have followed it,” Southgate told The Telegraph this week, “the biggest thing being that when something goes wrong in your life, it doesn’t finish you.”
Instead, England’s kickers finished their PKs for the most part Tuesday.
Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford saved Carlos Bacca’s attempt before Eric Dier sealed a quarterfinal meeting with Sweden — 1-0 winners over Switzerland earlier in the day. For the record, England won the shootout, 4-3.
Suddenly, everything was in the past, including Yerry Mina’s stoppage-time equalizer and all the shootout disasters over the past 27 years.
With Southgate in charge, this new generation of England players won’t allow history to get in the way of making some history of their own.