Photo: Imago
Photo: Imago

Iconic EURO moment: Panenka – the most famous penalty in the world

EURO OlyBet 06.06.2024

When Antonín Panenka scored the penalty that secured Czechoslovakia the title at the 1976 European Football Championship, no one could have predicted how iconic that goal would become.

Czechoslovakia faced West Germany in the final and after a 2-2 draw after regular and extra time, the winner had to be decided by a penalty shootout for the first time in the tournament’s history.

The first seven penalties were successful, but with Czechoslovakia leading 4-3, German player Uli Höness, who would later become a key figure for Bayern Munich, missed his shot. Panenka approached the penalty spot knowing he had a chance to make history.

Panenka, hailing from Prague and spending most of his career at the local club Bohemians, later revealed that he saw himself as an entertainer on the pitch. In the final, he wanted to show fans something new, something that would give them something to talk about.

Panenka started his run-up from far away and charged towards the ball like Usain Bolt. It seemed obvious that the 27-year-old attacking midfielder was going to try to outplay West German goalkeeper Sepp Maier with a powerful shot. Maier dived to the bottom left corner, while Panenka gently chipped the ball into the middle of the goal.

Panenka remarked that he took a long run-up because he wanted to see what Maier would do. “I ran quickly because it makes it harder for the goalkeeper to read the player’s body language. Even if I hadn’t decided to chip the ball, I would have shot to the right because I saw Maier moving to the left.”

As Czechoslovakia’s goalkeeper Ivo Viktor noted, Panenka’s famous penalty almost never happened. In the 89th minute, Viktor made a crucial mistake when he tried to punch clear a cross from a corner kick but missed, allowing Bernd Hölzenbein to score the equalizer and make it 2-2.

“Whenever I meet Panenka, I always tell him that without my mistake, no one would have heard of him,” Viktor joked. “I couldn’t believe he would attempt such a penalty in the final. Even after all these years, it still seems a bit unbelievable to me.”

Technique born out of necessity

Panenka’s penalty achieved two things: it crowned Czechoslovakia as European champions and gave fans plenty to discuss. France Football described him as a poet, and Brazilian star Pelé reportedly said that a player who takes such a penalty at such a moment is either a genius or out of his mind. “I really hope I’m not crazy, so I assume Pelé didn’t mean anything bad,” Panenka recalled.

The final wasn’t the first time Panenka used his famous technique. “I came up with the idea because I constantly practiced penalties after training at Bohemians. To make it more interesting, I would bet beer or chocolate on every penalty with our goalkeeper Zdeněk Hruška.

Unfortunately, Hruška was very good, and I kept losing because he saved more penalties than I scored. I couldn’t sleep at night and thought about how I could gain an advantage.

Finally, I realized that the goalkeeper always waits until the last moment to choose a direction where to jump. I thought that if I pretended to shoot and then gently chipped the ball into the middle, it would be easier to score because by then, the goalkeeper would have already dived to one side and wouldn’t have time to get back.

I tried this technique in training, and it worked perfectly. The only problem was that I started to gain weight because I won back all those lost beers and chocolates,” Panenka said.

But there’s a big difference between fooling a goalkeeper in training and doing it in a major final. Panenka said he started using the chip shot about two years before the tournament, doing it in some friendly matches and once or twice in Czechoslovak league games.

Because the technique worked so well, Panenka decided that if he got the chance to take a penalty at the European Championship, he would stick to it. “I was a thousand percent sure I wouldn’t miss,” he said.

While some athletes may dislike being known primarily for one particular move, Panenka takes pride in it. When someone imitates his style today, everyone knows exactly what type of penalty is being executed.

It’s a legacy that very few have left behind.

Pirlo crushed England

Since the 1976 final, the gentle chip shot has been seen in some major finals. In the 2006 World Cup, Zinedine Zidane used it to outsmart Gianluigi Buffon, although the Frenchman had some luck as his high chip hit the crossbar and went in. Although there was no goal-line technology at the time – FIFA used it for the first time at the 2007 Club World Cup – the assistant referee saw clearly that Zidane’s shot crossed the line.

In the 2015 Copa América final, Lionel Messi was chasing his first title with Argentina against Chile. With no goals scored in regular or extra time, and despite Messi converting the first penalty, misses by Gonzalo Higuaín and Ever Banega meant that Chile’s fourth shooter, Alexis Sánchez, had a chance to win it for his country.

The then Arsenal forward chipped the ball softly and low past Sergio Romero, crowning Chile as South American champions for the first time.

In the 2012 European Championship quarterfinals, Italy was trailing 1-2 in the penalty shootout against England when Andrea Pirlo stepped up. One of the best midfielders of all-time, Pirlo imitated Panenka and later said he wanted to mentally crush the English. His plan worked as Ashley Young and Ashley Cole missed their subsequent penalties, and Italy advanced to the semifinals.

However, Panenka-style penalties haven’t always worked in crucial moments. In the 2004 French Cup final, Nantes goalkeeper Mickaël Landreau had a chance to secure the trophy with a goal, but Sochaux goalkeeper Teddy Richert stayed in the center and caught Landreau’s chip.

What does the statistics say?

Three years ago, The Guardian contacted penalty expert Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, who has worked with Chelsea and the Dutch national team. According to him, the chip to the center is not a bad idea at all.

“My data shows that the success rate of such a penalty is only four to five percent lower than other types of shots,” he reported. One of the advantages of the Panenka penalty is that it’s aimed at the center of the goal.

The statistics agency Opta has been collecting data on every Premier League penalty since autumn 2006, and as of 2021, the data revealed that penalties aimed high and center have a 97.8% success rate. If shot low and center, the success rate is 80.2%, which is still better than shots aimed low to the right or left, where most penalties are directed.

Former top goalkeeper Petr Čech pointed out that he never wanted to stay in the center because it might seem like he wasn’t trying to save the penalty.

But the numbers don’t lie – it’s smarter to stand still than to jump.


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