“To take a penalty like that you must be crazy or very good. And I don’t think I’m crazy.”
The day before Italy’s Euro 2000 semi-final against the Netherlands, Francesco Totti was playing FIFA against Alessandro Nesta. He won one game with a Panenka penalty, and declared to his teammate: “One of these days I will do it in a game.”
As it turned out, one of these days was the next one.
England think they have a complicated relationship with penalty shoot-outs. They do, of course: they’ve gone out of six tournaments via that method, those that have missed oscillating from figures of fun to sympathy. In fact, England have lost so many times that the names of those who have missed have disappeared into the melange, just another statistic of failed ticker: everyone knows who failed in 1990, but can you name the two errant takers in 2012?*
Either way, England’s penalty woe is nothing compared to Italy’s in the 1990s. In three straight World Cups, their elimination was decided from 12 yards, which included losing their home semi-final against Argentina in 1990 and the final in 1994. The defeat to France in 1998, when Luigi di Biagio thunked the final kick against the bar, was only a mild disappointment by comparison.
So when that semi-final in 2000 ended 0-0, the PTSD flooded back. Particularly when Di Biagio strode forwards, having made it a condition that if he was to take a kick, it would have to be the first one. He scored in a moment of Pearcean catharsis, despite Totti offering the presumably well-intentioned advice not to “worry about being scared. It’s normal. Have you seen how big Van der Sar is?” Cheers, Francesco.
Gianluca Pessotto scored Italy’s second, while for the Dutch Frank de Boer’s effort was saved and Jaap Stam launched his halfway to Rotterdam. 2-0 Italy, and the curse was close to being lifted. All they needed to do now was stay sensible, not take any needless risks, just keep things on course and they would be through to the final.
So you can imagine the horror among the Italian team when Totti declared: “Mo je faccio er cucchiaio.” Translated: “Now I will do the spoon.” Further translated: Totti was going to Panenka his penalty.
“Everybody who’s on that team has a story to tell about it,” said Gabriele Marcotti on the episode of Golazzo dedicated to Totti. “The version I heard from Paolo Maldini was everybody’s laughing [at first], then like in a movie their expression changes, and it was like ‘No, this idiot is really going to do it. Why do we call these people up from Rome for the national team?’”
He had already tried it in training, but nobody really believed he would do it in live play, and this was the livest of live play. But here he was, declaring his hand. If it was a joke, it wasn’t funny. Maldini was ashen-faced. Nesta too. Di Biagio tried to tell him “no”, but quietly so as not to tip the Dutch off.
Telling everyone before instinctively feels like needless braggadocio, the equivalent of Babe Ruth’s apocryphal ‘called shot’ when he supposedly pointed to a spot in the stands before dispatching the pitch in exactly that spot. But there was more logic to it than that: by saying it out loud, Totti had forced himself into committing to the bit, which itself seemed to be a technique to take the pressure off himself.
‘Now we are there, and I have no choice,’ wrote Totti in his autobiography. ‘I have to spoon it, otherwise I will become the Chiacchierone [rough translation: all talk] forever. Yes, with a capital C.
‘If you are going to take a decisive penalty and you think of the millions of people who are anxious for you in front of the TV, you are crushed by the pressure and you end up hitting the corner flag. If, on the other hand, you live the moment with the lightness of a bet in a bar, everything becomes easier.’ This was high stakes football, treated as a dare, like a wager that you can’t flip half a dozen coasters at once. It’s brilliant psychology, really.
But why Panenka/cucchiaio? Surely a conventional penalty would be less risky. But the weird thing about the Panenka is that, really, it’s not particularly risky. Or rather, if you do it right, it’s not particularly risky. Of course therein lies the rub: you need that combination of confidence, ability and chutzpah, and there aren’t that many inside that particular Venn diagram. Totti was, though. “To take a penalty like that you must be crazy or very good,” he said later. “And I don’t think I’m crazy.”
‘It is high risk,’ wrote Totti, ‘because the goalkeeper who is capable of not moving must do nothing but receive the penalty taker’s ‘pass’: but if you are good enough to hide your intentions until the end, you are almost certain to score, because ninety percent of goalkeepers sooner or later [dive].’
The roots of the technique laid not entirely in a desire to show off or even humiliate goalkeepers, but more prosaically just to find another way of scoring. “I started thinking of new ways to succeed,” Antonin Panenka told Ben Lyttleton for his book ‘Twelve Yards’. “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 his side.”
Reading both Panenka and Totti’s words, it’s another reminder of how elite sportspeople’s brains are just wired differently to the rest of us. What seems like an outrageous and unnecessary risk to the civilian is just a more logical way of doing things to them. Panenka was looking for a new, effective way of taking a penalty (with a dash of showmanship thrown in – “I saw myself as an entertainer…I wanted football to be more than just kicking a ball,” he told Lyttleton), while Totti knew it would be the last thing Van der Sar would expect. He just needed the stones to actually go through with it, and telling everyone helped him gain those stones.
It worked. Van der Sar dived to his right, Totti clipped the ball down the middle and slightly to the left. ‘I looked at the bench and I saw startled faces,’ wrote Totti. ‘[Fillipo] Inzaghi held his hand on his forehead as if to say ‘That’s mad’. I met Toldo who was returning to the goal and I saw him laughing as if he already knew everything, and could not wait to enjoy the the final.’
3-0, job done. Maldini missed Italy’s next kick, but Toldo saved Paul Bosvelt’s effort and Italy were through to the final, where they would lose to France via David Trezeguet’s golden goal.
Just over four years later Totti was playing in an altogether more prosaic game, an early season Serie A encounter against Lecce, when Roma were awarded a penalty. Up stepped Totti, but the goalkeeper in that case, Vincenzo Sicignano, was more prepared than Van der Sar, having been told by his goalkeeping coach to “stay still in the middle of the goal and not to move until Totti kicked it.”
He followed those instructions, and had only to reach out his hands to gather another Totti cucchiaio as it gently lobbed straight at him. You win some, you lose some. But in this case, the win was rather bigger.
*Ashleys Cole and Young. No prize. Sorry.
‘Totally Totti’, part one of Golazzo’s tribute to Francesco Totti is available here, and to ensure you don’t miss part two, you can subscribe to Golazzo here, or the Totally Football Show here. If you wish to reproduce any of the material in this article or from the podcast you are very welcome to, but please credit The Totally Football Show and include this link.