Sinlung /
03 July 2014

How World Cup Goalies Prepare for and Handle Penalty Shoot-Outs

By David Gendelman


Brazil's Júlio César, who performed well in a penalty shoot-out against Chile.

The World Cup’s knockout stage began this weekend. From here on out, each match must have a winner and a loser, and if the game is tied after 120 minutes of open-field play, it gets decided by penalty kicks. On Saturday, Brazil played Chile in the very first of these matches, in the tournament’s Round of 16, and it ended with the most dramatic penalty shoot-out since Italy beat France in the 2006 World Cup final. You got the sense that everything Brazil had put into hosting this year’s event was at stake—not just the money or the national pride Brazilians take in their own soccer superiority, but also the public’s tolerance for the outright absurdity and lack of humanity of the government’s investment in the tournament. The Brazilian team doesn’t have to win the World Cup to keep its people’s political dissatisfaction at bay, but it has to get pretty close. The Round of 16 is not close.

The immensity of the moment became very clear after Brazil won the shoot-out, and half of its team collapsed on the field in uncontrollable, hysterical tears. But it had also become clear a few minutes earlier, when its goalkeeper Júlio César started crying before the penalty kicks even began. Brazil has never been known for its goalies, and César is no exception—he plays in the M.L.S., after all, having signed with Toronto F.C. earlier this year after losing his starting job at Queens Park Rangers, a team that spent last season in England’s second division. But after leading Brazil to its shoot-out victory over Chile on Saturday, César is an afterthought no more.

“Penalties are almost the only time when the goalkeeper becomes a real hero,” said Bodo Illgner, a former goalkeeper and an analyst at beIN Sports. “With all his good performances throughout the match, he still needs a striker to score the goal, and then the striker gets all the spotlight. But a goalkeeper is able to get all the spotlight when he saves it in a penalty shoot-out.”

Illgner would know. As the goalkeeper for the 1990 World Cup–winning West Germany team (which featured a striker by the name of Jurgen Klinsmann, the current coach of the U.S. national team), Illgner led Germany over England in a semifinal win in penalties.

“We’re at such a disadvantage when it comes to penalty kicks that we’re not expected to save it,” said Brad Friedel, a goalkeeper at Tottenham in England’s Premier League who, remarkably, despite this disadvantage, saved the only two penalty kicks he faced for the United States at the 2002 World Cup (in matches against South Korea and Poland), when the U.S. advanced to the quarterfinals. Statistics back Friedel up. In open-field play in the World Cup, strikers score on 80 percent of penalties. “All the pressure is on the striker,” he said.

When the moment arrives for an end-of-the-match shoot-out, “you try to transmit all this pressure on him even more,” Illgner said. “You try to demonstrate strength with your body language, maybe you try to talk to him a little bit, play the cool role, show that you are in charge, that you are not worried.” It might work too. As the strikers step up to take the kick, you can often see fear emblazoned upon their faces like an emotional tattoo. In World Cup penalty shoot-outs, strikers’ success rate drops to 70 percent.

Intimidation isn’t the only weapon a goalkeeper has at his disposal in penalty situations. Nowadays, he has seen and studied all of the opposing team’s penalty kickers. He goes into the moment knowing those players’ preferences and tendencies in nearly every circumstance.

But as you get further into the shoot-out, players who have never before taken a penalty step up to the spot 12 yards from the goal. In these cases, a goalkeeper is “going to have to try to detect all that you can,” Friedel said. “I want to see what the planting foot is doing. I want to see where his body weight and shape is. Most of the times, the ball goes where the planting foot is placed, in the direction the toe is pointed. Not every time, but if you’re working on a percentage basis that’s what I try to do.”

In many instances, the new strikers are defenders. “The defensive player tends to make the secure shot,” Illgner said. “The secure shot, from my perspective, was always the diagonal shot. So the right footer would go for the left corner. But then you take this observation into consideration and you see how does this player cross the ball, how does he run with it, how does he play the foot finally. After all these things, then you make the final decision.”

You’ll also see goalkeepers jumping up and down before a penalty kick, waving their hands in the air, and faking a move to one side or the other. “I just try to get in the other player’s head as much as I can before the penalty is taken,” said Raul Fernandez, the goalie for the Peru national team and the M.L.S. team F.C. Dallas. “The movement is a big part of the goalkeeper’s defense.”

“It’s always a game of he thinks that I think that he thinks that I think, and it goes on and on and on,” Illgner said. “As a goalkeeper, once you get into the player’s mind, it’s 1-0 for you already. Because his only concern should be to see the ball, to know where he wants to go, and to hit the ball as good as he can.”

Sunday’s match between Costa Rica and Greece also went to penalties, which Costa Rica won. Its goalkeeper Keylor Navas made only one save of the four taken by Greece, a brilliant diving one on a shot by Theofanis Gekas. It turned out to be the only one necessary. Afterward, Navas was mobbed by his teammates and named Man of the Match, while the Greek players fell to the ground in despair.
Not all penalty shoot-outs have as much riding on them as the Brazil-Chile one seemed to. But maybe what sells penalty kicks as the final decider of a tied match—when nobody really wants the game to end with one—is that they all feel like they do. The World Cup comes only once every four years and a penalty-shoot-out loss in any knockout-stage match breaks the heart of the players, the fans, and often an entire nation. That’s drama enough.

David Gendelman is research editor at Vanity Fair. Follow him on Twitter at @gendelmand.


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