The penalty kick is football stripped to its bare bones: a clear-cut goalscoring opportunity with the potential to change the scoreline or outcome of a match.
With the penalty spot just 12 yards from goal, the taker enjoys a significant advantage over the goalkeeper in the tense stand-off. However, every now and again the one between the sticks can become the lead protagonist in what is so often a case of seeing triumph or tragedy dictated by the player striking the ball. This was the case for Brazil's Barbara in the quarter-final of the Women's Olympic Football Tournament Rio 2016.
One converted spot-kick from elimination, following captain Marta's miss, it was down to the Recife-born stopper to buy the hosts a life-line before becoming the hero moments later, producing a second fabulous save to send them into the final four. "I knew that at that moment my responsibility had suddenly risen," she reflected after the game. "I simply could not let [Marta] go through [the pain of missing the crucial penalty]. She's an extraordinary player and an extraordinary person. I prayed to God to bless me even more and fortunately I could save it."
It's easy to quantify a keeper's chances as predominantly luck. A combination of talent and a simple toss of a coin. But that did not prevent Ipswich Town No1 and 1981 UEFA Cup winner Paul Cooper from making an incredible eight out of ten penalty saves during the 1979/80 English top-flight season. Those statistics truly deny the laws of probability, so there has to be more to it to maintain such an outstanding penalty-saving record.
“To be honest, my secret was once I had got on a roll after saving a few penalties, I developed a reputation for it and I think that played on the mind of the takers to my advantage,” Cooper told FIFA.com.
“My philosophy was to get the taker to place the ball where I wanted it to go and you have to show the opposing taker that you’re very confident. Once I got on a roll of saving a few, penalty-takers started to think: ‘This guy has a reputation’, and their confidence decreased while mine grew.
“That certainly helped me a lot. It put added pressure on the taker when they thought they were taking penalties against someone who had a good record.”
While extremely modest in assessing his formidable record, Cooper reinforces the point that psychology and penalties go hand-in-hand and that playing on the mind of the spot-kick taker can go a long way for goalkeepers. With a shoot-out often signalling the difference between cup-exit or progressing to the next round of a tournament, goalkeepers will try to do as much as they can to help their team come out on top.
An iconic example of a goalkeeper using mind games to his advantage was during the 2014 FIFA World Cup™ quarter-final, when Netherlands stopper Tim Krul came off the bench against Costa Rica late in extra-time, diving the right way for all five penalties and saving two.
It was not just intuition that helped the Newcastle United No1 dive the correct way in a game of such magnitude, however. The Dutchman revealed he used psychological tactics to psyche out each penalty-taker.
"I told the players that I knew where they were going to shoot to make them a bit nervous," Krul told FIFA.com back in July 2014. "It happened before when I played against Frank Lampard: I told him that I knew and I saved it. I just tried that again. I’m so happy it worked."
Arguably the most celebrated goalkeeping performance in a shoot-out of incredible circumstance is that of Steaua Bucharest’s Helmuth Duckadam. The Romanian kept his nerve to save four consecutive penalties against Barcelona in the 1986 UEFA European Cup final, helping his side to their first-ever European title. While many consider penalties to be a ‘lottery’, Duckadam based his decision making in the 1986 shoot-out on logic, rather than luck.
"I just put myself in the penalty taker's shoes," Duckadam told UEFA.com. "It was a game of logic. After I saved the first penalty from Alexanko, I put myself in the penalty taker's position, thinking: 'If the goalkeeper had saved a penalty to the right, what would I do now?'
“The goalkeeper would normally change to the left, so I went to the right. And that was best seen on the third penalty, when I was 100 per cent sure that Pichi Alonso would aim to the right as well, because it was logical that after two saves by the goalkeeper on one side, on the third he would try the other side – so he aimed at the same spot."
According to 82-time USA international Brad Friedel, goalkeepers are able to act on instinct by reading their opponent. Friedel, who was appointed coach of the USA U-19 national team earlier this year, abided by the technique of analysing the penalty-taker’s standing foot in order predict where they were going to place the ball.
“There are little things that you try and detect. The best one for me was to always try and detect the planting foot,” Friedel told RTE. “If you’re waiting until that last second before you move, you have to be really quick, really powerful and really strong in order to do that.
“Generally, where the planting foot is facing is where the ball is going to be. It’s not 100 per cent, it’s not a science – it’s instinct. But there are other things you can detect. How long the run-up is, the angle of the run-up, how big the occasion is.
“My instinct is that the bigger the game, if it’s a right-footed player and I saw a little fear in their eyes, I’d think they would hit it to my left because it’s easier to get it on target that way.”