On 1 February this year, the big story in footballing circles was how Lionel Messi, on the cusp of becoming Barcelona’s all-time leading scorer, missed a penalty against Valencia that could have given the current FIFA Club World Cup champions a first-leg victory in their Copa del Rey semi-final. However, when you have another look at the other main protagonist of that incident, you might feel the headlines were a touch one-sided.
With his save against the normally-unerring Messi, Diego Alves, the first Brazilian to keep goal in the Spanish top flight, made it an incredible 11 stops from the 17 spot-kicks he has faced since arriving in Spain in 2007. And nor was La Pulga his first high-profile victim, with Cristiano Ronaldo, Fernando Llorente and Frederic Kanoute all failing to beat him from 12 yards.
Following in the footsteps Claudio Taffarel, another Brazilian who earned a reputation as penalty-stopper, the 26-year-old Alves is on course to set new records in this regard. Asked recently about the secret of his success, the Valencia No1 put it thus: “Penalties are a psychological battle. The keeper must be relaxed and get inside the head of the opponent. I study videos of penalty-takers and analyse where they prefer to place them and how they incline their bodies. The final few steps before they strike the ball are key.”
Of course, Alves is just the latest in a long line of penalty-saving specialists. Leaving aside those whose fame stemmed from a single-game’s heroics, like the Romanian Helmuth Dukadam, who saved all four of Barcelona’s spot-kicks in the final of the 1986 European Cup against Steaua Bucharest, there have been plenty of other custodians who have demonstrated this skill right throughout their careers.
Lev Yashin, the legendary USSR No1, saved more than 150 penalties based on intuition alone, making him the game’s best ever goalkeeper in many eyes. The German Rudi Kargus, for his part, holds the Bundesliga record with 23 stops from 70 attempts, while Zambia’s Kennedy Mweene showed his aptitude in this area only last week, helping the Chipolopolo prevail in a shoot-out against Côte d'Ivoire to win the 2012 CAF Africa Cup of Nations.
Another category would be those who have excelled in this skill through a combination of natural talent and outside help. One example is Sergio Goycochea, who told FIFA.com that the secret to stopping spot-kicks is having “powerful legs, a lot of intuition and bit of luck”. For all that, El Vasco had a ritual he liked to follow before every shoot-out – one that saw him discreetly urinating in the middle of the park while encircled by his team-mates.
“It was a superstition born of necessity. Against Yugoslavia at Italy 1990, we’d played 120 minutes but were not allowed to leave the pitch before the shoot-out. I’d taken on a lot of fluids and was bursting to go to the toilet. My only option was to do it on the pitch…and we went on to win. Then against Italy [in the semis], the same thing happened, and we prevailed again,” laughed the man whose safe hands helped La Albiceleste to a runners-up medal in Italy and victory at the Copa America Ecuador 1993, the team’s last continental title.
Former Germany No1 Jens Lehmann is another with a well-earned reputation for saving penalties, not least those of Argentinian players. In 2006, just a few months after denying Villarreal’s Juan Roman Riquelme in the semi-final of the UEFA Champions League with Arsenal, he kept out efforts from Roberto Ayala and Esteban Cambiasso in the quarter-finals of the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™. It was during that shoot-out that Lehmann famously consulted notes on a piece of paper, sparking a controversy that continues to this day.
And while Riquelme told FIFA.com it was just a blank piece of paper intended to distract the Argentinian kickers, the goalkeeper proved otherwise by allowing it to be seen in several museum exhibits. “The truth is that it didn’t help a great deal,” the hero of the hour has admitted. “For the Ayala penalty [the note] indicated I should dive to my right but, at the last minute, I decided to go to the other side and stopped it. It was pure intuition. German goalkeepers are always expected to save penalties.”
A penalty and a title
The Spaniard Iker Casillas first showed his aptitude in this respect while representing Spain’s youth teams, so it was no surprise when he played in key role in La Roja’s Round-of-16 shoot-out win over Republic of Ireland at Korea/Japan 2002. At UEFA EURO 2008 he was at it again, this time shattering the dreams of Italy. Even Spain’s crowning glory at South Africa 2010 might never have come to pass were it not for a Casillas penalty save. In their quarter-final tie against Paraguay, San Iker stopped a Oscar Cardozo spot-kick that could have changed the course of the game – and the tournament. As fate would have it, the key to keeping the Paraguayan at bay was none other than Pepe Reina.
The Spain reserve keeper told journalists afterwards that “Cardozo had hit one to that side against me for Benfica, so I mentioned it to Iker before the game. That said, the credit was all his.” For the captain Casillas, however, it was down to “intuition, good luck and the help of a team-mate.”
We gave the final word to another fine exponent of the art, Dutchman Michel Vorm. The former Utrecht man, now with Premier League outfit Swansea City, has his own technique, and one that has earned him the nickname, the Penalty Killer. “It seems to me that when faced with a spot-kick, many keepers don’t do enough to try to stop them. If their opponent scores, they think ‘Ah well, it was a penalty; there wasn’t much I could do’. However, I feel obliged to save them. You need to have a slice of luck, but this [attitude] can tip the balance in your favour.”