The date is 21 June 1986, and Brazil and France are fighting it out for a place in the semi-finals of the 1986 FIFA World Cup Mexico™. After 120 minutes of pulsating football, the match has gone to penalties and 25-year-old Bleus striker Bruno Bellone is standing alone in the centre circle of the Guadalajara pitch as the sun beats down, contemplating the onerous task of converting France’s third penalty.
The shootout began in the best possible style for the French, with Joel Bats denying Socrates from the spot. Both Alemao and Zico then scored for the Brazilians, whose keeper, Carlos, was powerless to prevent Yannick Stopyra and Manuel Amoros from doing likewise. Next up, is Bellone, who walks up to the box with his head down and plenty on his mind.
After striking the ball firmly with his left foot, Bellone looked on as it struck the base of Carlos’ left-hand post before bouncing out, hitting the prone keeper on his back and rebounding into the net. That remarkable stroke of luck put the French back in front in a shootout they would go on to win 4-3, with Luis Fernandez converting the winning penalty.
Not surprisingly, Carlos sought to forget the whole setback, which came for him in the latter stages of a solid career and at the end of what had been a largely flawless World Cup, not that that prevented him from earning a reputation as a bringer of bad luck in Brazil.
Recalling that day’s events a few years later, he said: “One day, French TV came and asked me about that penalty shootout. I honestly can’t remember who took the kicks and in what order. It’s not important any more. It was a long time ago. I was interested to learn, though, that the French were very nervous and that they closed their eyes when they hit the ball.”
In contrast, Bellone remembers everything as if it were yesterday, and shared his memories of the occasion with FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: What was the feeling in the France team before that famous penalty shootout?
Bruno Bellone: We really suffered in the heat. When you made a sprint on the pitch in Mexico, you really felt it, I can tell you. It was burning hot and you had a job recovering. Even making the slightest effort was such hard work. It was an exhausting match and I think that’s part of the reason why we then went on to lose to the Germans. Physically, most of us had left everything on the pitch in that quarter-final, which went into extra time too. There was no respite, and the ball hardly went out of play. At half-time, we had oxygen cylinders in the changing room. I made two or three sprints and I felt afterwards as if I’d played an entire match.
What did you make of Carlos in that game?
Brazil were a solid side. They had some very technical players, a strong defence and midfield, and strikers who were very fast on their feet. Then there was the keeper. People said at the time that Brazil didn’t have a great goalkeeper, but he didn’t have a great deal to do against us that day, to be honest. The Brazilians dominated the game. Even if you’re only an average keeper, when you’re in a great side like that you’re not going to be called on an awful lot.
How was the order of the penalty takers decided? You were the third player up…
(Interrupting) I didn’t decide anything! I was a substitute, and I said to myself that I couldn’t possibly be on the list (laughs). Apparently someone didn’t want to take one, and Henri Michel came up to me and said: ‘You have to take one. There’s no one else’. I didn’t want to but I had to. It only really dawned on me when I was in the centre circle.
Did you ever find out who stood down?
No, I didn’t see Michel Hidalgo’s list. It’s the kind of thing you never say, because then... My understanding was that there was one player who just couldn’t do it, because, let’s face it, taking a penalty in a World Cup quarter-final against Brazil is no easy task. On top of that, there was also our obsession with the 1982 semi-final against West Germany, when Didier Six and Maxime Bossis both missed penalties. We all saw the devastating effect that had. I understood why someone would say: ‘I just don’t feel I can do it’. It’s better to say that than to go: ‘I can take one’, and then go and miss it. I know Luis Fernandez asked to take the fifth. He said: ‘If I score, France go through’. It all worked out pretty well for him (laughs). The only person I didn’t imagine missing was Platini. The problem was he put the ball over.
Let’s go back to that moment when you were all on your own in the centre circle.
It was awful. It all seemed so long because there were so many things going through my head. Everything. You think about your family, all the people watching on TV, the fans. I said to myself: ‘If I miss this penalty, I’ll go back home in a canoe’. Or maybe I might never have gone back and I’d be selling bananas on the beach in Acapulco right now (laughs). No, but seriously, it was horrible. Taking a penalty in the cup or in a league match is one thing, but in a World Cup it’s something else entirely. There are so many things going through your head that it hurts. The shootout was at the Brazilian end too and there were all these thousands of people behind the goal, with the samba and everything. My legs were doing the samba, I can tell you (laughs).
How did you normally take penalties?
I never took them. It wasn’t my thing and I always left it to the ones who knew how. Some players enjoy it, but not me. I only took them when I was made to, like then (laughs).
Why did you decide to take it the way you did?
The keeper had wound me up. While I was walking towards the penalty area, he was talking to Zico, making all these gestures and saying where I was going to put it. Then, when I put the ball down, he came and moved it. I was fired up. I was going to sidefoot it to his right, but in the end I just wanted to smash it, to hit it against his head and for it to go in. And that’s what happened, albeit with the aid of the post.
What went through your mind when you saw the ball eventually go in?
I said: ‘That’s it! I’m saved. I am calm. I won’t have to take another one. I can go back to France’ (laughs). Some of the Brazilians thought it should have been disallowed, which would have been the case if I’d touched it. But it went in off the keeper, and I was in no doubt because I knew the rules.
Do you think your stroke of luck caused the Brazilians to fold?
Maybe they said to themselves that it wasn’t going to be their day. That’s what I would have been thinking if I’d been on the other side (laughs).
What was going through your mind afterwards?
I said to myself that I had someone watching over me. I was very lucky that day. Aside from the fact that I had to retire quite young, I was very lucky with the France team and in the league. I only played for eight years, and if you take all the injuries into account, it wasn’t a lot. I didn’t play that much and yet I still got to the highest level.