So evenly contested have the knockout stages been here at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, three of the 12 matches so far have required extra time to separate the two teams and a further three a penalty shoot-out.
That potential need for penalties being the case, training exhaustively for what could prove the difference between the next round and a plane home is crucial. And every penalty taker, goalkeeper and coach has their own recipe for spot-kick success, as we discovered.
Cool under pressure
“Our success rate is down to our steely nerves,” said Germany’s goalkeeper coach Andreas Kopke, who was his country’s first-choice at France 1998. “When we go to the penalty spot we see it as a good opportunity to win the match. In the German national team, that’s the level of confidence we have. Our takers are mentally strong, we’ve got the weight of history on our side and a good keeper to pull off saves.”
“This time we won’t need slips of paper like in 2006 *(Editor’s note: Jens Lehmann used notes in their quarter-final shoot-out win over Argentina), *nor any special tools. That said, it’d be great if we could put a microchip [with pertinent information] in the keeper’s head!” added Kopke with a grin, before outlining how he will prepare Manuel Neuer in the event of penalties on Brazilian soil. “Before the game, or during it, I analyse the opposition’s kick-takers. But, in the end, I usually go with my instinct.”
Preparing the ground
Without said analysis, however, instinct will only take you so far. And when it comes to inside knowledge on rival kickers, the work of goalkeeping coaches can be supplemented by other squad members, some of whom may have crossed paths with opponents during their club careers.
“Yesterday we did quite a lot of research on the Chilean penalty-takers: for example we studied a few taken by [Mauricio] Pinilla, who usually shoots down the centre of goal,” said Brazil reserve custodian Victor, after the shoot-out win over La Roja in the Round of 16.
Victor himself has penalty pedigree, having helped Atletico Mineiro to victory in two shoot-outs on the way to claiming the 2013 Copa Libertadores. His homework bore fruit for Brazil No12 Julio Cesar, who guessed right to save from both Pinilla and Alexis Sanchez, prior to Gonzalo Jara sending his decisive effort off the inside of the post and out.
“Shoot-outs are a very gruelling experience,” added O Galo custodian Victor, who had lent Cesar a lucky charm used during spot-kick heroics for his club in the very same stadium and goal. “And that goes for both the kicker and the goalkeeper.”
Gaining a mental edge
In addition to practice, planning and lucky charms, mind games can play a part in this most agonising of situations. Arguably the most striking example came in the quarter-final between Costa Rica and the Netherlands when, in injury time of extra time, Oranje coach Louis van Gaal replaced starting 'keeper Jasper Cillessen with Newcastle United’s Tim Krul.
“We explained to Krul that he’d be the best keeper if it came to penalties, because physically he’s much more imposing, but we didn’t tell Cillessen because we didn’t want to upset his preparations or his focus,” said Van Gaal.
Interestingly enough, Krul’s penalty-saving record at club level is by no means remarkable, though the change proved a genuine psychological masterstroke. After all, Los Ticos’ players can only have thought, “What kind of coach would bring on a 'keeper just for penalties if he wasn’t a specialist?”
Man of the moment Krul then went on to pour further fuel on the psychological fire: “I told their players that I knew where they were going to shoot, just to make them that bit more nervous”. It appeared to work on Costa Rica’s final taker Michael Umana, scorer of his country’s winning spot-kick in the Round of 16 versus Greece.
“It’s a decision that I’d already made, and I didn’t change my mind,” Umana said after victory over the Hellenics. “That was the side I had in mind. Sometimes doubts creep in and you change at the last moment, which is dangerous. You might get it right, but it’s more likely you’ll miss.”
Could Krul’s words have pushed Umana to change his mind? Though his winning penalty against the Greeks was netted to the left-hand side at medium height, versus the Dutch he sent in a low shot to the right, which Krul got across to save – securing the Netherlands’ place in the semi-finals.
Constructive and destructive methods thus abound when it comes to a penalty shoot-out, with morale-boosting hugs, applause and words of support clearly among the former. What is more, as Dani Alves revealed to FIFA.com, again after that Chile game, the words themselves are not that important.
“We all knew that it would soon be Julio’s moment to shine, so it didn’t matter what each of us actually said to him,” said the Barça full-back. “To be honest I can’t remember what I did say, and I bet most of the lads are the same. It wasn’t about the words, it was about making it clear he knew we believed in him.”
So, there you have it. Hard work, nerves of steel, self-confidence, mind games and, let there be no doubt, a touch of fortune, all go into making the perfect formula for winning a game on penalties. And though it may have been the Netherlands celebrating most recently here at Brazil 2014, the tide can turn quickly. Just ask Costa Rica.