DOHA, Qatar — Not many players have ever experienced the feeling of taking a penalty in a World Cup shootout. After more than two hours of draining knockout football and with the hopes of a nation — and sometimes history — resting on your shoulders, it can come down to one kick from 12 yards. It’s not for the faint of heart.
“I used to take penalties in games, but in a World Cup shootout, with that pressure? It’s different,” former Uruguay striker Diego Forlan told ESPN.
Ahead of every match since the start of the round of 16, each manager has been asked about the looming prospect of penalties. They hang over every game, with the thought becoming increasingly prominent while the score remains level and time whittles ticks down.
Forlan stepped up and scored against Ghana in 2010 to help Uruguay to a first World Cup semifinal for 40 years. He can smile about it now, but for every player tasked with taking one, it’s a sliding-doors moment: Score and you’re a hero, miss and your country never forgets.
“If I had missed, I would have felt guilty,” Forlan said. “I would have felt that responsibility. But when you see the ball go in, you just think, ‘I did my job.'”
Not everyone is so fortunate. Italy forward Roberto Baggio played nearly 650 games during a career that spanned more than 20 years. He won Serie A titles and the award for the world’s best player in 1993. Even after all that, though, he’s still remembered for missing the deciding penalty in the 1994 World Cup final against Brazil.
“I will never forget it,” he said years later. “That was a childhood dream come true, and then it ended in the most absurd fashion and I never got over it. I had a thousand opportunities to miss a penalty in my career, but that was the one I really couldn’t miss.”
On the opposing side that day was Brazil defender Branco at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. He scored in Brazil’s unsuccessful shootout against France in Mexico in 1986 and stepped up again in the final eight years later.
“It’s not easy to score a penalty at a World Cup,” Branco told ESPN. “A lot of things go through your head. In 1994, I’d already scored the goal against Netherlands in the quarterfinals that put Brazil through, but in my head, I was thinking, ‘What if I miss in a final?’
“Taking a penalty is a very personal moment for a player. Each one feels it differently. I think as hard as it is, it’s important in the moment to keep calm.”
That’s easier said than done, though, especially during the walk from the halfway line to the penalty spot with only your own thoughts to occupy your mind. “It’s the loneliest walk in football,” Andy Townsend, who scored for Republic of Ireland against Romania in a shootout at the World Cup in 1990, told ESPN.
“Football is a team game, and when you’re on the halfway line, you’re all together with your arms linked. But when you make that walk, you’re on your own and you know that if you miss, you’re on your own for the rest of your life.”
It’s only around 100 yards from the centre circle to the penalty spot but, with the pressure on, it can all become a bit of a blur.
“When I made my walk, it felt very quick, but it must have been quite slow because I was told afterwards that when I stepped up, my mum had run out into the garden, and by the time my brother had gone out to drag her back, I still hadn’t taken it,” Townsend added. “So either I was quite slow, or my mum is quicker than I am!
“It’s not a comfortable walk, and you have time to think about an awful lot of things. By the time you get to the edge of the 18-yard box, I think you have to know what you’re going to do with it.
“[Republic of Ireland manager] Jack Charlton told me to get my head down and thump it, but I liked to place them. He asked me what I was going to do and I said ‘Place it,’ and he said ‘No, you’ve got to thump it.’ Thankfully I stuck to my guns and scored.”
Former Liverpool midfielder Ray Houghton was also part of Republic of Ireland’s shootout against Romania, volunteering to take the penalty before Townsend. “I’d never taken a penalty in my life,” he told ESPN. “We were in the huddle and we couldn’t even find three takers, we only had two.
“I had done reasonably well in the game but I felt confident enough to take one because no one else was about to. I think if I’d felt I’d had a bad game, I would have been less likely to put my hand up because you’ve got to feel confident.
“My dad said, ‘If you take a penalty, don’t change your mind.’ But as I was walking up, the goalkeeper looked like he was touching both posts and reaching up and touching the crossbar and all of a sudden you start thinking, ‘Where can I put this?’
“You know what’s at stake. The pressure is immense.”
The walk to the spot is such a big part of the process that when Forlan was with Uruguay in 2010, they tried to recreate the pressurised situation. “When you have to walk from the middle to the penalty spot, it’s tough,” he said. “When you have to walk, there’s many things in your mind. You have to try to relax and focus.
“After we passed the group stage, we practised after every training session. And we did everything. We would have everyone on the halfway line and making the walk to the penalty spot. It’s not the same but it’s good to do it. It makes you realise a little bit what it will be like and the time you have to think.”
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Even after all the preparation, when it comes time to shoot, any advantage is a bonus.
“In the ’94 final, I knew [Italy goalkeeper Gianluca] Pagliuca because he was my opponent at Genoa,” Branco recalled. “I played for Genoa, he played for Sampdoria, and I’d already scored against him. But I changed the way I took the penalty. I would usually put more power on it, but because I knew him and he knew me, I changed, and took the penalty more placed. He went for a corner and I put the ball in the other.”
Houghton added: “The biggest moment was running up to take it, and I’d already picked my spot, but then suddenly the goalkeeper crouched down and he started looking smaller and I was thinking, ‘There’s a lot of the goal I can hit now.’ It changed my perception and it was the biggest difference for me.”
For the players who miss, it can be something that stays with them for the rest of their lives. Even for the ones who score, seeing the ball hit the net can generate a strange feeling.
“There was no joy, just pure relief,” Houghton recalled. “I can remember thinking how glad I was to get it out of the way and that it was someone else’s turn. I walked back to the halfway line and Tony Cascarino, who was next, had gone white as a sheet. The blood had completely drained from his face.
“The lad who missed for Romania, Daniel Timofte, was never the same and had a really hard time afterwards because you’re left with that feeling that you’ve let everyone down.”
Forlan added: “When you score it’s relief, nothing else. Then it’s someone else’s turn.”
Brazil, Croatia, Argentina, Netherlands, France, England, Portugal and Morocco will all be practicing penalties ahead of their quarterfinal ties. Preparation has reached such a level that when Liverpool won the FA Cup final in May, beating Chelsea on spot kicks, Jurgen Klopp dedicated the victory to a company hired by the club used to monitor brain activity in players to optimise performance in high-pressure situations.
Success, however, still depends on holding your nerve when the pressure is on.
“I’m not sure how much you can truly prepare yourself for that moment,” Townsend said. “I don’t think you can. I appreciate practice makes perfect, but nothing prepares you for sitting on the halfway line and waiting for your turn. I’ve seen some of the best players in the world miss in those situations, which is why I don’t think you can really prepare yourself for what you’re about to experience.”
Not many players will ever go through it, but for those left in Qatar, it remains an ominous prospect.