Antonin Panenka invented football's answer to getting punked
PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC -- Think back to Euro 2012. England keeper Joe Hart stands on the goalline during the quarterfinal penalty shoot-out against Italy. Cheeks puffed out, eyes wide, arms outstretched, he tries to make himself big like an over-sized yellow bird.
Hart is buzzing. England are ahead 2-1 and Riccardo Montolivo missed his penalty for the Azzurri. Andrea Pirlo steps up to the penalty spot.
"Hart looked very sure of himself," Pirlo said after the match. "He was flying high. I had to clip his wings, do something to batter his confidence."
Pirlo takes a long, angled run-up. It looks as if he's going to smack it to Hart's right. Or maybe to his left. It's just a question of guessing and anticipating. Hart guesses right and launches himself to make the save. Except there is no ball there for him to save. At the last split-second Pirlo stops dead and gently chips the ball, with plenty of backspin, right down the middle. It sails lazily into the center of the goal, where Hart had been standing until a fraction of a second earlier. The England keeper watches helpless from a prone position.
He'd been Panenka'd, football's answer to getting punked.
Pirlo had drawn upon a 40-year-old stroke of genius, a counter-intuitive -- and difficult -- form of penalty-taking that has befuddled both keepers trying to save it and strikers trying to execute it. For every great Panenka scored (like Pirlo's), there's a dreadful Panenka missed (note Cristiano Ronaldo).
It all began with the man I met on chilly winter morning in Prague, Antonin Panenka, the player who famously introduced the world to the Panenka chip at the Euros four decades years ago. He's also the president and greatest ever player of FK Bohemians Prague. Which, as a comparison, is tantamount to Wolverine being president of Wolverhampton Wanderers, or a box of cleaning powder being in charge of Ajax.
Panenka is a man who lives up to the name of the club he represents. His mustache is slightly more clipped than it was when he played, the shock of hair greyer, but the eyes twinkle like they always did.
This was a man who dispensed magic, who swapped convention for invention. His home is Bohemians stadium, a ramshackle green and yellow pill box a short ride from Central Prague.
"I joined this club when I was 10 and played here for 23 years," Panenka, 67, said. "I then went to Austria to finish my career, came back and I've been here ever since."
This is football's Left Bank or West Village, attracting a fan base of working class heroes, artists and intellectuals -- or simply folks who see themselves as such or want others to see them that way. This is the Bohemians family, a group as diverse as they are tight-knit. The Czech League may not be the Premier League in terms of sanitized, commercialized made-for-TV entertainment, but it's not that far off. Except for a few clubs, including Bohemians. Here, the club shop looks like a tag sale, the sponsors are neighborhood businesses and the concessions feel like tailgates, with bottled beer in plastic cases and sausages thrown on to makeshift barbecues.
Men and women who, as Panenka put it, have "green and white on their hearts."
"The club was on the verge of bankruptcy," Panenka said, the cheeky grin disappearing, remembering the time when developers were about to swoop and turn Bohemians into condos housing young urban professionals. "And they put their hands in their pockets, they had fund-raisers, they had barbecues, they saved it. Without them, all this would be gone. This would be an apartment building."
Instead, it's a worn concrete and iron hearth, warming the souls who congregate here every weekend. In the trophy room, along with a stuffed kangaroo, a symbol of the club's glory years when they toured as far away as Australia, there are plenty of mementos celebrating Bohemians' favorite son and his greatest moment. Czechoslovakia, as the country was known before the post-Soviet era split that transformed it into Slovakia and the Czech Republic, had advanced to the 1976 European Championship final where they stared down favorites West Germany, reigning world and European champions. Somehow, they raced to a 2-0 lead after 25 minutes.
"But we knew all the time they could turn it around, they had done it in the semifinal against Yugoslavia from 0-2 to 4-2," he said. "And, sure enough, they pulled one back and then got an equalizer in the final minute."
That set up extra-time, with Panenka's team hanging on for dear life. It went to penalties. The first seven were swallowed up by the back of the net but then Uli Hoeness skied his over the crossbar. Panenka got to do what he had been wanting to do for a long time and that nobody had ever done at this level.
"I started my run-up at a slight angle from the left, to make the keeper think I was going to kick the ball right, so to the keeper's left," he said. "With a run-up like that, 90 percent of penalties go right so the keeper has to dive, and all I did was chip it gently down the middle."
"After every training session, I'd stay behind with our keeper, Zdenek Hruska, and we'd have a spot-kick competition, both penalties and free kicks," he said. "To make it more fun, we'd gamble: chocolate, beer or cash. It was costing me money, because I kept losing. I'd lie in bed at night and worry about it. Then it came to me. He was a keeper who often waited until the last second and then guess either left or right. So it made sense to put it down the middle. Except if you do that with a normal shot, the keeper can reflexively lift a leg and save it. But if you float it gently, he can't. Once he has dived, he can't very well turn around in mid-air and collect it."
Like a changeup in baseball, it's all about deception and timing.
"Obviously if the keeper doesn't move, you look stupid," he said. "But the fact is keepers will dive most of the time. If you're smart and you can trick them with your body language and your eyes, you can make them dive all the time."
It worked in training sessions. The only negative, Panenka says, is that he "got really fat from the chocolate and the beer." Would it work against real live opponents?
"I tried it in friendlies at first, then cup games against lower division opponents, then against top flight opponents," he said. "I did it at least 30 times and only once did it not work. That was because the keeper was too lazy to dive."
Maybe that's why, if you watch footage of the original Panenka, you'll notice the Czechoslovak keeper, Ivo Viktor, lying down on the pitch, totally relaxed. He knew what was coming, said Panenka.
He knew it could not be stopped.
Because, when executed with the correct technique -- from the long, angled run to the misdirection and, finally, the feathered finish -- it really can't be stopped. And, when done properly, it's not just a converted penalty, it's psychological warfare.
If you see a Panenka at Euro 2016 remember where it came from and how much needs to be done to turn the odds in your favor. Also, know that the man who invented it and perfected it is probably watching, perhaps with a beer in hand, likely critiquing all those who seek to emulate him. Because nothing will match the original.
PANENKA ON TOP 5 WORST PANENKAS
1. Cristiano Ronaldo: Real Madrid vs. Copenhagen, Dec. 11, 2013
"He makes no attempt to deceive the keeper, not with his eyes, not with his body language. And he hits the ball way too hard."
2. Neymar: Santos vs. Vitoria, Copa do Brasil final, July 27, 2010
"His run up is too straight, run down the middle. Plus, he didn't show the goalkeeper to a side at all. This is awful.
3. Andrea Pirlo, AC Milan vs. Barcelona, Gamper Trophy, Aug 25, 2010
"I don't think he practiced this before. His run up is too short, I think he didn't take this too seriously. ... I'm glad he learned though and got it right a few years later."
4. Alexandre Pato, Corinthians vs. Gremio, Copa do Brasil, Oct. 23, 2013
"The run up is too short, but my goodness, this is really wrong. It seems to me he wanted to do something different and changed his mind at the last minute. ... I mean, the keeper doesn't even dive."
5. Kelvin Matheus, Porto vs. Valencia, Aug. 1, 2015
"This is a good example of what happens when you hit it too hard and not right down the middle. The keeper dives, but manages to instinctively get his leg out. Plus, the run up was too slow. It's important to run aggressively."
PANENKA ON TOP 5 BEST PANENKAS
1. Sebastian Abreu, Uruguay vs. Ghana, World Cup, Jul. 2, 2010
"He kicked it really well -- he had a long run-up and it's important that he paused his foot while kicking. That is exactly it: I run pretty aggresively, fast, and in the last moment I pause my leg a bit. I hold my nerves longer than the goalkeeper. Plus, it makes the kick slow and helps you chip the ball better.
2. Juan Roman Riquelme, Mexico vs. Argentina, Copa America, Jul. 12, 2007
"The goalkeeper tried to make him nervous, that is very unpleasant. This is all about the run-up. It's perfect and makes up to the fact that maybe the ball flew too straight. He really had the keeper fooled."
3. Andrea Pirlo, Italy vs. England, European Championships, Jun. 24, 2012
"He obviously learned his lesson from his other one. Concentrated, very slow run up, I would have been faster, but very well taken."
4. Omar Abdulrahman, UAE vs. Japan, Asian Cup, Jan. 23, 2015
"He does a great job of fooling the kicker and chips it very well, it's just his run-up that's maybe a bit short for my liking. Also, the chip is nice, but maybe a bit hard."
5. Santi Cazorla, Arsenal vs. Newcastle, Dec. 13, 2014
"Nice job, all the ingredients are there. It's a long run up, there's a nice little pause when he's about to hit it and it's hit very sweetly and gently. Though I think the goal should have been disallowed because there were players in the D."
And, of course, the original Panenka
"Well, this is the original, so. ... Look at the run-up, it's long, and it's aggressive. Everything I told you about is here in this kick. Look how I slow down to hit the ball. I don't think you can do this any better. I am glad the idea hasn't died. It's the 40th anniversary and top players are still doing it today."
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.