Germany leaving no stone unturned for Brazil showdown
Roberto Baggio and Franco Baresi felt it in 1994. A shortlist of English players who have cracked under its pressure include names such as David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Stuart Pearce and current manager of the England team Gareth Southgate.
Considering that, Germany Under-17 coach Christian Wueck's response to being asked how a coach can prepare his teenagers for a penalty shootout, potentially against Brazil in the quarter-finals of the World Cup in Kolkata on October 22, is a short and swift one.
"No penalties for us. No."
It wasn't long ago that this same bunch of players were eliminated in the knockouts of their last major international competition on penalties, losing to Spain in the European Championships semi-finals in Croatia. Midfielder Erik Majetschak and defender Lars Mai were the ones who missed out then, though Germany had already qualified for the World Cup by winning their quarter-final 2-1 against the Netherlands.
Given that, Wueck's reply appeared facetious, unless he meant to say that there is no way that you can prepare any team for the pressure of a penalty shootout.
On Thursday evening, the entire German team had their first full practice session at one of the four training pitches that have been prepared alongside the Salt Lake Stadium, two of which fall technically in the Sports Authority of India complex. It was a pleasant Kolkata evening, with the intermittent pitter-patter of light rain, and the occasional display of firecrackers over the horizon lighting up the grey skies. Some of the players would initially pause for a little while to take in the sight, but then shut out all distractions once the training became serious.
"It was very good to have (an idea about) the pitch in our mind," Wueck would say later. "Brazil is a very good team. I think everybody knows this. But we also (need to remember that) each team has the same chances of winning the quarter-finals. It's very important for us to come good in the game, to win the tackles and to know what to do. We have two or three days to prepare for the Brazilians."
One of the German football federation (DFB) vice-presidents who is travelling with the team told journalists that since this team has been on the road playing football for the last two years, they have always had two full-time tutors accompanying them -- one who teaches them German, English and linguistics, while the other takes care of science and math.
In fact, the DFB sets aside an annual budget of €10 million (about INR 77 crore) just for the development needs of the young footballers. This takes care of their football training, education as well as working closely with development centres across clubs, both at the top level and even non-professional ones.
For Germany, their journey in this World Cup has been a bittersweet one, with the 4-0 defeat at the hands of Iran ending a stay in Goa that the support staff members admit has been the high point off the field. Since that defeat on 'Black Monday', Sunday's quarter-final will be Germany's third match at a third new venue, and that is why the intensity at practice is high.
There's a game played after shortening the pitch, wherein cones are placed to simulate an off-side trap, and the two players who impress in the action are top-scorer Jann-Fiete Arp and midfielder Elias Abouchabaka, who is said to be among the brightest students in the squad.
"After the Iran game, I think each player is getting better on the pitch in India," says Wueck, whose team is yet to perform in front of a crowd in excess of 19000-odd in India. "It's a pleasure for us to play at this stadium, and a pleasure to play in front of 30,000 or 40,000 people. I think there's no pressure for us."
The crowd in Kolkata on Sunday is likely to be considerably larger -- it's a weekend, and Brazil are sentimental favourites in this part of the world.
Perhaps to that end, Wueck devices an interesting drill to finish his session. The goalkeepers alternate between the post, as five balls are placed at about a penalty-taking distance, and the attackers are made to take a kick, sprint back to touch a cone at an angle before rushing back to kick the second ball, repeating the process until all five balls have been kicked.
It is frenetic, and all journalists marvel at the accuracy and power behind most of the shots taken.
Revealingly, there are six kick-takers who take two rounds of shots at goal, and Augsburg striker Michael Malone is the only one who puts away all five kicks successfully, and then does a little jig in celebration.
Germany are preparing as well as they can, and for any eventuality, including the lottery of penalties.