Penalty kicks, are they all about luck?

Football is simple, 22 men compete around the ball and sometimes it is only down to 2 players to determine the game’s faith. Wild West enough, right?

Taking a penalty or stopping one takes more than luck. Surely, a little bit of luck is involved, but it also involves statistics and mind games too.


‘’Football is just a game.’’, oh really? Hold that thought.

Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, lecturer at the London School of Economics, studied more than 10.000 penalties and proposed to help Chelsea win the Champions League final in 2008 against Manchester United.

His work kind of paid off. He gave Chelsea a key stat about Cristiano Ronaldo: Ronaldo would almost certainly kick the ball to the right (85% of the time) if he paused on the run-up. And the advice worked. Ronaldo indeed paused and indeed kicked the ball to the right. Peter Cech followed Huerta’s advice and made the save. ‘’Just a game’’, right?

Toni Schumacher, World Cup’s best ever penalty saver (4) and also West Germany’s keeper during the 1982 World Cup shootout against France says that he has created a database about all the players he’s going to face in which he mentions where does each and everyone of them shoot their penalties. ‘’Just a game’’, right?

One more example is Lehmann’s heroic saves against Argentina during the 2006 world cup. The game was to be decided by a penalty shootout and the German goalkeeper surprised the world when he was seen reading a piece of paper before going to save a penalty. That piece of paper, which by the way is now exposed in German National History museum, had notes about how the Argentinians took their penalties. ‘’Just a game’’, right?

Lehmann’s piece of paper.
Source: Copa 90.

Mind games

Lehmann’s piece of paper was also used to trick the Argentinian players. The goalkeeper admitted years later that he would pretend to be reading it whenever he had to face a player that did not figure in his list. Guess who could not deal with the pressure?

Ex Barcelona goalkeeper, Pinto, played a very important in Barca’s sextuple triumph. During the 2010 Copa Del Rey semifinal against Mallorca, a penalty was awarded to Mallorca during the late stages of the game. Mallorca were one goal away from glory. Pinto, crazy as ever, pointed out to Marti (Mallorca’s player that took the penalty) where he was going to dive. He managed to get under Marti’s skin and ended up saving the penalty and taking Barcelona to the final.

Back to Schumacher, the German goalkeeper would always free his opponent favorite side just to give the illusion that it is safer to shoot there. For example, if the opponent’s favorite side was the right one, Shumacher would stand closer to the left one while getting ready to dive towards the right and stop the shot.

Back in 2010, the World Cup’s quarter final between the Netherlands and Costa Rica had to be decided by penalties. Luuis Van Gaal surprised us when he used his 3rd and last substation to replace Cilessen by Tim Krul. He wanted to make the Costa Ricans believe that he made that substitution because Krul was excellent on penalties. The trick worked and the Netherlands made it to the semifinal.

Krul substituting Cillessen against Costa Rica.
Source: Evening Standard

Penalty kicks have to the trickiest part in football, they seem to be easy, but they need a lot of work and preparation. They could either make you a hero (Casillas vs Paraguay, 2010) or a villain (Baggio vs Brazil, 2014)





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