Recommended Read: Dissecting the Penalty Kick

Most football fans probably have a love-hate relationship with penalty shootouts. On the one hand, they’re undeniably thrilling (and your team might win); on the other, they still feel like an unsatisfactory way to decide a big game (and your team might lose). They’ve also become such a crucial part of every World Cup that, with 2014's World Cup having just ended in a penalty shoot out, the publication of Twelve Yards is particularly well timed.

How do you score, or save, from 12 yards?

In theory, the book is about penalties in general—but, inevitably, it’s the big shoot-outs that dominate.

Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty

Buy Here, £12.99

As Ben Lyttleton puts it, his aim is “to solve a simple question: how do you score—or save—from 12 yards?” Yet the longer the book goes on, the less simple this question feels. Penalties are a test of nerve as well
as technique—and Lyttleton explores both from every conceivable angle: historical, anecdotal, scientific, psychological and statistical. Twelve Yards sifts through a vast amount of research into all aspects of kicking a football from the penalty spot to the goal. We learn, for example, that 78 per cent of all penalties are successful; that the most stressful part of taking a penalty in a shoot-out is waiting in the centre circle beforehand; and even that if a player celebrates properly when he scores in a shoot-out, his team is “82 per cent more likely to win”.

But what really makes this such a vivid read is that Lyttleton appears to have spoken to everybody who’s ever taken part in a penalty shoot-out of any significance. As a result, he serves up an almost endless series of terrific set-pieces—even if some of them will appeal only to the more masochistic of England fans.

 

England's worst

England at the 2006 world cup penalty shoot out against Portugal

Take this passage, where Lyttleton talks to the man he reckons “has contributed most to England having the worst record from penalty shoot-outs of any country in international football”. Ricardo was Portugal’s goalkeeper in two of England’s many shoot-out defeats: the first in the 2004 European Championships; the second in the quarter-finals of the 2006 World Cup…

‘I knew Lampard would be first,’ said Ricardo. ‘I said to the guys, “If I save their first kick, we’ve won.” Because I knew if they see Lampard miss a penalty, they will never recover.’

Lampard shot to his natural side, to the right of the goalkeeper, and Ricardo dived to punch it away. The TV cameras focused on the England players, and you can see Gerrard looking up to the heavens, almost in tears. As Lampard trudged back to the halfway line, Ricardo saw the same reaction. ‘I saw Ferdinand and Gerrard and they went, Pfffff… Their heads went down, and I knew we had the advantage. I saw them deflate.’

Whenever it was Portugal’s turn to kick, Ricardo would look away from goal and directly at the crowd. ‘I could see one or two Portuguese fans, but everywhere else was English, all in white shirts. The whole crowd were nervous. I could see they were thinking, Not again. That was another advantage for me: it may be a little thing, but these little things can make a big difference’…

[After two kicks each, it was one-all and] Hugo Viana, up next for Portugal, hit the outside of the post. Gerrard had the chance to put England ahead. ‘I’m behind my goal-line,’ said Ricardo, ‘I’m not rushing. No timewasting, no talking. I don’t need to go to Gerrard and say, “Hey, you’re going to miss.” If I’m doing that, I wouldn’t be focusing on what I need to do. I watch him, I study him, I read his behaviour. But when I see him walk towards me, man, I could see his face. He didn’t want to look at me! I saw that face, all their faces, when they came towards me. They look at me like they’re saying, ‘Oh my God, oh my God!’

Gerrard struck his penalty hard, but nowhere near enough to the post. ‘That one was my best save,’ said Ricardo…

[After Portugal scored their next one] Jamie Carragher was next for England. He spotted the ball, turned away and started his run-up. The referee hadn’t blown his whistle, and two steps before Carragher reached the ball he blew twice to signify the kick wouldn’t count. Carragher kept on going and struck an excellent penalty that Ricardo watched go past him.

‘I knew the referee hadn’t blown so I just put my hands out and went, “Wait, wait.” The referee smiled at him and said, “Wait for my whistle.” I looked at Carragher then and the guy’s mind was screwed.’

Would Carragher go the same way? ‘I felt he was going to change his mind,’ said Ricardo. He was right: Carragher switched sides and the goalkeeper pushed the ball onto the crossbar. Portugal were 2–1 up, and only needed to score the next to win.

…Which, of course, they did.