With one single kick, Antonin Panenka wrote his name into the football history books. On June 20, 1976, the 28-year-old Czechoslovak midfielder walked from the centre circle of the Marakana Stadium in Belgrade to take his penalty, the fifth in the shootout of the European Championship final against West Germany.
A few seconds earlier, Uli Hoeness sent the ball high above the crossbar, meaning Panenka knew that if he converted his attempt, Czechoslovakia, a team that had never before won a major international trophy, would upset the odds and become champions of Europe.
“A penalty is a game between a shooter and a goalkeeper,” Panenka explains to Sport360 more than fifty years later.
In Belgrade, he faced a tough opponent in the experienced Sepp Maier, arguably the best goalkeeper in the world at that time. Many players have faced big moments in penalty shootouts and many, including some of the world’s biggest stars, have failed. Who can forget Italian Roberto Baggio against Brazil in the 1994 World Cup final?
However, Panenka not only felt confident that he would score, he planned to do something unheard of at the time. At the climax of the most important match not only in his career, but also in his nation’s history, he did not play it safe and aim for one of the corners.
Panenka wanted to show that football is more than just a game. In his opinion, football is art.
He had planned his penalty long before the game. In the team’s hotel, he told goalkeeper and room-mate Ivo Viktor, and also coach Václav Ježek, what he intended, saying: “I will give it to Maier into the middle.”
He was talking stubbornly, and nobody could change his mind.
Panenka’s run-up was quick as normal but as Maier dived to his left, the midfielder delicately brushed the ball – sending it into the middle of the goal. It was, and remains, one of the most iconic goals in the history of football.
Panenka invented a revolutionary method of converting a penalty, one that is named after him. Being immortalised in such a manner may seem desirable, but it has also some disadvantages. For Panenka, that one penalty overshadowed all he achieved in the game.
“I did it because I wanted people to have a joy and experience from the game, from football,” Panenka explains.
“However, that penalty covered other goals, all passes, everything I have ever done. But a man has to cope with that. Of course, on one side, I am really proud about it, but on other side… I am not ‘disappointed’ but, yeah, perhaps partly.”
In the early 1970s, Panenka was one of the key players for Bohemians Prague, attracting envious glances from the west but unable to make a lucrative the move from Eastern Europe.
“Of course, communism might have slowed down my progress. But in that time, I was not even thinking about playing for a foreign club, because it was forbidden,” Panenka says.
“After some time, rules became a little more relaxed, but the criteria were harsh. A player had to be at least 32 years old and have played at least 50 matches for the national team. That meant playing regularly for the national team for 10 years, because there were not so many matches as nowadays.”
Panenka was not quick, did not like tackling and neglected his defensive duties, but his technique and football intelligence was undeniable. He also forged a reputation as a reliable set-piece specialist.
Hence, he admits that he may not have thrived in the modern game as much.
“I would be okay in terms of pure football skills, but when it comes to aggression and speed you can see in the biggest matches nowadays, I would not have big chances.”
Two years before Belgrade, Panenka missed two penalties in one league match against Plzeň. Furious with his failure, he arranged with goalkeeper Zdenek Hruska to stay after every training session to practise penalties. They would bet money, but also chocolate or beer, on the outcome of each spot-kick.
At the start, Panenka tried to guess which side Hruska would choose for his dive and sent the ball in the opposite direction. Then he realised that the middle of the goal was actually the most secure option of all.
“For a goalkeeper, it is hard to stay in the middle, because if he concedes a goal, he will always be blamed why he has not even tried to catch it,” Panenka explains.
“I had no problem to shoot to the left or right. I always waited on a goalkeeper’s movement and afterwards I would choose the direction of my shot. However, I discovered that when that shot is fast, a goalkeeper is not able to return back to the middle after his dive.
“I began using it, trying it usually five or six times per week until it was almost natural to me. The advantage was that nobody expected a shot down the middle, but I saw it as the simplest way to score.”
And that’s why he did it in Belgrade. West Germany keeper Maier, however, considered it a humiliation, an attempt to mock him. When he later travelled to Czechoslovakia with his club side Bayern Munich to play against Banik Ostrava, he angrily refused to sign a photo from the famous penalty handed to him by a fan.
“I jumped into the left corner and he shot very slowly, the ball has almost not reached the goal,” Maier recalled in his autobiography. “I looked at the referee [Italian Sergio Gonella] and raised both hands as a protest, but he only whistled two times and gave a goal. I think Panenka broke the rules.”
Of course, there was nothing illegal about the penalty, it was masterful deception.
“In all kinds of penalties I, as a shooter, have to lead the goalkeeper in the direction where I want him to be. I have to use my eyes, movement, gestures or run-up. My goal is to convince the goalkeeper that my intention is to kick a penalty in a ‘normal way’. And, then, it is absolutely no problem to score. If I don’t manage to do all those things, then usually a goalkeeper is successful.”
Due to his fame, Panenka unsurprisingly didn’t replicate the penalty with any regularity.
Shortly after Belgrade, he missed four spot-kicks in a short time in the domestic league. Furthermore, in a match against VSS Košice, opposition goalkeeper Stanislav Seman goaded him, saying: “Try it like against Maier!”
Panenka didn’t bite. However, with his strong opinion that football should be fun, not a serious business, the midfielder was courageous enough to execute it once more.
Before Czechoslovakia’s Euro 1980 qualifier against France, his team-mate František Štambachr persuaded him to repeat the ‘panenka’ if he had the opportunity to face Bordeaux goalkeeper Dominique Dropsy.
Panenka answered that he would do it again only if Czechoslovakia’s victory was already assured, but Štambachr suggested that Dropsy would not expect Panenka to try it in such a high-profile match. In the 68th minute, winger Marián Masný was brought down in the box and the referee awarded a penalty. Coach Jozef Vengloš immediately shouted to Panenka.
“If he had known my intentions, he would have chosen somebody another,” Panenka laughs.
Dropsy went to the ground and Panenka sent the ball down the middle, securing a victory.
“I was two times happier than in Belgrade. That time, I was 100% sure about it, but against Dropsy, I was really worried. What if I had not deceived him, what if he had stayed standing still there?”
Panenka should be forever remembered as a colourful footballer whose most important target was to enjoy his game and please the fans.
“We, playmakers – who are often described as endangered species – have always focused on the creativity and beauty of each football game. In creativity, you can find joy. That is decisive in order to see a satisfied fan.”
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