Aidan Smith: Why do England make all this fuss about penalty shootouts?

Late on Thursday night - later than Hampden Park had ever detained the nation in the stadium’s long and storied history - Scotland finally joined the 20th century.

Sunday, 11th October 2020, 10:12 am
Kenny McLean scores the decisive fifth penalty to win the shootout against Israel.
Kenny McLean scores the decisive fifth penalty to win the shootout against Israel.

The 20th, not the 21st. The 20th was when penalty shootouts began. From Antonin Panenka’s audacious dink to Italy evicting themselves from their World Cup party, from more Azzurri agony when Roberto Baggio launched his kick into space to Zinedine Zidane’s flash of temper ruining the French fairytale, every country was getting the chance to hold their hands over the flame of this radical method for settling outcomes, equal parts thrilling and sadistic. Except us.

We looked on with impotence as England came to believe the shootouts were all about them. How at successive tournaments they would nab the leading roles in any spotkick melodrama which might arise. How one would always arise, invariably ending in failure, leaving the whiteshirted captain to choke back the tears and rework the classic, defiant-but-doomed Norma Desmond blurt from Sunset Boulevard: “I am big. It’s the games, decided by the lottery of five poor wretches selected to strike the ball from 12 yards, that got small.”

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Penalties, it seemed, weren’t for the likes of us. Yes, some Scots got to experience them with their clubs. Dixie Deans, playing for Celtic against Inter Milan, beat Baggio into orbit by 22 years. Apollo 16 was Moon-bound at the time and the next day one newspaper cartoonist couldn’t resist having the astronauts inform Mission Control: “Tell Dixie we’ve found his ball.” But, if we were struggling with the very concept of shootouts maybe it was as well the national team weren’t involved in any.

So we continued to watch England drive themselves David Batty over penalties. How many ways could our southern friends fail this way? Oh, lots. Goosestepping Germans persuaded them to blink first and so did Italians with a featherlight touch, popping little chip-and-run shots into the net.

England goalies would never suffer from dandruff and England centre-backs who would later become England managers would never want for pizza, but what are commercial deals when you’ve lost in the quarter-finals for the umpteenth time? England were losing at Russian roulette to everyone apart from Russia. Even David Beckham couldn’t stop the rot, booming over the bar against Portugal. He tried to blame the turf. This stunt would be copied by footballers everywhere, but it was no use. England were out again.

Scotland couldn’t get in. They couldn’t progress to the stages of a tournament where penalties happen. Then a competition so weird that no one knows how it works enabled us to join the exclusive club. The Nations League got us to Thursday and for the very first time, five good Scotsmen and true got to make that long walk from centre-circle to painted spot.

John McGinn, Scotland’s first-ever shootout, try if you can to put the sensation into words: “Well, it really was like we were experiencing something that everyone else has been doing for years, like using a front-loading washing-machine. My penalty was a bit of a rogue black sock but thankfully it went in.”

And Kenny McLean, tell us about that winning kick: “As John says, it was something new and wonderful. Remember when colour TV came on air? Like that … ”

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