Carling Cup Final Penalties

Man Utd v Spurs

0-0   AET. United Win 4-1 on Penalties

A largely boring affair (the details of which, if you really cared, you would already be aware) was always going to be livened up by a lovely bit of penalties at the end. Criticised as a way of deciding football matches the length and breadth of the land, penalty kicks to decide the winner, after extra time has failed and claimed several victims of cramp and exhaustion, is called a lottery and an injustice.

I’m not convinced of either of these charges, having had my head turned by the apparently simple fact that it is five of their lads against five of the other lads to see who is better at scoring from the spot. Seems like a fair contest to me. The fact that it comes after you all run around for 120 minutes only asks more questions of the ability and mental strength of the players. You even get to pick your five best ball kickers to go first.

It’s either that or keep playing until everyone has collapsed from cramp except the goalkeepers who proceed to spend the next few months launching 80 yard punts at each other’s goals until one of them trips over his beard or dies of starvation.

Penalty kicks break down football into its most basic ingredients: one man gets one kick to score a goal, another man gets to stand in the way of the goal and try and stop it. All the other stuff like tactics and passing and defensive awareness and dribbling and switching play and offside rules are all superfluous to the main event of one man shooting at the goal and the other man trying to stop it. If all the other fancy business like long balls, far post crosses and slide-rules fails to produce a winner, then why not do away with it all and break it down to its most basic parts, the simplest equation.

Penalties provide us with glorious heroes and terrible villains, and any player of any status can instantly become either.

I remember exhibiting my self-thoughtingly extensive footballing knowledge back in 1994 when I proclaimed that the budding Buddhist, and my hero at the time, Roberto Baggio never misses penalties as he strode up to take his in the final against Brazil. He never misses, I declared profoundly, barely bothering to watch the screen as he ran up, so assured so I was of the result. Three seconds and four foot over the crossbar later and I was buying my footballing knowledge a one way ticket to Bequietville.

In 1998, David Beckham managed to acquire the blame for England’s shoot-out defeat to Argentina despite not being one of the two players who missed kicks for England or even being on the pitch at the time of the shoot-out. His red card in the second half apparently being the real reason why the English national team consistently fails to produce five men out of eleven who can score from twelve yards.

In the Carling Cup final yesterday the hero was United reserve keeper Ben Foster, brilliantly saving Jamie O’Hara’s first kick after studying clips of Spurs players taking penalties on the United goalkeeping coach’s i-Pod just before the shoot-out. He didn’t get near any others, but thanks to pantomime villain David Bentley dragging his kick a foot wide of the post, United had the shoot-out wrapped up with a penalty to spare, Anderson scoring the winner as confidently as he tucked away his kick in the Moscow Champions League final back in May last year. He takes penalties very well for someone who doesn’t seem able to hit a cow’s backside with a banjo in normal play.

That it was Bentley to miss was almost too predictable, as it was that Anelka was the ultimate misser back in Moscow. Footballers that football fans love to hate really shouldn’t take penalties in shoot-outs. Even the ever-booed FIFA World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo missed his shoot-out kick in Moscow before John Terry went to ground a bit early. He scored his kick yesterday, though in fairness he was up against Hilarious Gomes in goal for Spurs. With him in goal, the best tactic always seems to be to hit it straight at him and hope he tries to catch it. Instant goal. Just add Gomes.

Accusations of shoot-outs being lotteries are understandable from those who lose them, but it overlooks the incredible amount of mental strength that confident and well-aimed kicks require, on top of the physical stamina needed too, as shoot-outs always come after having played an extra half hour longer than you would ever normally play in a match. Managers with no faith in their players call it a lottery, and for them I suppose it is. But it is no lottery for the men who take the kicks or the keepers trying to read the direction of the ball from the kicker’s body language.

Yes, when it’s your team taking kicks it can be less an emotional rollercoaster and more of an emotional bungee jump without the elastic, especially if you’re English. But the pure intensity of such moments as a penalty shoot-out should be savoured. They are the purest, most undiluted form of football. The crack cocaine of soccer. The most vital ingredient of football, extracted, purified and injected directly into your eyes.

I even find myself rooting for a draw and cheering for penalties now just to get a quick fix when watching a cup game as a neutral. Come on penalties! I shout, and yes, I accrue many funny looks. But the funny lookerers don’t know what it’s like being addicted to the rush of the pure stuff. Maybe only Manchester United fans and crackheads will really understand me, and I’ll probably lose the United fans next time they lose a shoot-out.

Just me and the crackheads then. Come on penalties!

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