The Penalty Shoot-Out
Should I put it to his right or his left or just hammer it down the middle, hoping that he will dive one way or the other? I stared directly into their keepers eyes looking for some clue as to what was going on in his brain, he held my gaze, glowering back at me, searching for some indication from my body language as to where I was going to try to posit the ball.
“Why does it have to come to this?” I moaned to myself.
“Why couldn’t we have settled the match in normal time? Couldn’t the designated penalty takers sort it out between themselves and leave the rest of us cowards to celebrate the victory, or suffer the pains of losing? Why the f*** do we have to put ourselves through this torment?”
Ninety minutes of pulsating action, drama and emotion had left me drained of physical and mental energy. In a match resembling the ‘Gunfight at the OK Corral’ leaving both teams down to ten men, with several other players sitting on yellow cards, the result still hadn’t been settled. This had left the protagonists to endure a further thirty minutes of extra time.
If neither team could break down the other’s defence during the initial ninety minutes, then it was not surprising that the extra time period also finished in a stalemate. Therefore, after the referee had blown to conclude the two hours of conflict, and although the overall result of the game was still in the balance, a sense of relief came over me. I had played my part in getting us so far, now it was up to the delegated penalty takers to finish off the job.
How I envied the calm assurance in which our strikers embraced the responsibility to slot the ball past the hapless keeper from the penalty spot. They relished the task of embellishing their personal goal scoring account and with no opposition defenders to intervene; they regarded it as a gift! The two of them almost squabbled as to who should go first, whilst the majority of us held back, trying to avoid the managers eyes, as he looked for willing candidates to make up the compulsory first five penalty takers.
Injuries and substitutions had played havoc with our pre-match planning and although I wouldn’t figure in the initial shootout, there was always the faint possibility that I could be called upon if the scores were still deadlocked….
Everything had started well for us, we converted our first two spot kicks; our opponents squandering theirs, however, as the central characters from both parties involved in this utter madness, either scored, or missed, a nauseating feeling had begun to creep into the pit of my stomach. Maybe, after all, I wasn’t going to get away with the role of a passive onlooker in this drama.
Regrettably, those uneasy fears intensified; the first five designated penalty takers had ended in another deadlock, each team finishing up with three scores and two misses. As a result of this impasse a sudden death shoot-out, which included the rest of us sufferers, would transpire.
A suffocating gulp had enveloped me, bringing with it that light sickly feeling that you get when you anticipate some dreadful outcome; surely I wasn’t going to have to play centre stage.
Even in sudden death the drama continued to unfold, as players from both teams either buried the ball into the net, or else miscued their shot, leaving the keeper to save, or the ball to go high or wide.
One by one the contestants were eliminated, lamentably leaving the scores level, as it became my bid to face my demons.
As the opponent preceding me had set off on his fearful walk from the half-way line to the penalty spot, his teammates had called out words of reassurance and encouragement to help settle his nerves. I had noticed the scared look embossed on his ashen face, giving clues to his inner torment, which synchronised with my own emotional inner state.
As fate decreed, he hit his shot wide of the post.
I had watched him lay prostrate on the ground, the sheer anguish of his mistake overcoming him; suddenly what had been lurking in the alcoves of my mind came to the fore like a thunderbolt from the blue; if I scored we would lift the trophy.
With my teammates’ best wishes ringing in my ears, I had trundled reluctantly from our sanctuary on the half-way line. It had been the refuge from where we had cheered each spot kick that our team had converted and applauded each shot our opponents had missed. Each hesitant step that I had taken towards the penalty area had made me feel like a member of the French nobility on their way to the guillotine.
The eyes of over seventy thousand people inside the stadium, plus tens of millions of TV spectators around the globe focussed on me, their expectations hovering over my head, resembling a thunderstorm ready to erupt. Voluminous numbers of onlookers would be hoping that I would sky the ball over the crossbar, countless others praying that I would hold my nerve to score.
Millions of dollars in prize money, television rights, advertising revenue, gambling bets, not with-standing the hopes and dreams of the club’s massive worldwide fan-base rested on one outcome. Whether or not, from a spot 12 yards out from the goal, I could put the ball between the two posts and under the crossbar. Of course, the major stumbling block to me achieving that was a determined, athletic, well trained, 6ft 3inch goalkeeper.
I’m a self-confessed coward when it comes to the situation of one 1 v 1 with the keeper. I can slot them away no problem in training, but when it comes to taking a penalty in a ‘pressure cooker’ situation such as this; divine help wouldn’t go amiss.
The referee had positioned the ball correctly on the penalty spot, then rolled his eyes, and grimaced, as I ignored his protocol and went through the ritual of placing it myself. Both my hands were shaking uncontrollably as I had felt the smooth texture of plastic covered coating on the surface of the ball.
Looking up from the penalty spot, my mind had created the illusion that the goalkeeper had expanded to twice his actual size, and the goal posts had shrunk to the equivalent degree, thus making my choice of where to aim the ball more problematic than ever.
So here we stood confronting each other, the keeper’s slight smile disclosed that he detected my tension, why shouldn’t he smile? If he saved my shot he was the hero of the hour, if he didn’t no-one would blame him, the pressure hung like a sack of cement on my shoulders. If I scored, it was expected of me, if I missed, I would be condemned, throughout football history, as another in the list of suckers who couldn’t keep their nerve under pressure.
As the referee’s shrill whistle pierced the hushed atmosphere of the stadium, my mind disappeared into a strange dreamlike state causing me to loosen my grip on reality. Enveloped in this unconscious stupor I took a few paces backwards before launching myself towards the stationary ball, I felt the front of my foot hit cleanly through the middle of the ball, my ears picking up the dull thud as my leg followed through to confirm the clear contact.
Time evaporated into stillness, the keeper guessed wrong and chose to dive to the left. The ball arrowed directly towards the centre of his goal taking an upward flight heading on a collision path with the pristine white, ellipse shaped crossbar….
Only the few participants in close proximity could hear the thwack as the ball cannoned off the underside of the crossbar to bounce discreetly over the goal line, before gently nestling in the back of the net.
The terraces of the stadium containing our supporters erupted into a deafening ecstatic rapture of joy, whilst the opponent’s area hushed into anguished misery, their dreams of glory in tatters.
I stood with my arms aloft soaking in the accolades cascading down from the swollen terraces, before being unceremoniously wrestled to the ground by my teammates swarming all over me, smothering me with their sweaty bodies.
As we saluted our thousands of travelling supporters, all the physical and mental anguish of the preceding two hours became a faint memory, dissolved in the surges of adrenalin pumping through my body.
“Nerves of steel,” enthused the manager, as I brushed passed him on the way to collect my winner’s medal.
“Yeah; no problem, thanks Boss,” was my guarded reply……..
Fiction; based on true incidents.