In world football, there surely is no greater anguish than a penalty shoot-out involving England.
It’s agony to watch because you know in advance how it will end with England players, proud men like Steven Gerrard, walking like the dead off the pitch, alone in a world of torment, regret and what-ifs after falling short once again in the toughest this sport, any sport, has devised for players’ minds.
This time, against Italy in the most enthralling of the four Euro 2012 quarterfinals, the names that got added to England’s hall of penalty infamy were both Ashleys, Young and Cole.
The winger and the left back swelled the sorry group of England players who cracked while faced with just an opposing goalkeeper and their own fear of failure. Their predecessors included the likes of David Beckham and Gareth Southgate.
The loss to Italy took England’s record in seven World Cup and European Champion-ships shootouts to: Rest of the world 6, England 1.
Luck is part of it. But mostly, penalty shootouts are won between the ears. They are about confidence, belief and being able to shut out that inner voice whispering, “You are going to miss this.” The goal looks smaller than it is, the ‘keeper looms like a giant.
Gerrard, who slotted home England’s first penalty early Monday morning after 120 minutes of football ended 0-0, has described England’s penalty curse as a “mental block.” In his biography, he suggested England must start practicing shootouts at the end of friendly matches, while the stadium is still full.
“It’s the only realistic way of practicing penalties. That draining walk from the halfway line. The tension. That feeling that everyone is watching, jeering or cheering,” he wrote.
So that’s an idea for the future. But, in Kiev’s Olympic Stadium, it was just pain.
This was the 8th time that Italy has faced a shootout in World Cups and the Euros. It has now won three.
But shootouts are unbeatable drama. This one was no exception. Like gladiators about to face the lions together, the two ‘keepers, Joe Hart and Italy’s Gianluigi Buffon, shared a hand-slap of mutual respect before the shooting began.
Italy’s Riccardo Montolivo was the first to crack, firing his penalty wide of Hart’s right-hand post. Perhaps this might be England’s night after all.
But no. Young shot high, his penalty slamming off the crossbar. Next up for England was Cole. His run-up was slow and his shot to Buffon’s left was tame. The Italian guessed correctly. Alessandro Diamante then finished the job, ramming the dagger through English hearts.
Cue Italian delirium.