Goalkeeper diving for a corner ball

What Is a Panenka in Football?

When you look at the history of professional football, which dates back more than a century, one of the biggest changes is the style in which the players go about their business. Track down grainy black-and-white footage of games from yesteryear and you’ll note that the players are more steely determination than showmanship, more grit than guile – a sign of the times, perhaps, particularly in and around the two World Wars.

In the post-war era, perhaps there was a subconscious lifting of the spirits that allowed people to express themselves more, while the advent of colour television also brought out the best in natural showmen like George Best, Frank Worthington and Stan Bowles. The success of the Brazilian national team, who won the World Cup in 1958, 1962 and 1970 while playing stunningly fluid football, confirmed the change within the beautiful game: now, players could express their natural instincts without being castigated by their manager and teammates.

All of which brings us in roundabout fashion to Antonín Panenka, a former Czechoslovakia (as it was known back then) international who won more than 50 caps for his nation in the 1970s and eighties. He was a flair player; a naturally-gifted midfielder with an eye for a pass and who scored some outrageously good free kicks over the years.

But Panenka’s career would have passed by largely unnoticed to anyone outside of the Czech Republic or Austria, where he played his club football, until he took a penalty kick in such outrageous fashion that his name has been used to describe the technique ever since.

Why Is It Called a Panenka Penalty?

Having downed the Soviet Union and the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia upset the odds to make it to the final of the 1976 European Championship. There they would meet West Germany, and a topsy-turvy 90 minutes and extra time would not be enough to separate the sides – a penalty shootout was required to settle matters.

The Czechs scored each of their first four spot kicks, before Ulrich Hoenes missed Germany’s fourth – meaning that if the taker of the fifth Czechoslovakia penalty found the net, they would lift the trophy. Step forward Panenka. Would he nervously pick a corner to aim at and hope for the best? Would he blast it down the middle? No and no. Instead, Panenka cooly chipped the ball straight down the middle of the goal – where the keeper would have been stood had he not already dived into the corner.

The neutrals watching on were dumbfounded, but the Czechs didn’t care – they had won their first and only (an Olympic gold medal in 1980 aside) major trophy, and they had Panenka’s ingenuity and fortitude under pressure to thank.

What Is a Panenka Penalty?

Antonín Panenka
Antonín Panenka (David Sedlecký / Wikipedia.com)

What separates a Panenka penalty from any other is the technique used to befuddle the opposition goalkeeper. As you can see from the video of the Czech’s moment of brilliance five decades ago, he approaches the ball at full speed before slowing at the final second – forcing the goalkeeper into the dive.

With the upper hand secured, Panenka was left with the relatively simply task of clipping the ball into the empty net – his bravery affording the opportunity of what is, essentially, an open goal. While the Panenka penalty looks to be an act of spontaneous bravado, it turns out that the Czech ace spent plenty of time on the practice ground working on the technique in a pressurised environment before finding the courage to use it in a game – choosing the biggest match of his career, and in Czechoslovakian history, to roll it out for the first time. Panenka recalled,

After training [at his club side Bohemians Praha], I used to stay behind with our goalkeeper and take penalties – we would play for a bar of chocolate or a glass of beer.

Since he was a very good goalkeeper, it became an expensive proposition. So, sometimes before going to sleep I tried to think of ways of getting the better of him, to recoup my losses.

I got the idea and then I started slowly to test it and apply it in practice. As a side effect I started to gain weight – I was winning the bets! In the end, I chose the penalty in the final because I realised that it was the easiest and simplest way of scoring a goal.

Who Has Scored a Panenka Penalty?

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, as the old saying goes, and there has been plenty of other players that have attempted a Panenka penalty since – some with success, some, erm, not so much.

But a handful of the modern-day greats have held their nerve to deposit a Panenka into the back of the net. A couple have shown the same level of audacity as the Czech originator to try it in a major final – Zinedine Zidane famously leaving Gianluigi Buffon on the deck after netting the opener in the 2006 World Cup final.

Former Arsenal forward, Alexis Sanchez, scored a Panenka for Chile in the 2015 Copa America final too, while it takes a similar level of chutzpah to attempt the technique in a huge semi-final: Francesco Totti and Karim Benzema just two to have tried… and succeeded.

Almost inevitably, England have been on the receiving end of a Panenka on the big stage. Euro 2012 was the scene, and Andrea Pirlo the perpetrator as he left Joe Hart sprawling on the turf.

Who Has Missed a Panenka Penalty?

Neymar sporting Puma
Neymar (canno73 / Bigstockphoto.com)

The problem with the Panenka penalty is that while it looks glorious when it comes off, those that have missed in this manner open themselves up to dog’s abuse from their teammates, manager and fans. It hasn’t happened all that often in a major game, although there was a nice dose of schadenfreude when Pirlo actually missed a Panenka in a Champions League game against Barcelona.

Plenty of other stylish players have tried – and missed – a Panenka: Sergio Aguero, Neymar and Sergio Ramos just three of those to have been left with egg on their faces. And as if to prove that the Panenka isn’t completely foolproof, one of the greatest footballers ever to lace up a pair of boots – Cristiano Ronaldo – has missed it twice!