The truth with penalty shootout heartbreaks is that a player never makes peace with it. It’s a footballing sin with no redemption. No country has endured penalty shootout pangs as frequently as England has. They have lost three out of four in World Cups, and their defeat in the Euro final against Italy in Wembley on Sunday was the fourth instance, out of five, that they have crashed out of a tournament in this fashion. The three English footballers who had their shots blocked or did not find the target — Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka — will carry the regret forever, even though their careers are young and they will be afforded second chances.
They are not alone. Footballers more famous, better and experienced have missed penalties in shootouts. Lionel Messi has — the first shot of the shootout against Chile in the Copa America final in 2016. So has his great contemporary Cristiano Ronaldo, and if you roll further backward, a host of illustrious names adorn the chart. From Marco Van Basten to Zico and David Trezeguet to David Beckham, and the most tragic of them all, Roberto Baggio in the 1994 World Cup final. England’s coach Gareth Southgate could empathise with them too, having missed one in the 1996 Euro semi-final against Germany. With his own wounds unhealed, Southgate, unlike many other coaches, had emphasised polishing penalty-taking skills during practice sessions. His last-minute substitutions were to augment their penalty-taking department, though ironically, both fluffed their attempts. But taking shots in practice is one thing; replicating it in front of 66,000 spectators in the final is another.
It’s a cruel denouement — an undecided game decided by a method that involves slices of good fortune. It might not be a pure lottery — an incredible amount of composure and daring, besides clean short-taking skills are required — but there is decidedly a wicked play of luck. An inch to the right, Rashford’s shot would have trickled into the bottom left corner; if Italy’s goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma had chosen the opposite direction to leap, shots of Saka and Sancho would have found the back of the net. Maybe, another night, they would embrace power rather than placement. The game is often decided by a split-second decision or a change of mind. But the truth is that there is no other viable alternative. Penalty shootout is an indispensable devil, and those who fail will live with the ghosts forever.