Just outside the Saoud bin Abdulrahman Stadium in the Al Wakra Sports Complex where England train is the Central Market, a sun-parched grassless scrub of land. Every Thursday, the scantily-populated neighbourhood wakes up to the bleating of a thousand goats ferried in rumbling trucks to be sold in what the locals claim is the largest goat market in the entire Middle East. On some days, buyers even cross the Saudi Arabia border to buy goats. The market, though, has been suspended for the entire duration of the World Cup, so that England can practise undisturbed and the locals could sleep peacefully, without the stench of goats, whirring of trucks and the haggling of traders.
Just outside the ground, whether it is hot or balmy, a few English fans would linger on when the team is practising. Inside, where barely anyone is permitted to watch them train, there is every modern football gadget to hone their skills and accomplish the elusive mission of “bring the World Cup”, which the eager fans keep boisterously chanting.
One among their new-age gadgets is the SKLZ Nets. The yellow net with holes in the four corners is spread over the goal-frame and the players must aim to put the ball through the four holes. The first half of the drill is performed without the goalkeepers — as per the advice of psychologists who want them to not see the custodian. It is England’s latest endeavour in taming their oldest and bitterest foe, the penalty shootout, the most-dreaded phase of a football match for them.
No other country has endured as much pain as England has in shootouts. One face of that national meltdown is Gareth Southgate himself, who missed the penalty in the 1996 Euros semifinal and took an eternity to exorcise the ghosts, before, as head coach he went on a forensic odyssey to understand the mechanics and science of shootouts.
Seldom have England not cried after World Cup shootouts. They ended their tepid run in the last World Cup, beating Colombia in the Round of 16. But the ghosts resurfaced at the Euros, where they lost to Italy in the Wembley final. Their embarrassing record of seven defeats in nine shootouts in major tournaments — a smudge under 22 per cent win percentage – is the worst of any national team with more than five shootouts contested.
Here, on the verge of the World Cup knockouts, the sword of penalty shootout hangs over them. The sword of history, if one will. It was a question put forth to every England player or support staff who attended press conferences in the last week or so. It was put forth to Marcus Rashford, who missed one against Italy in the Euros and was put to sword in social media-scape. As were Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho. Rashford firmly answered: “No, not at all. They are big moments and, as an individual, I’ve always been comfortable with them. I enjoy being in big moments so I’m hoping that we get to take another penalty in the tournament. I’m looking forward to it.” Brave words after the trauma he went through.
From Declan Rice to Harry Kane, Luke Shaw to Jack Grealish, everyone was sought about their readiness. All of them replied positively and buoyantly that they, to quote Grealish, were “itching to take one and bury the history.” But through the answers and questions lurked a national obsession, a fear of reuniting with the old nemesis like Dr No running into James Bond in every covert operation of his.The repetitiveness has not numbed them but made them shrink in terror.
England managers of the past have attempted to dive deep into the heart of the tragic flaw. From incompetence and fatalism, from misfortune to competition anxiety and psychological block to lottery, their assumptions ran on the usual tropes. “You can never recreate on the training ground the circumstances of the shootout,” Glenn Hoddle would say in 1998. “When it comes to the pressure, we are not good,” said Sven-Göran Eriksson in 2006. “You can’t reproduce the tired legs. You can’t reproduce the pressure and tension,” Roy Hodgson observed in 2012, after the Euros.
Learning from his own experience
But Southgate’s approach has been refreshingly different — and it helps the cause that he is the only England manager who has ever missed a penalty. After elaborate research, talking with sports scientists and psychiatrists alike, he arrived at the conclusion that it was science, that it was about performing a skill under extreme pressure, and the only exorcism was practice. He deduced the reason he missed the penalty. He was hasty, he says in his autobiography: “All I wanted was the ball: put it on the spot, get it over and done with.”
So, when he prepared his team for the last World Cup, his support staff would measure the reaction time of players, the psychologists would advise them to take deep breaths, slow down their walk to the spot, and visualise a goalpost without the goalkeeper, eliminate all the historic baggage simmering within them. He even took the “cannot recreate tired legs” observation from Hodgson and simulated it in training sessions. “We practice spot kicks after the end of tiring sessions. Someone would turn on pre-recorded noise from stadiums. We were told to imagine that we are taking a kick in the World Cup final. Those sessions are fun,” Harry Maguire recently observed.
Before the 2020 Euros, England roped in Owen Eastwood, a performance coach from New Zealand, who has worked extensively with various rugby teams in his country and Cricket South Africa (though that does not necessarily tick a box). Two years before that, the FA hired Rhys Long as head of performance analysis from the Welsh Rugby League. They spent months studying England’s penalty shootouts threadbare, the technique, practice, approach and mindset. Before big tournaments, they would dissect the tapes of the potential opponents’ goalkeepers and penalty takers, where the strikers are likely to hit, where the goalkeepers are probable to leap. Also, they arrived at a consensus that the best penalty taker should take the fourth shot, for it’s the fourth shy that England’s players have missed the most in their history. The team of psychiatrists counselled them to restrain from showing emotion, both joy and agony.
All that is good, but as gnarled professionals would say, platitudinal though they might sound, it is entirely different to recreate in real what you practise in training. There is the burden of history, the fear of the future, the angst of the present. A kick could vault them to the status of a national hero; a kick could push them down into the abyss of shame. Some of them have spilled it and sentenced themselves for a lifetime of guilt. Like Steven Gerrard, who was so disillusioned after the 2006 World Cup miss that he even considered quitting the game.
Southgate is an exception, he went digging to the root of the spot kick he missed, gleaned valuable lessons from it, and is trying to help his wards avoid the hurt he experienced. Under him, it reads 1-1 in World Cup and Euros. Which way the third might swing, if it comes to that point, could go a long way in eliminating a national neurosis, or it could pile on more agony and condemn them to another hundred years of painful solitude. It could, if England crash out in yet another shootout, make him tear all the theories and science of the shootout apart and say, “it’s a lottery.”