At least this time, an England team made it to a penalty shootout. In recent tournaments, the senior team finished bottom of their 2014 World Cup group, and lost against Iceland in their first Euro 2016 knockout match. So when England Under-21s reached the Euro 2017 semi-final and took a far more experienced Germany team to penalties, that in itself represented progress – until the penalty curse struck again.
This was an opportunity for England to exorcise some serious penalty ghosts. The Germany coach was Stefan Kuntz, who had scored Germany’s fifth penalty in the Euro 96 semi-final at Wembley. I spoke to Kuntz in researching my book Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty. He understands the pressure of a penalty and did not want to take one at all. He chose to kick fifth because he hoped the shootout would be over before he was required. The kicker after him was Gareth Southgate; his penalty was saved.
I also spoke to a German psychoanalyst, Dr Michael Froese, who agreed that it was in 1996 – and not 1990 – when England’s penalty complex took root. After all, at Euro 96, England had beaten Spain on spot-kicks four days earlier at Wembley. But the fact that it was Germany, again, beating England on home soil, with the backdrop a media frenzy of military metaphors – “We knew the media had turned this game into a war,” Kuntz said – was a traumatic moment. If England had lost that shootout to Switzerland, say, or Greece, then England’s senior team today might not have a penalty shootout record at tournaments of one win in seven (14%) with a penalty conversion rate of 66%.
Yet this penalties defeat did not feel inevitable. The coach, Aidy Boothroyd, had practised penalties with his players before the match. And it was significant that after it Boothroyd did not claim the shootout is a lottery that cannot be trained for, as past England coaches Glenn Hoddle, Sven-Goran Eriksson and Roy Hodgson have done. Dr Froese diagnosed that as a case of “magical rationalised avoidance which derives from a subconscious fear of failure”. His view was that as long as those coaches did not practise penalties, then they had a ready-made excuse. Boothroyd’s attitude is a welcome change to this narrative.
There was some luck involved: Germany won the coin toss and elected to kick first. This increases the pressure on the team kicking second, especially, as Nathan Redmond discovered, when you are kicking to avoid defeat. One data study of tournament shootouts showed that conversion rates when kicking to avoid defeat drop to 64%, and increase to 94% when kicking to win. This is the main reason behind the International Football Association Board recently introducing a new kicking order – ABBA – in youth competition penalty shootouts. Germany’s Under-17s women’s team won the first of those.
Perhaps the best lesson we can learn from this defeat comes from Kuntz himself. Just before he retired, he showed his grandmother the titles on the back of his official sticker-card. He had won the German Cup, the Bundesliga, and Euro 96. “Very nice,” his grandma said. “But can you pay for the groceries in the supermarket with that?” Kuntz realised then that the past was just that. “You have to move on with your life,” he said. “Stop looking back. And maybe England should do the same with penalties.”