Paying the Penalty
The Czechoslovakia great Antonín Panenka discusses how his famous dinked penalty came about and the impact it’s had
When you call Antonín Panenka, you can't hear the ring-tone while you wait for him to answer. Instead there's a brief quiz. A serious voice asks you, "The most famous Czech footballer with a moustache is:
a) Antonín Panáček [the name means 'a doll']
b) Antonín Panenka
c) Antonín Nanic ['worthless']
d) Antonín Panic ['virgin']?"
Before you can answer the same voice says, "Wrong answer. You shouldn't try to use a mobile phone with such low intellect." The joke lasts about 30 seconds but usually you have the chance to hear it in full as Panenka doesn't answer his phone quickly. More accurately, he often doesn't pick up his phone at all. That says a lot about a man still best known for his dinked penalty in the final of the 1976 European Championship, the one re-enacted in Euro 2012 by Andrea Pirlo and Sergio Ramos. There aren't many players who bother with a special ring-tone but, more than that, the difficulty getting hold of the 63-year-old Panenka demonstrates that he doesn't spend his retirement sitting on the sofa living on his memories and waiting for calls. I met him during a doubles tennis tournament. He limps because of problems with his hips and isn't particularly rapid around the court but he has great feel in his hands and can manipulate opponents as he used to torment goalkeepers with his penalties and free-kicks. Between matches, he spoke about his long career.
Your name will always be linked with the famous penalty in the European Championship final in 1976. Do you regard that as a blessing or a curse?
It's somewhere inbetween. Obviously I'm proud and happy about the penalty but, on the other hand, when you say the name "Panenka" everyone thinks only about the penalty. My football motto was, "Play for joy and the entertainment of the fans and yourself." I wanted them to talk about my actions and my goals in pubs and other places. I tried to achieve that through my career but the penalty overshadowed all the other moments. So I'm proud of the penalty but a bit ambivalent.
But you're not allergic to questions about it?
Definitely not. It'll be the thousandth time I've talked about it but that's part of it. You have to cope with it. Whether I want to or not, my penalty kick is part of football history and my career so I'm still open to talking about my feelings and memories of how it happened. I'm happy that the idea of this way of penalty still hasn't died, that there are others who imitate me. And it makes me happy when I hear a TV commentator saying, "It was a Panenka penalty." It happened 35 years ago but even children know about it. It's maybe already in its third generation.
What do you think when you see someone try it?
I am happy but it's not only about trying. It's not easy. I practised it hard for two years. It's not just about taking a penalty and kicking the ball into the centre of goal because you take a risk in attempting a finish like that. I had it perfectly rehearsed.
What's your favourite Panenka?
Maybe Zinedine Zidane or Thierry Henry. I think the penalty still has incredible success. I used the chip maybe 35 times and failed only once. Before that, I took penalties in a 'normal' way and failed more often. This is still a big weapon.
Your penalty became one of major topics of Euro 2012 thanks to Andrea Pirlo and Sergio Ramos. Did you think that could happen?
I don't think anyone expected it but it obviously made me happy. And it also confirmed what I´ve been saying for years. It's a big weapon. If you do it properly and with the right timing, the success is 100%. I observed all the keepers during the penalties and no one stayed in the centre.
I know it wasn´t easy to reach you the day after Andrea Pirlo´s goal. Your phone was very often busy. How many interviews did you do?
I don't remember the number but I was on the phone all the morning and afternoon. I refreshed my German after many years as I had calls from almost all the true football countries, including Argentina: from Spain, Germany, Austria, Italy, France. It was mad. I am happy that the journalists described it as 'Panenka's penalty'. When they write that even in England, it must mean something (laughs).
Which of both chipped penalties did you like more?
Pirlo did it better. His penalty was similar to mine, Ramos sent it a bit higher but on the other hand it was more surprising as he is a defender. But one thing is clear, both had to practise it beforehand. It wasn't coincidence.
How would you describe the secret of converting a penalty?
It's always been a fight between shooter and keeper — who can keep his nerve longest? No keeper will stay in the centre — that's what I based my strategy on. The keeper is waiting and when I bring my foot to the ball, he is choosing one side or the other. When I kick the ball lightly, the opponent is already on the move and can't recover. However if I kicked it too strongly, he could make some reflex save. And that's why I used slow lobs. It takes a while but the keeper can't get back.
It sounds so easy…
But it isn't. You have to persuade the keeper that you want to kick it normally. I always tried to do it with my movement or with my eyes. I wanted to get him where I wanted.
I can understand that you were successful with your first attempts but didn't keepers come to expect it?
We played against Dukla Prague a few weeks before the European Championship. Their keeper Ivo Viktor, my international teammate, knew that I used to take penalties that way. But he didn't stay on his feet. It's difficult for a keeper not to dive to one side because if you stay still and concede the goal, others will ask why you didn't try anything.
How long did you practise it?
About two years. After almost every training session I took on our goalkeeper, Zdeněk Hruška. He was very good at penalties, defeated me and it cost me quite a lot of money because we had some bets. I thought what I could do to beat him. That was the first idea. However, the basic thing was that I practised penalties every day. If I did it only once or twice a week, I would never have developed it.
What were the reactions of your coaches?
They left the decision to me. They knew that I would take it that way. The good thing was that they didn't write about it too much in the papers at that time and Sepp Maier didn't attend matches of Bohemka [Bohemians 1905]. So it was easier for me [laughs].
When you took the penalty in the final in Belgrade, was it one of your earlier or your later attempts?
The tenth — maybe even fewer than that.
But your teammates didn't trust you too much. The goalkeeper Ivo Viktor wasn't happy…
That's right. We shared a room during the tournament and he told me before game that it would be an extreme audacity from me, that it was too risky and that if I did it, he wouldn't allow me into the room. But in the end, he let me in…
Did you think later about what would have happened to you if you had failed?
I am a skilled turner so I joked that I would now be a turner with 30 years' experience in ČKD [one of the biggest engineering factories in Prague]. Maybe my career would have been terminated, I don't know. It's true that I heard an opinion at that time that they would punish me because they would take it as a ridiculing of the system. Maybe I would be something like a public enemy and I would have had to work somewhere as a stoker.
So you had to be really sure about not missing…
One thousand per cent [laughs]. But it was also partly because of the euphoria we experienced during the tournament. No one really rated us before the tournament. Even if we'd lost in the final, people would still have hailed us in Czechoslovakia. It was the Germans who were under pressure.
Is it true that Sepp Maier didn't talk to you for many years after the final because of the penalty?
When he heard my name, he didn't react well. I remember that a lot of western journalists wrote at that time that I ridiculed him. But it wasn't right. I saw it as the easiest way to convert a penalty. The problem was that I had been unknown before while he was one of the best keepers in the world. It wasn't easy for him.
But you met last year in Prague, 35 years after Belgrade. Has Maier accepted it?
Yes, it's fine now. We played golf and had some beers.
Have you ever thought about how much you would have profited from such a moment if you'd done it, say, 30 years later when football was much more commercialised?
Obviously we would have profited from the victory and the penalty much more; the situation in marketing is absolutely different. At that time, we were told after our return to keep our feet on the ground. Nowadays, it would be much more commercialised. We could earn more and our lives would be easier.
How much money did you earn for winning the European championship?
16,000 koruna [about £530], while the Germans would have earned much more. But it's not all about money — the sporting value is much bigger.
What are you memories about the final game? You led 2-0 but conceded two goals.
We knew that in the semi-final, the Germans were also 2-0 down but managed go through. Determination is typical of their character. We kept the lead almost till the last minute but then we conceded an equaliser from a strange corner. However, for me it was good. Without it, I wouldn't have had my penalty…
Why did the team succeed in Belgrade?
The basic thing was that that team was a perfect mix. All the players were good with the ball but there were various types: fighters, very fast lads like Pivarník, motivators like Ondruš, technical players like Móder or me. And very good strikers — Nehoda along with Masný. It wasn't talked about much before the tournament but we had had a good run of results in the build-up. But being a team from eastern Europe, they didn't take us seriously.
During the era of Czechoslovakia, there were sometimes problems between the Czechs and Slovakians in the team. Coaches had to be careful not to have a big majority of one group. However you, Nehoda, Viktor and Vesely were the only four Czech players in the 76 team. Why wasn't it a problem?
The spirit of the team was great and the atmosphere fantastic. I remember that in some previous teams, there was some distance. I wouldn't call it a problem but for example, when we had dinner, Slovakian players ate at one table, the Czechs at another one. And it was similar during tactical preparation. It was done first for the Slovakians in the team, then for the Czechs. Obviously it's not ideal. But in our team, it didn't matter, we were united and the credit goes to [our captain] Tonda Ondruš, who was the man who made us united. We had a lot of fun with him. And don't forget that we also had very good coaches — Václav Ježek and Jozef Vengloš.
After winning the final, most of the players went to collect their medals in German shirts. Did you have a problem with Communist officials then?
It was funny that all players had swapped their shirts except me and people called me the only patriot. But the reason was a bit different. I took the last penalty and my teammates had already swapped it so I didn't have time to do it. But after the ceremony, I also did it [laughs].
What was the life of footballers during the Communist era like?
Normal. We didn't care about politics. We were so-called professionals but in fact the only advantage was that we didn't go to work. Of course, we were more famous so we didn't have to stand in a queue for oranges or bananas. We earned more money than most of the people but the difference wasn't so big as today. It's incomparable.
How much did you earn at that time?
I was 30, had two children and got 2300 koruna [about £80] a month. I could earn another bonus of between 1200 and 1600 koruna from football but only if we won matches. So overall, I earned about 4000 while most of people had between 2000 and 2500.
One of the biggest advantages of being a footballer was the opportunity to travel abroad while 'normal' people could visit only countries in the Socialist bloc.
I travelled the world with football. We weren't as famous as Dukla Prague, for example, but we also received two invitations to go to America. It was a historical moment for Bohemians: we were the first Czech side to play in Honduras, Haiti or Nicaragua. It was an amazing experience.
The trips usually lasted three or four weeks. What were they like?
I remember we stayed there once throughout Christmas and New Year. It was in Colombia. One Czech-American businessman invited the whole team for Christmas dinner to his house. We had a guy in the team who had been an apprentice chef and he prepared svíčková [roasted sirloin of beef with traditional cream sauce] and dumplings. We prepared dumplings in a bath, bought almost a whole bull and cooked it in his garden. We had never experienced such a Christmas before, in 30-degree heat.
Karol Dobias, your former teammate, once told me that when Czechoslovakian teams went abroad, players took with them crystal souvenirs and famous Czech glass items to sell and earn some extra money.
The problem was that if we travelled abroad, we didn't get money. So if we wanted to make our trips more comfortable or buy any gifts for our families we took some things which we could sell. I remember that in Haiti, we bartered as they didn't have money either. So we exchanged some shirts, shorts or trainers for their handmade wooden artefacts which were really nice. One of the players even got one for a bandage. I also remember that before one trip we bought a six-arm crystal chandelier but we had a problem how to get it onto the aeroplane. So we had to dismantle it into small pieces. The problem was that when we wanted to put it together against we couldn't do it properly. We created a five-arm chandelier and sold it with a spare part.
Not many people have such experiences.
The trips were really interesting. Once we stayed in a castle, once we slept in houses without roofs. I don't remember if it was in Martinique or Guadaloupe, but they took us to the 'school in nature' for children from outside of the city. You could hear noises from the jungle; half of the team was afraid of it. There were lizards running about in our rooms; a lot of us didn't want to sleep there but we were told to be happy for the presence of the lizards as they caught poisonous spiders.
You left Bohemians for Rapid Vienna when you were 32. Why did you choose them?
If you wanted to go abroad, the Communist officials would allow you if you were older than 32 and had more than 50 international caps. I had an offer from Belgium but it was two months before my 32nd birthday. Then there were others from Spain, Sweden, Belgium again and Austria. If I'd considered only money, the Spanish offer from Real Murcia was the best one. But it wasn't easy for me to go to Spain at 32, and into a team that was in a relegation battle. It was too far in comparison to Vienna. I'd heard good things about Rapid from Frantisek Vesely and Pepi Bican who played there.
It turned out to be a good choice.
It was. I can't complain. They treated me like I was one of them. I still have a very good name there, maybe even better than here in the Czech Republic.
You were close to success in the Cup-Winners' Cup final against Everton in 1985. Why didn't it go your way?
I didn't start the game because of problems with my knees. I had an agreement with the coach that I would play in the later stages so I went on for the last half an hour. We couldn't compete with an Everton squad that was full of international players. Despite a 3-1 defeat, we left a good impression, I guess.
Apart from penalties, you were famous for taking free-kicks. Do you know how many goals you scored from that position?
I scored more than 70 goals for Bohemians and half of them were from set pieces. And it was the same for Rapid. You have to have a skill for it but it's not enough. I practised it an awful lot between the ages of 15 and 19. We used to play football on the street or in the park, mainly against older boys who were taller, stronger and faster than I was. So I had to find a way to play and relied more on technical skills. I kicked most of my free-kicks over the wall so a few goalkeepers tried to surprise me and didn't prepare the wall. Of course, I wasn't stupid so I told my players to make a wall. I sent the free-kick over the wall and that was the end of the story [laughs].
Since your retirement, you have never been main coach; only short periods as an assistant. Why?
I didn't have the ambition. If you want to do something well, you have to have some skill for it. As a main coach, you have to communicate with the team and have to be hard and demanding. I used to be more of a friend to the players. And it's wrong for this job. Players will not appreciate such kind of treatment.
But you've stayed close to football and few years ago you helped fans to save Bohemians which was on the brink of disappearing.
Bohemians were bankrupt and they asked me to join the project of fans who had decided to save their club. I am happy Bohemka are still alive even though there are still big problems.
You are honorary president. What are your duties?
My role is more representative than executive. I look after the relationship between the club's partners, sponsors and media, trying to improve the image of the club. There is a nice word for it in English football: an ambassador. Someone like Sir Bobby Charlton for Manchester United or Eusébio for Benfica.
Apart from your penalty, you are famous for your moustache. Have you ever shaved it?
Never. I've been waiting for an offer and if someone gives me a million, I'm ready to shave it immediately [laughs].