Penalties are a unique experience in football simply because the kicker is expected to score. It is an intense psychological moment, offering a glimpse into the mind and personality of the kicker, particularly at important moments like the final of the World Cup or with elimination from the European Championships on the line. How will they handle the pressure? How will they choose to be remembered?
Below is a list of ten great penalties, judged on context and execution.
1. Antonin Panenka, Czechoslovakia 2-2 West Germany (5-3 pens), Euro 1976 Final, 20 June 1976
Anytime he sees a player dink a penalty-kick down the middle of the goal with minimal power, Antonin Panenka must smile to himself. The undisputed King of Penalties, Panenka’s chipped effort to win the 1976 European Championships for Czechoslovakia was one of the true innovations in modern-day football.
Thousands of players have replicated since it but the combination of Panenka’s show of cheek, arrogance and skill at such an important moment makes it the undisputed greatest penalty of all-time.
2. Zinedine Zidane, France 1-1 Italy (3-5 pens), World Cup Final, 9 July 2006
Zinedine Zidane has taken some big penalties in his international career: the Golden Goal winner against Portugal in the semi-final of Euro 2000 was an example of the perfect penalty while another late goal scored against England at Euro 2004 just three seconds after vomiting, showed off his incredible temperament. But the penalty he scored in 2006 World Cup Final was the best of the lot.
He scored the winning penalty against Portugal in the semi-final just a few days earlier, firing a trademark effort into the top-left hand corner of the goal, but knew he would have to do something to beat Gianluigi Buffon, at the time the best goalkeeper in the world. The result: a wondrously-deliberate slice that clipped the underside of the bar and bounced just over the line.
The final may have ended in tears for Zidane, who was sent off for head-butting Marco Materazzi, but he still managed to sneak in a final moment to underline his unique genius.
3. Andreas Brehme, West Germany 1-0 Argentina, World Cup Final, 8 July 1990
Picture this: your national team has just won a penalty, five minutes from full-time in the final of the World Cup and you have the opportunity to win the trophy for your country for the first time in 36 years. All you have to do is score.
Andreas Brehme’s kick was not the most amazing penalty in the world but the first to be taken in a World Cup final was dispatched with such coolness and accuracy that he made it look as though anybody could have done it.
4. Helder Postiga, Portugal 2-2 England (6-5 pens), Euro 2004 Quarter-Final, 24 June 2004
It was hard to imagine that Helder Postiga’s late header, scored just seven minutes after being brought off the bench to send this game into extra-time, would not be his defining contribution to this game. After Manuel Rui Costa and Frank Lampard exchanged superb extra-time goals and the clash between England and host nation Portugal was forced into penalties.
Up stepped Postiga knowing that a missed effort would knock out the host nation, to out-Panenka Panenka with the most ridiculous of penalty kicks. It was the sort of effort that mates in the park do to embarrass each other, taken with such minimal power that it was a surprise to see it reach the back of the net.
Postiga’s justified arrogance kept his team in the game and paved the way for goalkeeper Ricardo (see next entry) to win a thrilling match for Portugal.
5. Ricardo, Portugal 2-2 England (6-5 pens), Euro 2004 Quarter-Final, 24 June 2004
After Postiga’s outrageous kick kept Portugal in the hunt it was no surprise to see penalty-saving extraordinaire Ricardo stop England’s next effort, taken by Darius Vassel. The surprise was that he made the save without gloves before deciding to take and score the winning penalty with a shot hit like a bullet into the bottom left-hand corner. It was remarkable drama to seal an astonishing game of football.
6. Roberto Baggio, Italy 2-2 Chile, World Cup Group B, 11 June 1998
When someone misses a penalty to lose a World Cup final, as Roberto Baggio did against Brazil in 1994, you could understand if they never wanted to take a penalty again. So it takes remarkable nerve to step up in the very next World Cup game for your country, with your team 2-1 down, and take the penalty that could save the match.
The goalkeeper may have got a hand to it but Baggio’s well-taken kick put to bed the ghosts of his 1994 disaster and revealed a man of remarkable character.
7. John Aloisi, Australia 1-0 Uruguay (5-3 pens), World Cup Qualifier, 15 November 2005
Up until their recent switch to the Asian Football Confederation, qualification for the World Cup was a strange road for Australia. They would usually spend four years pummeling the rest of the Oceania nations into submission before losing in the final qualifying play-off to the only decent team they would play. It was a recipe for inevitable heartbreak on a four-yearly basis.
So when substitute striker John Aloisi scored the final kick of the penalty shootout of an exhilarating two-legged play-off against two-time world champions Uruguay to send Guus Hiddink-lead Australia through to their first World Cup in 32 years, even the commentary team lost it.
8. Asamoah Gyan, Ghana 1-1 Uruguay (2-4 pens), World Cup Quarter-Final, 2 July 2010
Ghana went into their World Cup quarter-final clash with Uruguay with the weight of a continent on their shoulders. They ended it as unlucky losers as Uruguay nicked the game on penalties after a compelling two hours of football that featured some truly insane moments.
With the scores locked at 1-1 after 30 minutes of extra-time a Ghanaian header was blocked on the line by Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez, who deservedly saw red for handling the ball. But with a moment of glory beckoning Asamoah Gyan, the Ghana forward who had already scored two penalties earlier in the tournament, somehow contrived to hammer the resulting penalty into the crossbar. Uruguay (and infamously, Suarez) celebrated and an entire continent crumbled – and that was while the game was still up for grabs.
After Forlan netted the first kick of the shootout, to everybody’s surprise, Gyan ambled forward to take his country’s first kick. Showing unbelievable courage, he slotted his kick into the right-side of the goal to level the scores. Although his team would go on to lose the match (see next entry) Gyan’s remarkable contribution to the contest will never be forgotten.
9. Sebastian Abreu, Uruguay 1-1 Ghana (4-2 pens), World Cup Quarter-Final, 2 July 2010
After Asamoah Gyan had completed his own microcosmic version of Roberto Baggio’s redemption it seemed impossible that someone else could come along and steal the spotlight from him. But up stepped Uruguayan substitute Sebastian Abreu, scorer of a Panenka-style penalty to win the Brazilian Championship for club side Botafogo, to do just that.
There are reports that his Uruguayan teammates were terrified that he would try the same chip against Ghana and fail. But he had the cheek to do it anyway to knock out the last African team, becoming one of the villains of the tournament and sending Uruguay through to their first World Cup semi-final since 1950 in the process.
10. Ruud van Nistelrooy, Manchester United 2-0 Arsenal, English Premier League, 24 October 2004
After Ruud van Nistelrooy missed the penalty at Old Trafford that would have prevented Arsenal from becoming unbeaten champions in 2003/2004, sparking ugly scenes and adding fuel to the fire of their bitter rivalry, he was given the perfect opportunity to atone for his mistake.
The following season Arsenal traveled to Old Trafford with their unbeaten run stretched to 49 games, hoping to complete a perfect half-century and kick on to win their second league title in a row. But after Wayne Rooney dived outrageously to win a late penalty, van Nistelrooy swept home the kick to end Arsenal’s unbeaten streak and steal the momentum for United.
The emotion was there for all to see after van Nistelrooy scored and he would go on to help his team speed past their psychologically-broken opponents to win back the title.