Top ten iconic moments in international football: No.6
Antonin Panenka‘s penalty vs West Germany in the 1976 European Championship final
The year was 1976; a time when The Soviet Union and the United States were embroiled in a state of Cold War and the entire Eastern Bloc, including Czechoslovakia, was in a stage of stagnation with the region rife with escalating fears of another World War and economic disarray. Amidst all of these problems, the Socialist nation of Yugoslavia was chosen as the host nation for the 1976 UEFA European Football Championships, or what we now know as the Euros.
At the time, the format of the tournament was much different from what it is today. The final stage of the tournament included only four teams, which effectively meant that only the semi-finals and finals were played in Yugoslavia. The qualification rounds consisted of eight groups, each consisting of four teams. The teams topping each group then played the quarter-finals over two legs, home and away. And the remaining four teams made it to the final round.
In 1976, the four teams that made it to the final round were Czechoslovakia, West Germany, Netherlands and host nation Yugoslavia. Czechoslovakia, who were playing their first semi-final since 1960, faced off against Netherlands in the first semi-final and won the game 3-1 after extra time. West Germany played Yugoslavia and won that game 4-2, again after extra time. So for the first time in history, Czechoslovakia would be playing in the finals of the European Championship, facing a formidable West Germany, the then-world champions.
The final was an exciting affair, with the scores remaining tied at 2-2 after extra time, the last goal coming in the 89th minute as West Germany snatched a last-gasp equaliser scored by Bernd Hölzenbein. The match was to be decided by the much-dreaded penalty shoot -out. The Czechs were able to hold their nerves by converting four out of four penalty kicks, while the Germans were able to convert only three, with Ulrich Hoeneß skying the ball high above the goal. The score was now 4-3, and Czechoslovakia had to score the last penalty to win the European Championships for the first time ever.
And then, up stepped Antonin Panenka.
In such a tense situation, the pressure is as much on the penalty-taker as the goalkeeper. Panenka knew that if he missed, the match would go to sudden death, the worst situation any team could find itself in. It was imperative that he held his nerve to score this penalty and ensure a Czech victory. No one would have dreamt what happened next.
Just as Panenka was about to shoot, the German custodian Sepp Maier, who was watching the ball like a hawk, dived to his left, while the ball delicately floated towards the center of the goal, leaving Maier helpless. The entire stadium erupted. No one, not even the Czech team could believe that Panenka attemped such a cheeky shot and got away with it. No one, except Panenka himself.
As the German team stood shell-shocked, the entire footballing world hailed this hitherto unknown player who pulled off something so cheeky, almost arrogant, on such an important stage. A legend was born overnight.
The number of adjectives used to describe Panenka’s cannot fit in this article. Some labelled him a poet, some a genius, others called him an artist, and the accolades didn’t stop. On being asked what he was thinking at that crucial moment, Panenka nonchalantly replied he was confident that he was going to score. The audacity of the shot itself was something that left all who saw it awe-struck.
Antonin Panenka went down in history as not the greatest player, but a player who left an everlasting legacy. That penalty was subsequently immortalised as the ‘Panenka penalty’, a fitting tribute. Even today, attempting a Panenka penalty is considered a sign of supreme confidence on the part of the penalty-taker. The most famous example being that of Zinedine Zidane, who scored a similar penalty in the 2006 World Cup final. There have been some spectacular failed attempts too, with Totti, Nani and van Persie being left red-faced after unsuccessfully trying to chip the keeper.
Had Panenka not scored at that moment, maybe the story would have been completely different. But the fact is, he did. In that single moment, in the most important match of his life, he proved in one flick of the foot, that all you need is self-belief to score a penalty. And that holds true even today.
Here’s a clip of that legendary penalty:
What other moments made it to our list? Find out here: SportsKeeda’s top ten iconic moments in international football