For human drama, few sporting experiences can beat an international penalty shootout. It is, in short, a high-stakes affair in which soccer meets Russian Roulette and plays out before a global audience of 290 million who watch on breathlessly as players participate under conditions that can never be simulated and prepared for in training. The interplay between kickers and goalkeepers has inspired a rich field of academic study among psychologists, statisticians and game theorists. Their research cannot only offer players the data they need to game the system, but provide unique insights as to how humans perform under conditions of crushing pressure. Based on data from major international tournaments, imagine that Germany faces Spain in the final of Euro 2012 ...
Germany 0, Spain 0 (after extra time) -- Olympic Stadium, Kiev
A final featuring the two pretournament favorites had been a complex clash of styles. As the clock wound down on extra time, Germany retreated into a defensive shell, electing to experience the trial and torment of a penalty shootout. It clearly fancied its chances. Germany (including West Germany) has been dominant from the spot, winning 5 of 6 shootouts. Spain, in comparison, has a middling record of 3-3.
Coaches Jogi Low of Germany and Vincente Del Bosque of Spain assess their options, surveying the able penalty takers they have left on the field. Both goalkeepers stand away from their teammates. Spain captain Iker Casillas sits on his haunches, quietly focusing on the task ahead. A charismatic leader, recognized by many as the world’s best goalkeeper, his preternatural presence has gifted him the nickname “Saint Iker.”
His adversary, Manuel Neuer, a physically imposing yet agile shot stopper, stands with his goalkeeping coach reviewing game film of prospective opponents penalty techniques on an iPad, technology’s version of a cheat sheet.
The referee summons the two captains for the coin toss. It is a rarely discussed fact that shootouts are often won and lost before a ball has been kicked, as a study by the London School of Economics proved the outcome of the coin toss can be definitive. In its study, it found the team taking the first penalty wins 60 percent of shootouts given the greater pressure experienced by the other team having to play catch-up.
Germany wins the toss and sagely opts to kick first.
Round 1 -- Germany: Mario Gomez, ST
Before every kick, all the pressure is on the shooter. From 12 yards out, the ball takes just 0.3 seconds to reach a goal that is 8 feet high and 8 yards wide. No one expects the goalie to save it. Burly marksman Gomez is one of Germany’s most ruthless finishers. With so much pressure riding on one shot, the German knows that a smooth, precise stroke is paramount to success. Some penalty kicks can travel up to 125 mph, yet the faster the speed of the ball, the higher the percentage of it sailing over the crossbar into the stands.
According to a 2010 study by The Football Exchange at Liverpool’s John Moore University, kicks struck under 50 mph find the net far more often (73 percent) than those thumped with mindless force. Gomez calmly caresses his shot into the left corner at a cool 45 mph, drawing first blood.
Germany 1, Spain 0
Spain: Xabi Alonso, MF
The rugged yet mechanical Alonso is a cold-blooded penalty specialist, but in order to be such a thing, risks are necessary. The upper corners of the goal are off limits to the faint of heart in a shootout because the margin for error is too great. Scientists at Israel's Ben Gurion University discovered just 13 percent of kicks are dispatched into those zones.
None of that matters to Alonso, however, because even though the high-corner shot is the easiest to propel wide, his aim is magnetic. Neuer attempts to disrupt the Spaniard's concentration by initiating eye contact, but Alonso never shifts his focus from the ball as he jogs rhythmically in from the left, thrashing the ball with precision into the top left corner. The German goalkeeper dives in the correct direction, but the shot, outside of his reach, is impossible to deflect.
Germany 1, Spain 1
Round 2 -- Germany: Toni Kroos, MF
The spirit of triumph can be infectious. Researchers at the University of Groningen have discovered players who demonstratively celebrate their success increase the chance that their teammates will score later in the shootout. Eighty-two percent of fist-pumpers, screamers and air-punchers end up on the winning team. Young Toni Kroos is only an occasional penalty taker, but his technique is peerless. His run-up suggests a strike to the left, but at the last second, the midfielder opens up his hips and rolls the ball in the opposite direction, deceiving Casillas, who dives the wrong way.
As the ball hits the back of the net, the youngster beats his chest, howling with a mixture of joy and relief. A spontaneous gesture that, though spontaneous, may prove as vital as his successful strike.
Germany 2, Spain 1
Spain: Xavi, MF
Soccer may be a young man's game, but penalty shootouts favor the aged, as the experience of shooters 31 and older holds an edge over rawer colleagues. While veterans celebrate an 85.71 percent success rate at the spot, youngsters aged between 25 and 30 botch 43 percent of their attempts. Though Xavi is one of the most technically gifted players in the game, the midfielder is a rare visitor to the penalty spot, but the task does not faze him. Aged 32, the impish Spaniard has won three Champions League trophies and triumphed in both Euro and World Cup finals. The oldest Spaniard still on the field dispatches his shot with ease.
Germany 2, Spain 2
Round 3 -- Germany: Lukas Podolski, ST
In the face of crushing pressure, the natural human impulse is to end an ordeal as soon as possible, yet rushing the penalty kick process can often prove fatal according to a study by sports psychologist Geir Jordet. The Norwegian academic discovered only fools rush in where clinical penalty takers fear to tread.
Jordet measured the time between when the ball is first placed on the spot and when the player strikes it. His study uncovered that players taking 1.1 seconds or less were successful 58.8 percent of the time while those who took between 2.3 and 2.9 seconds scored 78.1 percent of the time. Those who began their rush forward immediately after the referees whistle (0.2 seconds or less) missed or had their shots saved at a much greater rate (42.6 percent) than those who waited for at least 1.1 seconds before beginning their approach (18.9 percent).
The prolific striker Podolski is in no hurry to take his kick; the lanky German surveys his target with hands on hips, exhaling to retain his composure as if Jordet’s report was fresh in his mind.
The German employs another trick to increase his odds. A kicker’s non-shooting foot is one of the most accurate indicators of his intention. A research team at the University of British Columbia discovered that when the planting foot points left or right, the ball is then propelled in that direction 80 percent of the time, a remarkable “tell” for a goalkeeper with Casillas’ reflexes. Podolski masks his intention by planting his foot directly at the center of goal then spanking the ball low into the right corner. A confused Casillas does not even attempt to dive.
Germany 3, Spain 2
Spain: Fernando Llorente, ST
Where humans look impacts how they act. Savvy goalkeepers understand this biological weakness and often seek to benefit by manipulating the link between the kicker’s line of sight and his motor activity. Sports scientists at Exeter University analyzed the eye movements of penalty-takers and discovered that if a shooter’s focus can be shifted from his target area toward the goalkeeper, his aim can be disrupted, thus improving the odds the ball will be struck toward the keeper. Successful goalkeepers often act crazy like a fox, dancing on their line or punching the crossbar so it vibrates menacingly just above their heads.
The powerful Fernando Llorente, a giant of a man from Pamplona, may have been the focal point of the Spanish attack in extra time, but as he lollops toward Neuer, he finds it hard to mask his nerves, placing the ball, then jogging up and down on the spot before his run up. Neuer ratchets up his opponent’s discomfort, feinting right and left on the line. Llorente trundles toward the ball, aiming to dispatch it low and left but the kick is struck too close to Neuer. The keeper mercilessly launches his dive, extending his strong right hand to stun the shot’s progress. As the ball bobbles harmlessly back toward the slumping Llorente, the German scoops it up, roaring as he raises it in the air like a severed head.
Germany 3, Spain 2
Round 4 -- Philipp Lahm, DF
With the contest now in the clutch, overall success rates tend to plummet; the fourth kick fails 27 percent of the time, and even players with vast international experience such as Philipp Lahm are not immune to the pressure. The tiny German captain is one of the most coveted defenders in the game, but as he faces the penalty spot in the Euro semifinals, his hard-earned reputation becomes an albatross.
A Norwegian study uncovered that “high-status players” are more vulnerable to choking in shootouts. Iconic greats, including Michel Platini, Diego Maradona and Roberto Baggio have all missed from the spot. Star status produces a crushing cocktail of responsibility and added pressure. High-status defenders succeed just 25 percent of the time.
Casillas dries his hands on a towel placed to the side of the goal for an eternity, forcing his nemesis to contemplate the vast nothingness that is his target and the 290 million-strong audience breathlessly following the action on television around the world. Once Lahm strikes low down the middle, the keeper dives left but is able to reach back and use a combination of flailing hand and trailing leg to block the ball’s goal-bound momentum.
Germany 3, Spain 2
Spain: Cesc Fabregas, MF
As the smurfish Barcelonan attacks the ball at speed, the German keeper attempts to shave the odds by taking a step off his goal line toward the kicker. Fabregas’ weak shot is hit left and Neuer swats it aside with contempt, but the Spaniard gains a reprieve. The laws of the game dictate goalkeepers remain on their line until the ball is struck. The rule is commonly infringed and not always penalized, but on this occasion, the referee signals for a retake. Second time around, Neuer dives right and Fabregas thunders the ball straight down the middle, grinning with relief as he turns to face his teammates. Spain is back on level terms.
Germany 3, Spain 3
Round 5 -- Germany: Bastian Schweinsteiger, MF
The contest reaches sudden death. The German squad clings to each other's shoulders at the halfway line, but as the talismanic Bastian Schweinsteiger takes the lonely walk toward Casillas’ goal, none can look, preferring to stare at the field or gaze glassy-eyed into the crowd. The sharp-featured Schweinsteiger appears unperturbed and focused, blanking out his miss that cost Bayern Munich the Champions League. As a player who knows the odds, he is well aware that for right-footers, a shot hit at a medium trajectory down the middle has an 81.82 percent success rate.
Schweinsteiger takes a long run up to the ball as a thousand flash bulbs flare behind the goal. Casillas feints right before launching himself toward the left corner, but Schweinsteiger cheekily checks his backswing and chips the ball coolly into the space the goalkeeper vacated. An impudent strike known as a Panenka, named for its creator, Antonin Panenka, an innovative Czechoslovakian midfielder who legendarily chose the Euro 1976 final as a high-pressure venue to debut the technique and clinch a shootout against West Germany.
Germany 4, Spain 3
Spain: Fernando Torres, ST
When missing a penalty means defeat for the entire team, the shooter’s success rate plummets to just 52 percent. Spain must score to stay alive now, and as Fernando Torres lumbers forward, the fragile Chelsea striker betrays his nerves by unconsciously yanking his shorts up so high, one journalist later remarked that it was “as if they had snagged on the hairs of his armpits.” Grim-faced, he nervously juggles the ball, desperate to affect a calm he does not feel. His mental anxiety is understandable.
As Neuer assumes his position on the line, he cockily points to the left corner of his goal as if to tell Torres which way he intends to dive. The frazzled striker breathes heavily once then trots toward the ball, every step an exaggerated bounce. Winding his leg back, he strikes with power toward the top-left corner. Neuer plunges to the right and would have been well beaten, but at the moment of impact, Torres pulls back his head and alters his balance, shanking the ball over the bar into a sea of stunned supporters behind the goal. The doomed striker collapses onto his knees, burying his face in the turf as the German players break from their huddle and race toward Neuer.
Amid scenes of childlike jubilation, coach Jogi Low is interviewed on the field, whimsically downplaying the role sports science had played in his nation's victory. The interviewer asks Loew what instructions he had given his team; the German smiles and with a wink, explains he had borrowed the advice of his predecessor, Jurgen Klinsmann: “I just told my men to blast the ball as hard as they could under the operating theory that if they did not know where the ball was going, the keeper wouldn’t have a clue either.”
Roger Bennett is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @rogbennett.