KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — In world soccer, there surely is no greater anguish than a penalty shoot-out involving England.
It’s agony to watch because you know in advance how it will end – with England players, proud men like Steven Gerrard, walking like the dead off the pitch. Alone in a world of torment, regret and what-ifs after falling short once again in the toughest, cruelest test this sport, any sport, has devised for players’ minds.
This time, against Italy in the most enthralling of the four Euro 2012 quarterfinals, the names that got added to England’s hall of penalty infamy were both Ashleys, Young and Cole.
The winger and the left back increased the sorry group of England players who cracked while faced with just an opposing goalkeeper and their own fear of failure. Their predecessors included the likes of David Beckham and Gareth Southgate, who managed to turn the shame of his missed penalty kick at Euro `96 into a joke, appearing in a pizza commercial with his head hidden in a paper bag.
And Cole and Young won’t be the last. Because England’s record of failure in shootouts is now so consistently awful that it has become a running sore on the national psyche.
The loss to Italy dropped England’s record in seven World Cup and European Championship shootouts to: Rest of the world 6, England 1.
No matter the language, that is the astounding number.
Luck is part of it. So is preparation. But mostly, penalty shootouts are won between the ears. They are about confidence, belief, and being able to shut out that inner voice whispering, “You are going to miss this.” The goal looks smaller than it is, the `keeper looms like a giant.
Gerrard, who slotted home England’s first penalty early Monday morning in Kiev after 120 minutes of soccer ended 0-0, has described England’s penalty curse as a “mental block.” In his biography, he suggested England must start practicing shootouts at the end of friendly matches, while the stadium is still full.
“It’s the only realistic way of practicing penalties. That draining walk from the halfway line. The tension. That feeling that everyone is watching, jeering or cheering,” the England and Liverpool captain wrote.
So that’s an idea for the future. But, in Olympic Stadium, it was just pain.
“We have done the country proud, but again we go home with heartbreak and it’s difficult to take,” said Gerrard.
This was the eighth time Italy has faced a shootout in World Cups and the Euros. It has now won three.
FIFA boss Sepp Blatter isn’t a fan of shootouts, saying this May that “when football goes to penalty kicks, it loses its essence as a team sport.”
He has asked German great Franz Beckenbauer to see if an alternative is possible.
But shootouts are unbeatable drama. This one was no exception.
Like gladiators about to face the lions together, the two `keepers, Joe Hart and Italy’s Gianluigi Buffon, shared a hand slap of mutual respect before the shooting began.
England assistant coach Gary Neville threw a pen in anger into the turf – as if he knew that this would end in English tears again.
“Send us victorious, happy and glorious” the England fans sang. Two trainers pounded and massaged Gerrard’s legs like pizza dough, readying the England captain’s tired muscles for the torture ahead.
Italy’s Riccardo Montolivo was the first to crack, firing his penalty wide of Hart’s right-hand post. He buried his head in his hands. Perhaps, just perhaps, this might be England’s night after all.
Young shot high, his penalty slamming off Buffon’s crossbar. England manager Roy Hodgson chewed his lip.
Next up for England was Cole. The Chelsea player nervously licked his lips on the long walk from the center of the pitch to the penalty spot. He placed the ball on the turf, took seven steps back and stood hands on hips.
Uh-oh. Clearly, he was thinking about it too much. Sure enough, his run-up was slow and his shot to Buffon’s left was tame. The Italian guessed correctly, making the block.
Alessandro Diamanti then finished the job, ramming the dagger through English hearts by shooting cleanly past Hart.
Cue Italian delirium as Buffon puffed out his cheeks in relief.
Neutrals would say that justice was done: Italy was the better team.
But that will be of no consolation to the English.
“Penalties has become an obsession for us in English football; in training they have done extremely well,” Hodgson said. “But you can’t reproduce the tired legs. You can’t reproduce the pressure. You can’t reproduce the nervous tension.”
But England can and does reproduce shootout failure, over and over again.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester