Kicking a ball from 12 yards into a space that’s 192 square feet is, according to math, not that hard. Throw in a goalie, and professional players still convert an average of 75 percent of the time.
That being said, the word “average” doesn’t apply to some players. Take Lionel Messi. Looking at his stats columns, you’d have a hard time finding any numbers that are average, that is until you hit his success percentage on penalty kicks. He’s Joe Six-Pack at 77%. Cristiano Ronaldo is making them at 89%. Cheers to him.
Messi obviously knows how to strike a ball, so what is it about the PK that brings his otherworldly skills back to Earth? If it’s not physical, the answer must be somewhere in his mind. Players put up a heroic aura despite their fragility, and greatness begets great failure. Some stars are miraculous in play, but from 12 yards out, all alone, faced with fulfilling their promise in a moment so poignant, even so in their favor, well, sometimes they can’t do it.
Let’s start with John Terry — Mr. Chelsea. The least qualified of the bunch we’ll look at. He’s a central defender, and for that, he gets a pass. He could have the best touch of any center back, but he still won’t measure up to the best strikers of the world when it comes to kicking a ball in the net. His DNA is different.
However, in the 2008 Champions League Final, the decisive moment in the shootout fell to him. If he scored his penalty, Chelsea would win and he would go down in club history as the first ever captain to bring home European gold.
During play, Chelsea had already hit the post and the crossbar. They were down to 10 men, but fought back bravely and sent the decision to penalty kicks. Before Terry, a few Chelsea PKs went in even after Man United’s keeper, Edwin van der Sar, got his hands on them. The bad luck had run out, good times to come. All Terry had to do was make this shot.
Terry slipped and pinged it off the post.
He stayed on the ground, his face between his knees. Who knows what he told himself? Probably nothing. In that moment, you don’t even want thoughts. You want to be completely alone. Chelsea lost, and years later, Terry said he still wakes up at night, reliving the moment.
To Roberto Baggio, 1994, the World Cup Final. When a player suits up for their country, it’s different than when they do for their club. It’s professional versus personal, and the Italians seem to understand this.
After 120 minutes, Baggio was the last Italian shooter, and he had to make his or Italy lost. Other guys missed before him, but none wore number 10. None were Roberto Baggio, world-class goalscorer. None of them had put the team, the country, on his back and taken them this far in the tournament. Now, one more step.
But what does all that baggage do to the 75% chance he has of making it? What does pressure do to that number? The player must go out and prove the world is right — that he is great. But there’s something about standing 12 yards dead center that makes even great ones crack. He skied it over.
Going high isn’t a bad idea though. The numbers support aiming for the top half of the net. It’s a matter of whether or not you can keep the ball from soaring. It’s high risk, high reward.
Messi walked back toward half-field. His goalkeeper, Sergio Romero, tried to console him, but Messi brushed him off. Two teammates walked to him and wanted to embrace, but Messi refused. He dropped to the ground, onto his back, and brought his legs up, then let them fall. He put his hands over his face. The penalties weren’t even over yet, only the first round was done, Argentina still could win. It didn’t matter to him though, and there’s maybe something wrong in that, but Messi was broken.
It was just a simple kick, 12 yards out and into a space that’s 192 square feet. It’s not supposed to be hard.
Baggio too has reported that he always carries this miss with him. His game of lightning sprints, close control of the ball, and goal scoring prowess mirrors Messi’s. They both are undersized, rough, tough, and roll off players as they attack the goal.
Flash to 2010, Baggio was outside the Camp Nou waiting amongst the crowd to get in and watch the Barcelona vs. Arsenal Champions League quarterfinal. Messi stole the night with a four goal romp, all mesmerizing finishes and video-game skills.
After the match there’s footage of Baggio going down into the stadium and into the Barca coaches’ office. He was chumming it up with Pep Guardiola when in walked a shirtless Messi, long-haired and boyish. The team had a great win that night, so Messi was chatty, for him, but really he looked like a child summoned to speak to the adults. After a little banter, mostly from Pep, Baggio told the young Argentine to keep his head and they embraced. He knew what the kid would face.
Messi has it worse than Baggio did and much worse than Terry. As usual for the superstar, Messi carries the hope of many other people: the other players, the coaching staff, the federation, his teammates, and all Argentines. But Messi reaches wider. He gets the downtrodden, the little boy in Afghanistan wearing his shirt made out of a trash bag. He has history on his back and he’s expected to destroy it and create it again. It’s more than anyone can safely hold. So when he steps up to take a penalty in the final of a major tournament, while wearing his country’s colors, the conditions change, the air is thin, and 75 percent starts sounding pretty good.
In the 2016 Copa America Final, Chile took their penalty first and missed. Messi was first for Argentina. Watch the videos people have posted on YouTube of their own recordings of the penalties, or of fans at home recording themselves watching it. When Messi starts the long walk from half-field to the penalty spot, you hear his name surf the crowd, or murmur through the families around their TVs. If it’s Argentinian fans, it’s excitement, anticipation, certainty. If it’s Chileans, it’s fear and respect.
Messi followed in the footsteps of Baggio. He soared it over.
Right when he missed, the predominant feeling among fans was disbelief. Argentina went silent. The hopeful went silent. It was a tragedy. It was horror. You felt for Messi, but you felt for yourself. You felt a cold paralysis. Something was wrong. Unless you were Chilean.