Stefan Kuntz remembers the moment well.
He says the Euro 96 semi-final between England and Germany at Wembley was the highlight of his career. The 20-year anniversary of the game was on Sunday, and it’s fair to say the repercussions of the result have been longer-lasting for England than for Germany.
The game had finished 1-1 and it went to a penalty shootout. Kuntz had asked the coach, Berti Vogts, to put him fifth in the list of penalty-takers for one specific reason: he was hoping that the shootout would be over by the time it came round to him.
Kuntz was only playing because Jürgen Klinsmann had been injured in a bad-tempered quarter-final against Croatia. But he had scored Germany’s equaliser against England and had an extra-time header ruled out for a foul. “Never a foul,” he says.
As he watched England score all five of their penalties, he became angry. “It was terrible for me. I was fifth because I never wanted to take one, and when it came to it, my penalty was the most important of all. During that walk, you are so alone, so afraid. I had to find a way to conquer my nerves. So I made myself angry. That way, I forgot about the nerves.”
Kuntz thought about his children, who were then five and seven, and how their school-mates would tease them if he missed the penalty. “I got so angry at the thought of these clowns upsetting my kids. I thought: ‘Don’t do this to your family!’” Kuntz, left-footed, hit Germany’s best penalty, high to his natural side. He was so wound up that afterwards he forgot to smile. Just a deep breath as he returned to the centre-circle.
It was 5-5. Sudden death. Next up was Gareth Southgate, whose weak shot was saved by Andreas Köpke. Andreas Möller scored the winning penalty (even though the Germans had still not decided who would take that penalty until Southgate missed; at that point, Möller ran forward before anyone could object).
England lost the match. More significantly, it was the moment that England’s psychological issue with penalty shootouts took seed. The trauma of this defeat was far greater than in 1990, when West Germany beat them in the World Cup semi-final on penalties.
This time around, England were the home nation, it was Germany, and on penalties, again. The press had been full of military metaphors – The Mirror’s “Achtung Surrender!” headline before the game took it too far and as a result, team sponsors Vauxhall pulled their advertising from the paper – but once again, England had fallen short.
“There was additional pressure because of the meaning of the game, the fact that it was against Germany. We knew that the media had turned this game into a war but for us it was never like that,” Kuntz says.
“Look, even our parents were not involved in the war, it was two generations away from us, so we did not understand the headlines. It would have been more helpful for the England team if it was not about war or history, but if they just concentrated on football. I think the media built up this game too much and that added to the pressure for the players.”
It was England’s great misfortune that they had to endure another shootout defeat so soon after, at the 1998 World Cup, against another nation with whom the country had a complicated sporting and political history: Argentina.
Would this complex exist if England had lost to another nation on penalties in 1996? Switzerland, say? Or the Czech Republic? Alex Gordon is a professional semiotician and chief executive of Sign Salad, a cultural insight agency that looks for meaning in everyday events and symbols.
“It’s clear to me that international football is the modern-day replacement for battle,” Gordon says. “We see that not just with the language used in football reporting – “from the camp”, “gaining territory”, that kind of thing – but also with national anthems and exchanging of pennants before matches.
“A penalty shootout is critical to the way a nation views itself. Its whole cultural narrative is being written as it takes place, and the national myth is being reinforced or transformed. In England’s case, it absolutely matters because every loss on penalties is a reminder of our loss of Empire; the penalty defeat is about the loss of our global status.”
Gordon also links the clarity and simplicity of the penalty’s one-on-one combat, especially in today’s social media-driven crowd-sourced landscape, to a romantic appeal that can be traced back to Hector, Lancelot and Robin Hood. “Historically the duel is about chivalry and romance, all of which are true of the penalty,” Gordon says.
“There’s the respect of waiting till your opponent is ready; the romantic stories of penalty heroes and villains. And masculinity plays a huge role; only the brave take a penalty, but missing one is like losing your alpha-maleness. Like the lion who loses a fight and is banished from his pride: this is about the essential structure of the human and animal tribal system.”
England have not won a shootout in the 20 years since that dramatic summer’s night at Wembley. Their last two European Championship knockout matches have ended the same way: with shootout defeats, by Italy (2012) and Portugal (2004).
As Roy Hodgson’s team prepare to face Iceland on Monday, and a possible quarter-final against France, the spectre of spot-kicks looms large.
Kuntz has some advice, even if it does come 20 years too late: “Sometimes when you’re at home, you can feel the doubt of your own fans. I wonder if Southgate thought: ‘Even the fans don’t think I will score this,’” he said. “What is in your mind is often what will happen, and controlling your mentality is a huge part of the game.”
This is an edited extract from the updated paperback version of Ben Lyttleton’s book Twelve Yards: The Art & Psychology of the Perfect Penalty (Bantam Press)
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