GLENN Hoddle was wrong – penalties are not a lottery. Well, except in England’s case, where the odds of winning a shoot-out are roughly 14 million to one. But a lottery implies a test of luck, whereas what Barry Davies always used to call “a penalty competition” is distinct as a test of nerve.
Hoddle claimed during the build-up to the 1998 World Cup that there was no point in practising penalties because it was impossible to recreate the pressure of a shoot-out. Which, to my mind, was always a bit like saying there’s no point practising free kicks, or defending at corners.
You’ll remember how Hoddle’s England side were eliminated from that World Cup.
Ghana’s players will know all about the difference between testing your luck and your nerve by now. They spent Thursday night watching the roulette wheel in action at a Sun City casino. They spent Friday night losing their nerve and watching a World Cup semi-final experience slip away in the most agonising way imaginable.
Their preparation for their first-ever World Cup quarter-final, against Uruguay in Johannesburg, attracted attention because it was so odd. Coach Milovan Rajevac let his players go out to the casino, and they didn’t have to be back at their hotel until 1am – unless they were among the substitutes, in which case they didn’t have to be back until 2am.
Jonathan ‘not John, and I’m not related to him either’ Mensah explained before the game: “Our coach gives us a lot of freedom. He trusts us. We come to the casino but we don’t know how to gamble. And we’ve not been drinking alcohol either.”
Gambling at a casino is fairly simple, Jonathan: 1) Chuck away lots of money. 2) Chuck away lots more. 3) Run up huge debts that you haven’t a hope in hell of paying off. 4) Call Ocean Finance.
Ghana’s late night didn’t seem to do them any harm. They certainly didn’t tire in extra-time after Diego Forlan’s swerving free kick for Uruguay had cancelled out Sulley Muntari’s swerving opener for Ghana. (Oh, how the jabulani worked its mischief.)
Indeed, Ghana finished the 120 minutes stronger than their opponents. And then, in the 121st, came their big chance. Luis Suarez handled Dominic Aidiyah’s goalbound shot on the line, and was rightly sent off – and all Asamoah Gyan had to do was score the penalty.
Gyan has had plenty of penalty practice at this World Cup, having converted two out of two in the group stages. But when his big chance came to take Ghana into the last four, he blew it. Hit the bar. Perhaps Hoddle had a point after all.
Uruguay, of course, won the shoot-out. Gyan scored, but John ‘not Jonathan’ Mensah took one of the feeblest spot-kicks ever seen at a World Cup – which was stopped by Fernando Muslera, who also saved from Aidiyah.
But the most extraordinary penalty was the winning one, from Uruguay’s Sebastian Abreu, chipped into the middle of the goal as Ghana keeper Richard Kingson dived to his right. Now that really was gambling. A night in a casino with Abreu would, I reckon, be a hair-raising experience. It was a hair-raising night at Soccer City.