Euro ‘76: How Antonin Panenka reinvented the modern penalty

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Antonin Panenka penalty Euro 1976

It was Uli Hoeneß who opened the door for Czechoslovakia. Taker of the eighth spot kick of the 1976 European Championship final penalty shootout; taker of West Germany’s fourth.

Back-to-back European and world champions in 1972 and 1974, in the shock absence of the Netherlands for the showpiece event, Helmut Schön’s side were the heavy favourites to complete a hat-trick of major tournament successes, at Belgrade’s cavernous Red Star Stadium.

Up against opponents who had failed to even qualify for either of those preceding tournaments, West Germany seemingly had only themselves to beat.

There was a certain sense of sluggishness about the holders, however, and despite finding themselves in one of the weakest qualifying groups, West Germany had struggled to rise to the occasion, drawing twice against Greece, only narrowly winning away to Malta, and finding Bulgaria to be stubborn foes.

In comparison, Czechoslovakia had shrugged off an opening night 3-0 loss to England, at Wembley, dropping just one further point, and beating Don Revie’s side in Bratislava, on their way to a place in the two-legged quarter-finals.

It was with a very defined sense of momentum that Václav Ježek’s team symbolically brushed past the Soviet Union, in order to reach what was to be the last four-nation European Championship finals.

Eight years earlier, Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet Union had led a Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, to quell Alexander Dubček’s Prague Spring initiative. This had been a movement designed to remove many of the shackles of communism, and to provide a path to eventual democracy.

Viewed as a threat to Moscow, a forced regime change instead occurred, to protect the stifling status quo, and to remove the new freedoms that Czechs and Slovaks had been shocked, yet delighted to have been gifted.

As a testament to how forward thinking he had been, many of Dubček’s ideals would be repackaged two decades later and utilised by Mikhail Gorbachev, when he began the domino effect that brought the ultimate end of the Eastern Bloc.

All of this will have been fresh in the minds of Czechoslovakia’s players, as they cruised to a 4-2 aggregate victory against their oppressors, picking off a 2-2 draw in the second leg, in Kyiv. Meanwhile, West Germany had been focussed enough to overcome Spain.

With Yugoslavia as hosts, and the two teams to have contested the 1974 World Cup final also present, Czechoslovakia were very much the rank outsiders going into the finals.
Given little hope of beating a star-studded Netherlands side, in the semi-final, at the Stadion Maksimir, in Zagreb, when Czechoslovakia’s surprise first half goalscorer, Anton Ondruš, then levelled the scoreline with a spectacular own goal with 17 minutes remaining, there appeared to be only one obvious outcome from there.

Down to ten men, since Jaroslav Pollák had carelessly got himself sent off, during the early exchanges of the second half, Czechoslovak hopes had seemed to rest upon them being able to doggedly hold on to their narrow advantage until the final whistle.

Any hint of an equaliser would leave Ježek’s team with too many plates to spin, against opposition that had Johan Cruyff, Rob Rensenbrink, and Johnny Rep chasing down goals. Ondruš’ calamitous equaliser should have been the steppingstone for the Netherlands to reach a final, that they had taken for granted of being involved in.

Within three minutes of Czechoslovakia gifting them the equaliser, the Netherlands were down to ten men themselves, when Johan Neeskens needlessly received his marching orders.

Antonin Panenka penalty Euro 1976

A defined levelling of the playing field, it was Czechoslovakia that took extra time in their stride, through strikes from Zdeněk Nehoda with six minutes remaining, and František Veselý in the final seconds.

This after the Netherlands had been reduced to nine men, when the substitute Willem van Hanegem became the third player sent off, by the perpetually controversial Welsh referee, Clive Thomas.

Script very much not having been read, with not much more than 25 minutes of the second semi-final remaining, it seemed as if Yugoslavia were going to be joining Czechoslovakia in the final, having shot into a 2-0 lead within the first half hour.

Yet, Schön’s players turned the game around to prevail, 4-2 in extra time, in what was shaping up to be a wonderfully open and attacking tournament.

The catalyst for Czechoslovakia, in their semi-final win, was the subtle conductor Antonin Panenka. Creator of their first goal, he had been the calming influence when his team were down to ten men.

Much more than the name of an iconic penalty, Panenka had been a pivotal figure during qualifying, scoring his nations’ second goal in the first leg of the quarter-final, against the Soviet Union, and prior to that as the driving force with a hat-trick against Cyprus, that put Czechoslovakia’s first points on the board, in response to their defeat to England.

With the third-place play off having produced five goals, the final had much to live up to, given the fluidity of the three games the 1976 European Championship had already delivered.

It did not disappoint.

No matter what Schön’s team threw at Ivo Viktor, the Czechoslovak goalkeeper, he was equal to it, as he pulled off half a dozen world-class saves, from Rainer Bonhof and Erich Beer, which looked set to help Ježek’s underdogs over the line within the 90 minutes.

Then came a last gasp equalizer, with a Bernd Hölzenbein header, from a desperately swung in corner.

No more goals added in extra time, it came down to that duel from 12 yards, and after Hoeneß had missed, the stage was set for Panenka.

The run up, the cloud of chalk dust, the clipped ball that seemed to float for so long that Panenka might just be able to jog alongside it, and a vanquished Sepp Maier, the European Championship had its most iconic moment.

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