Czechs Today Antonin Panenka - the footballer Pele described as "either a genius or a madman"
On this day (20/6/1976) thirty one years ago, Czech footballer Antonin Panenka wrote himself into football history books by scoring the decisive goal for Czechoslovakia in a penalty shoot-out after the final of the European Cup of Nations against West Germany ended in a draw. This goal was undoubtedly one of the greatest moments in Czech sporting history and it made Panenka a household name. In this edition of Czechs Today, we look at the career of this great footballer and recall his stunning penalty kick, which sealed Czechoslovakia's only ever victory in a major international football tournament.
Antonin Panenka was a skilful attacking midfielder who is still remembered today for the cheeky manner in which he took the crucial penalty that won the European Championships in 1976 - calmly waiting for the German goalkeeper to dive before gently slotting the ball in the centre of the goal.
Nobody had ever seen a penalty like it before and its sheer impudence drew lots of comment in press reports all around the world. One French journalist even went so far as to describe Panenka as a "poet" for the brazen style in which he took the kick.
"Nobody had ever taken a penalty like that before. I came up with the idea because I used to practice penalties after training at Bohemians with our goalkeeper Zdenek Hruska. To make it interesting, we used to wager a beer or a bar of chocolate on each penalty. Unfortunately, because he was such a good keeper, I ended up losing money as he kept saving more shots than I could score. As a result I ended up lying awake at night thinking about how I could get the upper hand. I eventually realised that the goalkeeper always waits until just before the last moment to try and anticipate where the ball is going and dives just before it's kicked so he can reach the shot in time. I decided that it was probably easier to score by feinting to shoot and then just gently tapping the ball into the middle of the goal. In this way the keeper had always dived by the time the ball was kicked and had no chance of recovering in time to save the shot. I tried it out on the training ground and it worked like a charm. The only problem was that I started getting a lot fatter because I won back all those beers and chocolates."
It's one thing to take a penalty like Panenka did on the training ground; it's quite another to take a penalty like that when it is the deciding strike in the final of a major tournament. Even to this day, many football commentators are amazed at how Panenka managed to hold his nerve to take a shot like that, especially as he would have looked extremely silly had the keeper not dived. The player himself says he never had any doubt that he would score.
"About two years before the European Championships I began trying it. At first I did it during friendly matches and then I did it once or twice during Czechoslovak league matches. It worked so well that I decided that I would use the technique if I got a penalty at the European Championships. Of course, it was pure chance that the opportunity came in the final after the Germans equalised in the last minute and then, when it went to penalties, the German player missed his kick before it was my turn. It was like the will of god. I was one thousand percent certain that I would take the penalty in that way and that I would score."
In last year's World Cup Final, legendary Czech footballer Zinedine Zidane emulated Antonin Panenka by converting a similar penalty at the start of the match. It is a strike which is listed several times on video sites like YouTube as "La Panenka de Zidane". The "Panenka" is now a part of any serious penalty taker's repertoire of kicks and the Czech footballer's strike has been copied by other top players like Italy's Francesco Totti and Portugal's Helder Postiga. So how does he feel about this kick being his major legacy in football?
"Several times I've seen a player take a penalty like that on television, and every commentator in every country never fails to describe it as a Panenka penalty, which is naturally very gratifying. I also remember that the greatest player ever, Pele, said at the time that anyone who took a penalty like that must be either a genius or a madman. I certainly hope I'm not a madman so I assume what he said about me was OK."
Many people who saw Panenka play week in week out for Bohemians when he was in his prime claim that he was indeed a footballing genius, who was renowned in this country for the quality of his passing and brilliance of his free kicks.
Unfortunately, he is perhaps only really remembered around the world today for his penalty because the restrictions of the communist era meant he never got a chance to regularly parade his skills on a bigger stage. The strict transfer system for football in communist Czechoslovakia meant that he was never permitted to play for one of the top Czechoslovak teams of the 1970s like Dukla Prague or Sparta Prague, who frequently featured in Europe's top club competitions.
Instead, Panenka spent the best years as a footballer at Bohemians, whom he had signed for as a child and who insisted on retaining his services for 23 years before eventually allowing him to move to Rapid Vienna when he was 32 years of age. Although, Bohemians never challenged for major honours while Panenka was at the club, he is not bitter about the lack of medals and trophies in his locker and insists that he has more important criteria for gauging how successful his career was:
"My credo and belief has always been to entertain the spectators. First of all, I had to enjoy myself and like the football that I was playing, but I also wanted to give fans who are working all week something that would please them when they came to watch on Sunday, which they would talk about all day in the pubs afterwards. I always tried to provide this for the spectators and I firmly hope and believe that I didn't fail in this respect, because I always had a very warm relationship with the fans, both at Bohemians and in Austria where I was very popular. I think even fans of other clubs like Sparta and Slavia liked coming to watch me play. For me that was the greatest triumph of my career."
Although proud of his positive relationship with the football fans who watched him at Bohemians and Rapid Vienna, Panenka says another satisfying aspect of his career is the fact that he also managed to win the respect of his peers:
"I was picked several times for various World or European XIs and that was a huge honour for me. It was great that a not-so-well-known player like me from Czechoslovakia could suddenly find himself sharing a dressing room with the likes of Bobby Charlton, Eusebio, Beckenbauer, Blokhin and Cruyff. It was one of the high points of my career that I could play with players of that calibre and that they treated me as their equal."
Panenka actually became one of the first Czechoslovak players to ply his trade abroad, when he was allowed to leave the country at 32 years of age to play for Rapid Vienna in the more politically relaxed era of the 1980s. Although he received offers at the time from clubs in Spain and from other big leagues, Panenka says his relatively advanced age meant that Rapid Vienna were a natural choice.
"I think I made the right decision. Naturally I would probably have made a lot more money in Spain or in other countries but then again I was very satisfied in Austria. I have very fond memories of my time there. We enjoyed success in sporting terms but what was the most important thing for me is that the Austrian fans took me to their hearts. From that point of view I would see my time there as very successful".
Antonin Panenka actually won two league titles as well as an Austrian Cup with Rapid Vienna, and he also made an appearance in the 1985 European Cup Winners Cup final against Everton. It was at fitting coda to the career of an extremely talented footballer who - if he had been born twenty years later - would probably have made millions and won a hatful of medals at a top European club.
Surprisingly, Panenka says he is not envious of the millionaire celebrity lifestyle enjoyed by so many top footballers today:
"Naturally, football today is different. Players today have a lot better terms and conditions and they also make a lot more money. But on the other hand many of them haven't won a European Championship like I did, so it all balances out. I would also say that we had a more romantic life than they do today. Nowadays it's like a terrible scramble for money and success."
After retiring from football at the age of 38 in 1987, Panenka has since worked as a coach and a television pundit. He is currently president of Bohemians and still has a very warm relationship with the club's fans, who simply refer to him affectionately as "Tonda".
Although Panenka affection for Bohemians is also obvious, he admits that he would have liked the chance to prove himself at a major football club like Manchester United or Real Madrid had the opportunity arisen when he was in his prime. Nevertheless, all things considered, he says he has no real regrets about his playing career.
"I can't say I have any disappointments. I have lived a very
beautiful life and travelled the entire world. The most beautiful thing
about my life and career is that my hobby became my job. The fact that I
was able to make a living doing what I loved doing is fantastic. Not many
people manage to do that."