The 10 Most Gut-Wrenching Penalty Shootouts in World Cup History

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There are few things more dramatic in the world of sport than a penalty shootout at the World Cup. Even the most mean-spirited of neutral observers can’t help but feel for the players, who, having run themselves into the ground for 120 minutes, are called upon to step forward with the weight of a nation on their shoulders and perform a task that no one wants to perform.

It is a cruel way to end a game of soccer.

It inevitably comes down to individual errors and it always ends in tears. There are players who seem made for it, whose careers are built on the kind of confidence and steely resolve that nothing can shake. Then there are those who step up and place the ball on the spot with a look in their eyes that suggests that if they could go back in time and pursue a career in the postal service rather than take the penalty, they just might do so.

Below are 10 of the most memorable, the most gut-wrenching, and the most dramatic shootouts in World Cup history.

1. West Germany v France, 1982

The World Cup’s first ever penalty shootout. West Germany and France went into the 1982 World Cup as fierce rivals and met in a semi-final that proved to be one of the most memorable games of soccer the tournament has ever seen. There were legends on the pitch: Michel Platini, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Harald Schumacher. A French player, Patrick Battiston, was knocked out cold as a result of a wild challenge from the German keeper Schumacher, who went unpunished. Tempers flared.

The French came from behind to take the game into extra time and seemed to be coasting to the final 3-1 up when Rummenigge, nursing an injury, came on as a substitute and turned the tide. The game ended 3-3, and for the very first time, a World Cup match was decided by a penalty shootout. It went all the way to sudden death before the Germans came away victorious. Some call it the greatest game in the history of the competition.

2. France v Brazil, 1986

Michel Platini and the French were at the heart of another gripping penalty shootout four years later when they faced Brazil in the quarter-finals. The Brazilian side boasted several icons of the game in Zico, Socrates, and Cesar. The shootout, which came at the end of a 1-1 draw, could have been avoided altogether had Zico scored from the penalty spot during the game. His miss proved to be an ominous sign of what lay ahead for Brazil with Socrates and Cesar both failing in the shootout and handing the game to France. At the time of this writing, the Brazilians have not since lost a penalty shootout at the World Cup.

3. England v West Germany, 1990

This World Cup semi-final is among the most dramatic games of soccer to have taken place in this writer’s lifetime. It had it all: the tears of Paul Gascoigne, the thrilling end-to-end battle of two teams led by iconic strikers (Jurgen Klinsmann and Gary Lineker), a last-gasp equalizer, and a penalty shootout that still haunts the English people. It is an event tattooed on a national consciousness, a game of soccer credited with causing a nation to fall in love with its team.

The tension was immense, the prize, a place in the World Cup Final. The Germans were clinical, the English were spilling over with grit and heart. Chris Waddle walloped his penalty over the crossbar, and England haven’t gone as far in the World Cup or won a single World Cup penalty shootout since.

4. Argentina v Italy, 1990

The other 1990 semi-final ended in similarly painful fashion for the tournament’s hosts. Italy had won all five of their previous matches without conceding a single goal (even if they barely overcame the Irish in the quarter-finals), while Argentina had scraped through with a lot of luck. The Argentineans’ quarter-final with Yugoslavia had gone to penalties, with their goalkeeper, Goycochea, making two vital saves. Here again he made the difference in the shootout and the Argentineans progressed, almost universally regarded as undeserving finalists. The Italians were out, and already being home, didn’t have far to travel.

5. Brazil v Italy, 1994

A World Cup Final is no place for a penalty shootout. The ultimate sporting prize, carrying the dreams of millions, should not come down to an individual error. Roberto Baggio had dragged Italy into the final almost single-handed. They had little right to be there but for his efforts.

They got off to the shakiest of starts in the tournament, losing to the Republic of Ireland in Giants Stadium, and coming from behind against Nigeria in the second round. Almost every decisive goal they scored came from Baggio. The final was tense and messy, with both teams aiming for a fourth World Cup title. Scoreless after 120 minutes, it went to penalties and the decisive kick fell to Baggio. He casually chipped it about two feet over the crossbar and hung his head in disbelief. The World Cup was Brazil’s.

6. Argentina v England, 1998

This quarter-final was memorable for a number of reasons: the two penalties awarded in the opening 10 minutes, an 18-year-old Michael Owen tearing through the Argentinean defense to score an unforgettable goal; a young and petulant David Beckham needlessly getting sent off, putting his team in survival mode for the rest of the contest and a palpable feeling of dread that seemed to overtake the English team and their fans as the game edged toward another penalty shootout. It was the latest in a string of heartbreaks, and one that felt all the more raw because it was a game England could, and arguably should, have won.

7. Spain v South Korea, 2002

In 2002, Spain were a team on the verge of greatness—a greatness no one could have adequately foretold. Before they were serial champions, however, the Spanish were serial strugglers. They scraped through a tense shootout with the Irish in the second round, but their quarter-final with South Korea was all the more alarming for them.

South Korea, one of the tournament’s hosts, had no right to be in the quarter-finals, brushing shoulders with the game’s elite, but they took Spain all the way to 120 minutes and then proceeded to keep their cool and knock them out of the World Cup with a flawless set of penalties. The Spanish went home with a sense that they might never live up to their potential. Had they known what the future held, they might not have looked so devastated.

8. France v Italy, 2006

This was a heated World Cup Final, a cagey affair made most memorable by an off-the-ball incident involving one man slamming his head into another man’s chest. Zinedine Zidane was minutes away from the end of his career as the focal point of the French national team, and minutes away from leading them into a penalty shootout. It had been an underwhelming World Cup. It needed an iconic moment. He gave it one. He head-butted Marco Materazzi in the chest and was shown a red card.

Zidane’s shell-shocked teammates, who had been dominating proceedings in extra time, had to see out the game a man down and take it to penalties. Italy won the shootout and the French were left to wonder how different it might have been had their captain, who had coolly scored from the penalty spot during the match, remained on the pitch.

9. Uruguay v Ghana, 2010

Luis Suarez  went into the 2010 World Cup as a relatively unknown entity on the world stage, but in the dying seconds of extra time in Uruguay’s quarter final with Ghana he announced himself to the world in what would become typically controversial style.

Preventing what should have been a winning goal for Ghana by putting up his hand and stopping the ball from crossing the line, he robbed a nation of its rightful victory. The infringement was penalized in the only way it could be—a red card and a penalty—but the winds of fate were cruel that day. Asamoah Gyan’s penalty struck the crossbar, and Suarez could be seen celebrating brazenly on the touchline.

A shootout followed with Uruguay carrying the momentum of what had just happened and Ghana reeling in disbelief. The whole world watched in outrage as the wrong team went home in the cruelest way possible, and a star was born, a cartoon villain who would be the in the spotlight for years to come.

10. Brazil v Chile, 2014

This year’s World Cup has been a showcase of all the things that make soccer the greatest game on Earth. There has been an avalanche of goals, a series of heroic goalkeeping displays, and so many hard-fought battles between the Davids and Goliaths of the soccer world. But there has also been an undercurrent of darkness—FIFA, with its appalling levels of corruption, hangs over the tournament like a dark cloud, and the economic toll that it will all take on the nation of Brazil is hard to grasp. The result of this backdrop is an unreasonable amount of pressure resting on the shoulders of the host nation.

The least they can do for their people, it seems to be implied, is win the damn thing. Going out in the round of 16 to Chile would have been unthinkable, and the truth is Brazil came very close to doing so. When the referee blew his whistle and penalties loomed, every player seemed to wear it on his face. This was a moment of reckoning, and the tension was palpable. In the end, the hosts held their nerve and the Chileans slumped away in defeat, having come painfully close to an unprecedented victory.

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