Football: A distant horizon, 12 yards away: Any player would expect to score from a penalty. And for a multi-million pound striker like a Vialli or a Maradona it's surely a formality. Not quite. Richard Williams reports

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WHAT HAPPENS, they say, is that everything goes quiet. In the midst of maybe a hundred thousand people, shouting and whistling and banging drums, there's a stillness in the mind of the penalty-taker.

The thing is, there's no excuse. There's you, and a ball, and a net, and a goalkeeper. From 12 yards, you can hardly miss. And when you're being paid silly money, the sort of wage that would buy you a new BMW every week of the year, you're not supposed to miss. Most of all when the whole season depends on it.

But there's no guarantee. Even if you're the man with the hardest shot in the country. Even if you're the second most expensive player in history. Even if everything is at stake. It happened last weekend to Stuart Pearce and Gianluca Vialli, who fit those descriptions. And it happened in the most curiously similar circumstances: a double humiliation, a double catastrophe.

Saturday at the City Ground, Nottingham. It's the 90th minute. Pearce, Forest's captain, the man with the most ferocious shot in the English game, steps up to take a penalty. His team are bottom of the Premier League, and 1-2 down to Southampton. The Forest players and their 19,000 crowd celebrate the award of the penalty, knowing that this goal, and the league point it represents, will get them out of jail.

But now Pearce does a strange and uncharacteristic thing. Instead of racing up and smashing the ball, he moves back a couple of yards, bows his head, takes two short paces and side- foots it quite gently. For the Southampton goalkeeper, it's an easy save. And that's it: final whistle, no points for Forest, now even more firmly fixed to the bottom of the table.

Turin, 24 hours later: Juventus versus Milan. Second against first in Serie A, with a mere two points between them. On the outcome of this match rests the credibility of Gianni Agnelli's challenge to Silvio Berlusconi, a battle between billionaire industrialists, with more sub-plots than the Borgias.

Here, too, it's the 90th minute. Once again, the away team are leading by a single goal: 0-1. The 65,000 crowd vibrates with anticipation. Vialli, hands on hips, the captain's bandanna tied raffishly around his left arm, steps up to the penalty spot. An equalising goal; a point; and life will go on.

But what does Vialli do? He takes two short steps and hits the ball weakly with the side of his right foot. The crowd cries out in despair. Vialli sinks to his knees. He knows, and they know, that in the 11th week of the season, the championship is as good as over.

'YOU LOOK at both those penalties, Pearce and Vialli, and it's the same old story,' Peter Lorimer said. 'When you're three up, taking a penalty is the easiest thing in the world. When you're one down in a big match, with a minute to go, it's a different matter.'

A star of Don Revie's Leeds United, Peter Lorimer was the hot-shot of his generation, with a career total of 237 goals - about 15 per cent of them, he thinks, from penalties. But he's also remembered for his failure to convert a penalty in a 1975 FA Cup tie against non-league Wimbledon, a miss that put Leeds out of the competition. The enemy, he said, is changing your mind.

'I felt that both Pearce and Vialli showed indecision. It's the sort of thing that happens when you're lacking confidence. I used to decide where I was going to put it and then concentrate on getting a good clean strike. Once you get a doubt in your mind, you usually miss. Against Wimbledon, I changed my mind. I had a quick look up, to see what he was doing, and I saw him move, so I thought I'd put it to the other side. And I didn't hit it at all.'

Liam Brady agreed. 'It's a very big error not to have your mind exactly clear about what you're going to do,' he said. The Celtic manager, who once wore the white and black of Juventus with distinction, watched last Sunday's match in some displeasure. 'I wouldn't let Vialli near a penalty,' he said. 'He's missed them time and again.'

To take a penalty from a short run- up, Brady said, is normally a sign of the player's supreme self-confidence. 'But sometimes, when it's a very pressurised moment in a game, even a great player can get frightened. He can just want it to be all over.'

AT THIS POINT, the memory spools back to 1986, to a hot afternoon in Guadalajara. It's Brazil versus France, two teams filled with football genius: Zico, Socrates and Alemao on the one side; Platini, Tigana and Giresse on the other. It's a World Cup quarter-final: sudden death for one lot.

Zico, a veteran now, his creative impulses held in reserve for special circumstances, comes on in the second half with the teams tied at 1-1. And when Brazil are given a penalty, he's called forward to convert it. But he doesn't. With strain showing on his handsome face, he takes three quick strides and pushes the ball to the goalkeeper's left. It's saved.

Then something even stranger happens. Extra time fails to bring a result, and there's a penalty shoot-out. First up is Socrates, Brazil's tall, aristocratic captain. He doesn't run up at all, but takes one step and side-foots the ball into the goalkeeper's dive. Brazil are behind before they've even started.

By the time Platini's turn comes, the score in the shoot-out is 3-3. The French captain's success will practically assure victory. It's his 30th birthday. He's in his prime. But now the maestro takes a little run and side-foots the ball; even before it soars over the bar, his hands are flying to his head in remorse.

In the end, he's lucky. Brazil miss again and France go into the semi- finals. But a game in which Zico, Socrates and Platini miss penalties, and miss them in such an apparently lackadaisical way . . . what's going on?

IT HAPPENS to the greatest. Think of Diego Armando Maradona, fluffing a penalty in a World Cup quarter-final shoot-out against Yugoslavia in 1990. Four lazy strides, like a playground show-off, followed by the pouts and the tears of a spoiled child.

And Gary Lineker, the most reliable English striker of modern times, the man who nervelessly blasted two penalties past the Cameroon goalkeeper to take his country into the 1990 World Cup semi-finals. But think of him at Wembley last May, against Brazil, faced with the kick that he knew might be his last chance to go level with Bobby Charlton's all-time England goalscoring record. Think of Lineker shortening his run-up, trying a gentle chip, scuffing the grass, giving the keeper no problem at all.

There is, he said last week, a simple reason for the short, seemingly careless run-up. 'Nowadays, all goalkeepers move before the kick is taken. They either feint or they dive. That's just the truth. And when did you last see a kick retaken? So if you only take a couple of paces, you don't give the goalkeeper so much time to anticipate, and he has less time to move. I tinkered with it in training, but I found it stuttery and uncomfortable. If you do it all the time, like John Fashanu at Wimbledon, it's probably OK.'

The trouble is, he said, that nowadays you have to change your technique all the time, thanks to television. 'Penalty-takers watch goalkeepers, and goalkeepers watch penalty-takers. I'd watched the Brazilian goalkeeper before that match. I decided to chip it into the middle of the goal, which I'd already successfully done four times that season. If you smash it at the middle, sometimes it'll hit the goalkeeper's legs. But if you float it, there's a good chance they'll be lying on the ground. I just got it wrong, that's all.'

THERE WERE something like 60 million people watching on television when John Aldridge, an authentic goal- machine at many clubs and for the Republic of Ireland, became the first man to miss a penalty in an FA Cup Final at Wembley, for Liverpool against Wimbledon in 1988. Wimbledon won 1-0. 'I hit it well enough,' Aldridge remembered, 'but the goalkeeper psyched me out. He took two steps forward, and then dived - it was tucked well into the corner, but it was a good height for him. I should have put it lower, I suppose. But he'd shortened my kick from 12 yards to 10.'

He saw Pearce's miss. 'I don't know what he was doing. In the last World Cup in 1990, against Romania, the same thing happened. We beat them on penalties, 5-4. I knew the last lad, Timofte, was going to miss. He took a short run, at 90 degrees to the ball. We all looked at each other: is he serious? He hit it to the goalkeeper's right, not very hard. I think it's the wrong way to take one. You want to get as much power as you can.'

But when Chris Waddle tried that, in the World Cup semi-final shoot-out against Germany in 1990, he missed too. He'd changed his mind. 'It wasn't nerves. Originally I was going to do what I usually do, which is place it. I'd been watching the keeper, and he'd been going to the right. But then Stuart Pearce hit it to the left, and hit the keeper on the leg, and I changed my plan. I thought, Christ, I've just got to make sure I hit the target. So I put the ball down and said to myself, Just blast it] If it had been a yard lower, it would have been probably the best penalty in the World Cup . . .'

Opinions on technique vary. Denis Law, one of the coldest finishers of all, is against a short run-up precisely because it doesn't give you time to think. 'If you go back to the edge of the area, that gives you six yards, a fairly decent run, which means you've got time to change your mind before you hit it, according to what the goalkeeper's doing.' Despite what Lorimer and Waddle say about changing your mind? 'Well, then, I suppose it depends on the make-up of the individual.'

IT WAS John Aldridge who first mentioned the business of everything going quiet. And that's when, perhaps for the only time in the match, you can hear yourself thinking.

'It's more like playing a golf shot or serving in a tennis match,' said John Syer, the sports psychologist, who has worked with many footballers. 'The ball's dead, and there's a period in which the kicker can prepare - or not prepare. He can use a routine, or choose to vary it. Players have their own patterns, whether they're aware of them or not, and those patterns can be affected by the situation they find themselves in. Their attention can be drawn away from the routine - by the fact that it's the last minute of the game, for instance.'

Syer thinks that the failures of Pearce, Vialli, Zico and the rest might have their origin in muscular tension. 'They may be aware at some level that if they're physically tense they simply won't kick the ball properly. Perhaps, knowing this, they let themselves relax - and, since there's a connection between physical and mental tension, they relax mentally in order to let themselves relax physically. And then perhaps they tense up again in the instant before they kick the ball.'

Denis Law remembered watching Zico in Mexico, and thinking that he missed his penalty through a lack of confidence. 'He looked like he was thinking, 'If I can just get this over with, it'll be all right.' All players lack confidence at times. I mean, take Vialli. Was he playing well in that game on Sunday? No? There you are, then. He was just trying to get it over with.'

Maybe, though, there's another dimension to this. Perhaps it's to do with the pressure on a very highly paid athlete, a star player of a team game suddenly exposed to an individual test in a frozen moment. He knows that he's expected to do the job. But more than that: his reputation means that he's expected to achieve it without the effort that would be apparent in the attempt of a normal mortal. Without, in fact, seeming to try. So, in that time when everything goes quiet, there's an extra conflict, a little more tension, pulling at his nerves, requiring him to justify himself. It's a theory, anyway.

(Photograph omitted)