Alex Scott on World Cup 2014: I know penalty shoot-out pain, but you can’t blame those who don’t take one

It’s human not to want to let people down

A few weeks ago, in Arsenal’s FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea, we had a corner in extra-time. I don’t usually go up for corners and as Chelsea pulled everyone back I was left alone by the halfway line. I had a moment to think and it dawned on me that the game may go to penalties and I asked myself: “Am I going to take one?”

The play resumed before I had an answer and we won in extra-time so it didn’t matter, but one of my team-mates said afterwards that the thought of penalties was making her nervous and she had hoped she would not have to take one. Even before penalties start, the thought of them can affect players and I’m sure it was in the minds of the Dutch and Argentine players on Wednesday night.

I had huge sympathy for the Netherlands after they lost because it is a very cruel way to go out of a World Cup. I’ve been there. In 2011 England were knocked out of the Women’s World Cup in the quarter-final by France on penalties. We had practised them religiously. After every training session we took a penalty so we would be prepared. But whatever you do, nothing can replicate the real thing, no matter how many you take in training. In training you do not have the nation watching, the crowd cheering or trying to put you off, there is no pressure of missing and then you are out!

We had never beaten France but we were leading 1-0 until they equalised in the 85th minute. We were devastated but held out to take the game to penalties. By then I had been substituted with injury. We were in a huddle and Hope Powell, our manager, asked for volunteers. Not enough people put their hand up so she had to ask again.

I remember seeing Claire Rafferty, who was playing her first World Cup match and had come on as sub, raise her hand but I think Hope was hoping other players would step up so Claire, who was not very experienced, would not be needed.

Kelly Smith and Casey Stoney volunteered, then Karen Carney said that she wanted the second one. Faye White, the captain, came forward and that was the five.

They went off towards the centre circle while I took my place on the sidelines arm-in-arm with team-mates, where I remember closing my eyes and saying a little prayer.

Our goalkeeper Karen Bardsley had been saving penalties in training and I believed that she would save one in the shoot-out. To see her save the first was a dream. I felt like this was it, this was our time to finally beat the French.

 

Kelly took our first. She was so badly injured she could hardly walk in extra-time, so to see her step up was an inspiration. I remember thinking: “How the heck is she even going to take a run-up?” I think adrenaline took over her body and she hit a perfect penalty.

Karen buried her one and things were looking great. I remember turning to our kit man, David Lee, trying to figure out how many were left and the whole equation of it. When you look back at it, the maths is so simple, but in the heat of things your brain cannot think quickly enough to figure things out. On Wednesday I noticed one of the Dutch players holding up fingers to indicate the score to a team-mate during the shoot-out.

When Claire missed, I still believed we could win. Karen was so close to saving the next one. Then Faye went. Faye is a positive thinker and, as always, she was trying to lead by example, but in training Faye had missed more then she had scored. I remember just trying to figure things out on the side, and the reality set in that this was a pressure penalty. Miss and we were out. My belly got butterflies. It all happened in slow motion seeing the ball hit the crossbar, seeing the French run to their goalkeeper. My head was in my hands. Our dream was over on a penalty shoot-out.

Looking back I don’t think we were confident. Players were not confident in stepping forward to take their penalties. I remember us all looking at each other. Did being in a big group huddle like that help? Maybe players needed time alone to gather their thoughts to decide. Should we have had a set list of people who would be takers?

After the World Cup I went back to America where I was playing for Boston Breakers and I spoke to our coach, Tony DiCicco, who had coached USA Women to the World Cup. He told me his strategy was that he chose the takers. He said Mia Hamm, the most decorated of female players, had said no to taking one in the historic World Cup final in 1999 at the Rose Bowl, in front of 80,000 spectators. DiCicco overruled her. He told her to take one because he believed in her and she would score. He said that he knew she could handle the pressure. He was proved right when Hamm smashed the ball into the back of the net and the US went on to claim gold.

Everything is always much easier in hindsight, though. Louis van Gaal said Ron Vlaar only took the first kick (which he missed) as two other Dutch players had refused to do so. Should Van Gaal have insisted? I think I would have taken the same view as Van Gaal that, since Vlaar had played well and was confident, he should take it.

After our defeat Hope was reported to have said players were “weak” and showed “cowardice” but she told us she was mis-quoted. I did think it was strange when I read it. It’s not about being weak or being a coward if you don’t take a penalty, it’s human not to want to let people down. As a team-mate do you want people taking a penalty because they feel they ought to, or because they believe they will score?

It’s never about blaming and pointing fingers as a player. I applaud the five girls who stepped up in 2011. It takes real courage to take that long walk up from the centre circle and take that kick. You win as a team and you lose as a team. It’s never about individuals in team sport.

Alex Scott plays for Arsenal Ladies and has won 114 England caps. She played in the 2007 and 2011 World Cups

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