AFTER a first round littered with goalkeeping errors, little wonder those wearing gloves are relishing the start of the knock-out stages – and the inevitability of penalty shoot-outs.
For once, the goalkeeper is the man who can hardly lose – possibly elevated to hero status, yet if not still seldom ending up public enemy number one.
In a shoot-out, as England players know all too well but could yet discover again on Sunday, the pressure is all on the kicker, not the keeper.
In fact, in normal or extra time, only six more World Cup penalties have actually been saved than those hitting the woodwork or missing the target entirely.
David Villa’s surprise sidefoot wide, against Honduras on Monday, was the 16th that failed to even test the ‘keeper.
Even more notable misses include Antonio Cabrini’s, for Italy against West Germany, in no less a game than the 1982 final – not to mention Diana Ross’s opening ceremony howler when the US played host in 1994.
Once the game goes to spot-kicks alone, the burden can only grow bigger on the shoulders of players nominated to strike out – though gravity seemed to have an inverse effect when, say, Chris Waddle and Roberto Baggio stepped up.
Oliver Kahn today described the face-off between ‘keeper and taker as ‘a permanent psychological battle between the keeper and the shooter’, and that the notion of homework can be over-rated.
He admitted not only failing to remember any of his research on opposition takers, when his Bayern Munich beat Valencia on spot-kicks in the 2001 Champions League final.
Indeed, so intensively focused was he on just saving each kick, he didn’t even realise the scoreline – or that his final decisive save was enough to clinch the trophy.
But he did say: ‘In order to be able to save a penalty you always need a certain amount of luck but of course there are other facets.
‘Preparation, for example - you need to familiarise yourself with who will be taking the penalty: is it more of a technical player, or a player who will resort to strength and power?
‘You can read a lot from the body language, where he will shoot. And it’s also down to eye contact.
‘You can irritate a penalty taker with your body language. You can see whether a player is fearful, you can see from the eyes if he makes a small mistake which corner it will go to.’
‘This psychological battle is often invisible to the spectators.’
Yet this idea that you can never quite replicate the atmosphere and mental challenge of a big-game penalty shoot-out has perhaps been foolishly abused by England in the past, as an excuse for doing no preparation at all.
Anyone can miss a penalty, of course – as shown by recent fluffs by England’s Frank Lampard, usually so metronomically reliable and who put away not just one but two more retaken penalties in quick succession against West Ham last season.
Last month, however, he dragged his FA Cup final penalty wide of the Wembley posts, before later stabbing a spot-kick straight at Japan’s goalkeeper in a pre-World Cup friendly.
He also, of course, was one of the three English players who so limply flopped, in the quarter-final showdown with Portugal four years ago.
Jermain Defoe has revealed this England squad have been practicing penalties every day of the tournament.
Tempting as it might be to imagine a World Cup entirely settled in open play, shoot-outs have been depressingly widespread at every tournament since West Germany and Harald Schumacher infamously beat France, thanks to the first, in 1982.
Another 19 have been needed since then, including two that settled the destination of the trophy itself – Baggio’s sky-high ‘effort’ being by far the most memorable element of the 1994 final.
Four of the 16 knock-out matches at the 2006 World Cup could only be decided by a shoot-out, so if England are to go all the way this time they should need to finally break that penalty hoodoo.
Only once have England won a major tournament match on penalties, against the even more notoriously jinxed Spanish at Euro 96 – with David Seaman making one save, and seeing another penalty screwed wide.
While Defoe may hope that his latest practice makes perfect, his own recent record is the most alarming of England’s lot – missing five of his last ten, though at least his latest, against Chelsea, thundered in.
But his last-minute failures against West Ham United and Everton, costing Spurs two points each time, hardly provide reassurance about his ability under pressure.
Kahn, speaking today at an Adidas ‘penalty day’ press conference in Sandton, tipped Germany’s number one Manuel Neuer to prove psychologically strong if it goes to penalties this Sunday.
Despite having only eight caps, and still being ‘just’ 24, the Schalke ‘keeper has several years of Champions League experience.
He was also in goal for the German side that crushed England in the final of last summer’s under-20 European Championship.
Kahn said: ‘Neuer is very, very young and has many positive things to say - he does not have a lot of contact with negative experiences yet.’
He also criticised England and leading clubs Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal for fielding foreign goalkeepers – hindering the development of a world-class option for the national side.
Petr Cech, sitting to his right, gave barely a flicker of response when Chelsea’s foreign choice was mentioned – retaining a robotic air both on and off the pitch.
Yet Germany themselves have hardly come into the competition with overwhelming faith in their choice of number one.
Rene Adler had been officially anointed, after lengthy indecision, only to instantly, seemingly suffer the ‘yips’ with a glaring blunder against Argentina in a friendly last March.
His subsequent rib injury meant a choice between three much-of-a-muchness contenders, the more promising Neuer finally given the nod above Hans-Jorg Butt and Tim Wiese.
Neuer did make some robust enough interventions when defensive lapses allowed Ghana through on goal, in Wednesday night’s final Group D match.
In the approving words of Kahn, never renowned for modesty himself: ‘He has a lot of self-confidence, he sees himself positively and as a winner.’
Yet while praising this ‘untypical’ German team for their attractive ‘combination football’, he acknowledged they lack experience – especially compared to England.
Age and experience can be over-rated – or, at least, irrelevant when World Cup responsibility calls.
Michael Owen, at 18, showed no hint of nerves with his emphatic spot-kick in the 1998 shoot-out against Argentina, with those rugged seniors Paul Ince and David Batty the ones who faltered.
A penalty shoot-out may be more than just luck, and Kahn and Argentina’s Italia 90 hero Sergio Goycochea both recoil at descriptions such as ‘lottery’ or ‘Russian roulette’.
But for all their rehearsals, both nerves and the self-perpetuating effect of England’s alleged penalty ‘curse’, means more spot-kicks on Sunday could be too much to bear.
Just for good – or bad – measure, Germany’s three squad goalkeepers have saved 15 of their last 27 penalties faced – Neuer four from ten, Butt four from seven and Wiese seven from ten.
England’s three, however, have managed just one save apiece in their last 26.
Better to win then, if possible, before having to form those awful and ominous centre-circle circles.
After all, knock-out matches don’t all have to end that way.
And before being given the no-lose chance of glory, a goalkeeper can find himself falling victim and villain in an actual game – as Vincent Enyeama, Fawzi Chaouchi and of course Robert Green have all already found to their, and their country’s, cost.