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NOWADAYS, ANTONÍN PANENKA’S ROLE IN EUROPEAN FOOTBALL IS A WITHDRAWN ONE. Unlike other players of his generation, Panenka has shirked the limelight, making few public appearances, instead focusing on his responsibilities as president of former club Bohemians Praha 1905. But when the Czech legend does appear in front of the media, unfailingly sporting a broad smile and thick moustache, interviewers will always ask him to recall what was going through his mind one night in Belgrade, the night the ‘Panenka’ penalty was born.

Before the quarter-finals of the 1976 European Championships, the general consensus among players, coaches and media alike was that there were only really two possible winners. First up were reigning world and European champions West Germany, who although not at the same level as in the two previous tournaments, still boasted a squad with an unrivalled depth in talent, headed by Sepp Maier, Franz Beckenbauer, Uli Hoeneß, and Cologne’s Heinz Flohe. The other favourites were the mercurial Dutch, themselves led by the prodigious Johan Cruyff, Johan Neeskens and Johnny Rep, who had been defeated by West Germany in the World Cup final just two years earlier.

Bearing in mind the quality of these two sides, the possibility of a side of Czechoslovakia’s standing making the final, let alone winning the tournament, was barely worth thinking about. Despite impressively emerging from a group containing Don Revie’s England and a talented Portugal side, optimism soon faded when the Czechoslovaks were drawn alongside a formidable Soviet Union side containing one of the worlds most feared striking partnerships in the form of Oleh Blokhin and Viktor Kolotov.

Set against the emergence of Václav Havel’s anti-Soviet dissident movement which would eventually set the wheels of the Velvet Revolution in motion, this encounter was anticipated and dreaded by Czechoslovaks in equal measure. But at a packed Tehelné pole in Bratislava, the Czechs put on an impressive display against their more illustrious opponents, with goals from Jozef Móder and Panenka sealing a 2-0 victory for the hosts heading into the second leg in Kiev.

In front of an official crowd of 76,495 (estimated by some to be nearer 100,000), the Soviets sought a route back into the tie. It was the Czechs who struck first, when Móder scored on the stroke of half time to give the underdogs a 3-0 aggregate lead. But the Soviets were to emerge from the interval with a renewed sense of purpose, and when Dynamo legend and 1975 Ballon d’Or winner Leonid Buryak scored just eight minutes after the break, the Czechs could perhaps have been forgiven for buckling under the immense pressure, not only from the skills of their opponents, but from the enormous crowd baying for the blood of their Slavic brethren.

Despite coming under fire from a barrage of Soviet attacks, the Czechoslovaks doggedly held on to the 1-1 score line which would send them through to the final tournament in Yugoslavia, before Móder, whose only three goals for his nation would come in this tie, stunned the home crowd to all but seal his team’s aggregate victory. Although Blokhin would score a late equalizer to deny the Czechoslovaks an extraordinary away win, it was the underdogs from the west of the Bloc who were celebrating their progress at the final whistle.

Aside from the remarkable progress of the Móder-inspired Czechoslovakia, the makeup of the final tournament was pretty much as expected. Hosts Yugoslavia had defeated Wales to ensure their participation in their home tournament, while favourites West Germany and the Netherlands also progressed, defeating Spain and Belgium, respectively.

Unfortunately for the Czechoslovakians, it was Cruyff’s Dutch maestros, fresh from humiliating neighbours Belgium 7-2 in the quarter-finals, who they were to face in the semis. Surely a Dutch team packed with superstars would do what the Soviets couldn’t and end the Czechoslovakian dream.

Straight from the kick-off the Dutch weren’t themselves, and Anton Ondruš headed home Panenka’s free-kick to give the also-rans a lead which they were able to keep until the 73rd minute, when Ondruš turned Cruyff’s cross into his own net after a slick counter attack which most observers would have expected to prove the catalyst for a Dutch victory, especially given that midfielder Jaroslav Pollák had been sent off for Václav Ježek’s men. But just three minutes after Ondruš had turned the ball into his own net, Barcelona’s Johan Neeskens was sent off for a reckless challenge as tempers started to flare.

While the Dutch were unquestionably playing the more attractive football, even after Neeskens’ act of stupidity, they were hampered by dreadful conditions inside Zagreb’s Maksimir Stadium, and as the match progressed on a deteriorating pitch, they were drawn into a dogfight which favoured the more resilient and physically stronger Czechoslovakians who had stoutly denied the inventors of Total Football.

With the match running through to extra time, it was the physical strength of the Czechoslovakians which saw them in the ascendency, and on 114 minutes, František Veselý’s cross was headed home by Zdeněk Nehoda to give his side the lead, sending the Dutch into a fit of rage which eventually led to the sending off of Feyenoord’s Willem van Hanegem for refusing to restart the game. Vesely himself was then put through to score the third and send the Czechoslovakian supporters in to raptures, and European football into a state of shock once more.

The following day in Zagreb, it briefly seemed like there would be another shock on the cards when hosts Yugoslavia took a two-goal lead against World Cup winners West Germany in Belgrade. The West Germans were not reigning European and world champions for nothing, however, and responded through the unlikely source of Cologne’s Dieter Müller, who scored a hat-trick on his debut to send the his side into the final. Given their pedigree, the Germans went into the final as heavy favourites, despite the exploits of the Czechs against the Soviets and the Dutch.

And so the night, and moment, written in Czech folklore arrived in Belgrade. As Panenka recalls, the Czechs “were seen as outsiders, no one thought we could manage it”. But manage it they did. The final was played at a frenetic pace, with players thrilling the surprisingly sparse crowd with football of, in the words of L’Equipe, “hitherto unknown dimensions.” After 25 minutes, the Czechs had already raced into a 2-0 lead, with goals from Ján Švehlík and Karol Dobiaš, before the West Germans came storming back, just as they had done in the semi-finals, with goals from Müller – whose heroic feats from the bench against the hosts had earned him a starting place – and an 89th minute equaliser from Bernd Hölzenbein denying the Czechs victory in normal time.

As a result of what Czechs might say was an inspired last minute decision by UEFA, the final would not be decided in extra-time, nor by a replay as had been initially planned. Instead, Euro ’76, a tournament already unique in for its controversial refereeing, upsets and unfailingly engrossing matches, would become the first major International tournament to be decided by a penalty shootout. UEFAs decision was so last minute that the Germans were informed “just minutes from kick off” that there was to be a shootout, while the Czechs completely forgot, and started heading to their dressing room to prepare for a replay before referee Sergio Gonella reminded them of the new legislation.

Heading into the shootout, Panenka claims that the mood in the Czech camp was a very relaxed one despite what was at stake, saying that from their perspective “it didn’t really matter to us at that point whether we’d win or not because I think that our fans were already very happy with what we had achieved by then… psychologically we were in much better shape than the Germans.” Indeed, in contrast to the unerring calm of the Czechs, the West Germans, who surely would have thought that captain Beckenbauer would be lifting the trophy by now, were fraught with anxiety.

According to Uli Hesse in Tor!, West Germany “had such problems finding five takers that the crowd grew restless and booed the men in white.” Once Beckenbauer, unquestionably the leader of his team off the field as well as on it, had bitten the bullet and selected five takers, including himself as the potentially decisive fifth taker, the shootout was underway.

After seven kicks, the score was 4-3 to the Czechs, with each penalty dispatched with aplomb. But then, up stepped Uli Hoeness of Bayern Munich and West Germany. After taking a long run up, Hoeneß blasted the ball over the crossbar, leaving the Czechs with the opportunity to strike the decisive blow. Forward came Antonín Panenka of Bohemians Praha. Taking a run up from well outside the 18-yard box, Panenka sprinted, then stuttered and then impudently dinked the ball into the centre of Sepp Maier’s goal to win Czechoslovakia the title.

To strike a penalty like that, even if Panenka had started practising the technique “about two years before the European Championship” as he claims, is in the words of Pelé the work of “either a genius or a madman”. One French commentator described Panenka as “a poet” after the ball had nestled softly in the netting, and in footballing terms at least, the man from Prague had produced something nigh on Kafkaesque to cap a bizarre yet brilliant tournament.

So is Panenka a genius or a madman? What was going through his head when he galloped forward to take that penalty?

“It was like the will of God. I was one thousand per cent certain that I would take the penalty in that way and that I would score,” said the jolly figure of Panenka in 2007, thirty-one years after his defining moment as a professional. The Bohemians great would describe the method he pioneered as “the easiest and simplest recipe for scoring a goal”, seeming oblivious to the potential shame a missed ‘Panenka’ can bring. So is Panenka a genius or a madman? When all is taken into account, it would not be obtuse to suggest that the answer is a little of both.

By Simon Cripps. Follow @AI_Football