Frank de Boer and Dutch penalty trauma

The Dutch coach missed two penalties in Euro 2000 semi-final. Has he learned his lesson?

It was ironic that Frank de Boer’s first match as Holland coach ended in defeat to Mexico after a penalty. De Boer, you may remember, was the chief culprit of Holland’s penalty nadir, when he missed two penalties in the Dutch team’s loss to Italy in an unforgettable Euro 2000 semi-final. It was Holland’s third shoot-out defeat in four years (and third Euro elimination on penalties in a row). And it revealed a worrying truth about the Dutch and penalties.

Photo: Pawel Kopczynski / Reuters

Let’s look at what happened. Tournament co-hosts Holland dominated the match. Italy had Gianluca Zambrotta sent off in the first half. And Holland missed two penalties in normal time. De Boer, the Holland captain, missed the first penalty, after 36 minutes, and he missed Holland’s first in the shoot-out.

De Boer thought his first kick was a decent one, but Italy goalkeeper Francesco Toldo, booked for protesting the penalty award, had psyched him out. At least, De Boer thought he had. A few days earlier, De Boer had scored a penalty against Czech Republic, kicking right-footed to his non-natural side. At the 1998 World Cup, against Brazil, he had done the same. “That’s how I should have shot against Italy, but I decided at the last minute to do something else,” De Boer said.

On the day before the game, he had over-practised penalties, taking 40 after training, even shooting with his eyes closed.

“Scoring in both corners the previous day did not help. I thought that Toldo had seen my penalties and that put doubt in my mind.”

“What did De Boer do wrong?” Dutch TV’s touchline reporter asked Johan Cruyff at half-time. “He didn't score, “said Cruyff, “but at least he picked his corner. That's one way of doing it. Look, you can't prepare for these situations.”

Fifteen minutes into the second half, referee Marcus Merk awarded Holland another penalty. De Boer didn't fancy it, and offered it to Patrick Kluivert, Holland’s in-form centre-forward. “I had a feeling we were in trouble when Frank missed the first penalty, as that was normally a guaranteed goal,” said Kluivert, whose shot hit the right-hand post. “It was then I thought that we might be cursed in this game.”

Dutch coach Frank Rijkaard had already subbed off Dennis Bergkamp and Bolo Zenden. Peter van Vossen had come on. Kluivert was slated to take the fifth penalty. It never even reached that stage. Italy scored first, Luigi Di Biagio redeeming himself for missing the crucial penalty in the 1998 loss to France.

De Boer was up next. Dutch commentator Theo Reitsma wondered: “Who will keep Holland happy for the next few days by helping us win this? Frank de Boer? Yes, he would never miss twice, so he will step up.”

De Boer’s twin brother Ronald told him to go hard down the middle, and that was the plan. “I was not even that nervous,” Frank said. “Toldo made it into a game. He winked at me. But this time I had no doubts. I wanted to tell him: ‘So you know where I'm going to shoot, good for you.’” De Boer winked back; but he hit a weak shot, right of centre, which Toldo stopped with his feet. “It was only because I was tired that I hit it badly. We were mentally drained by this time, and our previous record at penalties was not giving us any hope.”

Gianluca Pessotto scored and Jaap Stam blasted over the bar. “I took it just as I always did in training, because I never take penalties; but the tension changed everything,” Stam said. The big defender had taken one before, for FC Zwolle in a Dutch Cup tie. “I missed that one too.”

It was 2-0 Italy. Totti was next. The previous day, Totti had beaten Alessandro Nesta at PlayStation football after training, and scored one of his goals with a penalty ‘cucchiaio’, Italian for the Panenka. “One of these days I will do it in a game,” he told him.

When Di Biagio returned from his kick, Totti said: “Mo je faccio er cucchiaio.” “Now I will do ‘the spoon’.” Paolo Maldini had overheard him. “Is he crazy?” said the captain. “There is a final on the line.” Totti did not change his mind. Van der Sar dived right and Totti’s chip flew perfectly down the centre of the goal. “To take a penalty like that you must be crazy or very good,” Totti later said, “and I don’t think I’m crazy.”

Photo: Henri Szwarc / Getty Images

Italy were 3-0 up but Holland had a glimmer of hope when Kluivert scored and Van der Sar saved Maldini’s effort. Paul Bosvelt needed to score to keep Holland alive. He hit a weak shot and Toldo saved easily.

Before the tournament, Rijkaard had promised that he would make eight players practise penalties after every training session. He said:

“If your run-up is good and you hit the ball mid-height, in the corner, with the right speed, a goalkeeper has no chance. That is trainable. I don't want to be eliminated because penalties are being missed.”

After this elimination, he spoke like a true Johan Cruyff protégé: “We practised almost every day, but it’s something unique to the game and we showed once again we’re no good at it.”

Rijkaard’s predecessor Guus Hiddink was saying something similar following Holland’s quarter-final exit from Euro 96 after losing on penalties to France. “A penalty is always a lottery,” remarked Hiddink. “You can’t blame anyone if they miss a penalty.”

The Dutch attitude that penalties can't be practiced has been long entrenched. Here are some other reactions to the Italy defeat:

Leo Beenhakker: “Penalties are about what’s in between the ears, but in a nerve-wracking shoot-out everything is different.”

Willem van Hanegem: “I hope people now don't tell us all to start practising penalties. It’s bullshit. They are simply not trainable.”

Johan Cruyff: “The pressure, the excitement and the fatigue all make a difference. Honestly you can’t prepare, taking penalties in training is useless, the penalty is a unique skill outside of football.”

Cruyff, as a national icon, has dictated Holland’s attitude to penalties more than anything else (I enjoyed this substack piece on Cruyff). One theory why he didn’t fancy penalties is that the essence of Cruyff the footballer was all about movement and intuition and that the idea of standing still and waiting to kick the ball after the referee’s whistle was anathema to him. The other is that he never had a powerful shot, and preferred to curl his passes, which was more suitable for creative passing than penalties.

Either way, the legacy burned long and even when Louis van Gaal helped Holland end their hoodoo with a Tim Krul-inspired win over Costa Rica in the 2014 World Cup. Just four days later, Holland lost another shoot-out, to Argentina, for a place in the final. Van Gaal’s reaction? “The penalty shoot-out is always a matter of luck,” he said.

PEN PALS:

  • New Celtic coach Ange Postecoglou said goodbye to Yokohama Marinos with another penalty story. His final was an Emperors Cup match against amateur side Honda FC, whose goalkeeper Yuki Kusumoto scores this first-half penalty (below). Marinos then go on to lose the shoot-out 5-3. Given Postecoglou’s side missed five penalties in a row in a shoot-out last year, it could have been worse!