Feature: Bad luck or bad skill: Why do Black Stars miss penalties?

I sat glued to my seat, for close to 30 odd minutes, the weight of the loss overcame my sense of reasoning. I was frozen, not because Ghana had just lost 9-8 on penalties to Ivory Coast; not because we had lost another trophy, after all, it was a familiar road, I had seen it all before; it wasn’t that the Black Stars lost, no, not at all.

It was the manner of the loss. After a barren 120 minutes, Ghana had taken a 2-0 advantage in the kicks, only to lose the lead and eventually gift the Ivoirians the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations  (AFCON) trophy. That is what hurt. To think that these same Ivoirians, 23 years ago in Senegal, denied Ghana the 1992 trophy also via penalties was extremely difficult to swallow.

It left a big lump in my throat. It brought back memories of other painful losses through the lottery of penalty kicks; the Uruguay loss at the 2010 World Cup quarter final, where Asamoah Gyan, in injury time, missed a penalty that would have sent the Black Stars into the semis; the 2013 AFCON semifinal loss to Burkina Faso; the 2014 CHAN final where once again the local Black Stars lost to Libya. Time and again the Black Stars have choked when it comes to scoring from 12 yards.

“Nii snap out of it and lets go, its penalties, what do you expect, it was hard luck”. That was my mate, nudging me into the long drive back home from the pub. It has been days since February 8, but I have replayed the scene over, many times in my head; if only Afriyie Acquah had kicked to the right, if only Frank Acheampong had hit it low, Ghana may have ended a 33 year drought. But those are wishes; the reality is, per that loss, Ghana continues her poor record in penalty shootouts.  How unlucky can a team get, how is it that the Germans are that efficient and Ghana’s cousins, the English are also that poor at shootouts. Surely, it can’t all be down to mere chance or luck, there must be a science to it. So, I dug and dug, and I discovered the two major reasons why the Black Stars are such serial “missers”.

Weak mentality
Ordinarily, taking a penalty and scoring shouldn’t be a big deal, at least on the face of it. Imagine this; the size of the goal post is approximately 192 square feet, bigger than a cargo container. This goal post is manned by a goalkeeper who only has 700 milliseconds to save a penalty kick which travels at average speed of 70 miles per hour! If the metric language is a little confusing, let me break it down.

If the ball is hit as hard and far away from the goalkeeper, it would end up at the back of the net, guaranteed, because the kicker has the advantage over the goalkeeper. If that is so, why do players miss? Players miss because they usually tend to focus on other extraneous issues which eventually impinge on the quality of their kicks.

For example, we all know technically, Michael Owen was the better player compared to Matt Le Tissier, but Le Tissier was way effective from the spot, scoring 48 out of 49 kicks in his career.  “To be honest, I never really gave it much thought. I just stepped up to the ball and whacked it”.

That was Le Tissier, explaining his near perfect ability from the spot. It gives further credence to the fact that, scoring from a penalty isn’t so much your technical ability but one’s ability to focus, concentrate and deal with distractions. Some of these distractions come in the form of anxiety associated with the big occasion, a player’s self-doubt, the crowd, the sequence of the takes and crucially, the opposing goalkeeper.

Goalkeepers, knowing they are naturally disadvantaged in reacting to kicks have historically resorted to guessing and diving, either before or at the time of the kick, to give them a chance of saving. Some goalkeepers also intimidate opponents in order to destabilize their focus.

Zambia goalie, Kennedy Mweene, famously intimated Didier Drogba and Asamoah Gyan, who both missed in regulation as Zambia lifted the 2012 AFCON. The bottom-line of the argument is that, converting penalties is directly related to a player’s mental strength more than the technique or lady luck.

It is the reason the Germans have won four out of their last four penalty shootouts at the World Cup. Mental strength is king and this is where the Black Stars have fallen short. There is a reason why.

Blame mentality
Ghana like England has a very critical media and passionate fans who are highly unforgiving. The result? Miss a penalty and you are toast. Who can forget Dominic Adiyiah’s famous “Awurade Mewu” comment, literally translated to mean “God, I am in trouble” when he missed versus Uruguay at the 2010 World Cup.

And of course who can forget Gyan’s famous miss in the same game and another miss at the 2012 AFCON Semifinal versus Zambia. That miss pushed Gyan into retirement, only for him to return with a vow to his late mum never to take penalties again in a Black Stars jersey.

For the average Ghanaian player stepping up, he must not only pick his spot, deal with a goalkeeper’s distraction like Boubacar Barry and his injury antics in the AFCON final, but also deal with the thought “what if I miss?” .. “What would Ghanaians say?”  Now, that is a lot weight and expectation which chokes even the best of penalty takers on the big day.  It choked Afriyie Acquah and Frank Acheampong who were reportedly two of the top takers at training.  The “blame me not” mentality is why good kickers like Harrison Afful and Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu probable shied away from the first five kicks.

To say that penalty conversion is thus a fusion of skill and psychology rather than luck would be stating the obvious. It is bad enough that the captain of the Black Stars would not take a penalty or rally, inspire and stand in the frontline with his troupes, but there is no excuse for how players who miss penalties are maligned. A study even shows that when a team cheers a player who misses, the probability of the subsequent taker scoring is higher. That’s how far psychology goes to determine the winner or loser from 12 yards; a distance so short, yet so long.

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