In this extract from Francesco Totti’s new autobiography, Gladiator, the Roma icon reveals how he secretly worked on Panenka penalties at Euro 2000 – and that none of his Italy teammates believed he would actually take one that way in a shootout.
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For several days now, we’d been finishing our training sessions by practising from the spot. As long as Zoff and Francesco Rocca, his assistant, were watching, I took my classic penalties, hard and angled. But when they left, after telling us to keep going for another five minutes, I liked trying a few in the Panenka style, where the ball goes down the middle and taunts the keeper, who has already dived to one side. In short, a chip shot. As far as I know, it was done for the first time by Antonín Panenka, a Czechoslovakian player, in the final of Euro 1976, the year I was born. It’s a risky move, because any keeper who doesn’t move only has to catch the ‘pass’ from the penalty taker, but if you’re good enough to hide your intentions until the last moment, you’re almost certain to score, because ninety percent of goalkeepers will pick a corner sooner or later and dive towards it. In those days, I tried it in training against Toldo and especially against Abbiati. And every time I succeeded, I’d add proudly that if I got a penalty in a game I would take it like that, letting my claque of teammates loose: ‘You’re a talker,’ ‘No one believes you,’ and so on. Nesta smiled, Maldini laughed, Inzaghi smirked scornfully, Di Biagio roared with laughter, and I warned them: ‘If it happens, you’ll see…’
So there we were, and I had no choice: I had to chip it, otherwise I’d forever be the Talker. Yes, with a capital T. It will seem strange, and maybe it will sound tone-deaf, that at such an important moment in the sporting destiny of my country, my concern was about avoiding getting that gnawing feeling inside afterwards, but it was the absolute truth. It had always been like that.
As you’re going to take a crucial penalty, if you’re thinking about the millions of people who are being anxious for you in front of the TV, you’ll be crushed by the pressure and end up hitting the corner flag. If, on the other hand, you live the moment with the lightness of a bet at a sports bar, everything becomes easier. So, after whispering ‘I’m going to do a Panenka’ to Di Biagio as I passed him, I walked towards Van der Sar followed by his ‘no, no’ in a low voice, because if he shouted out then some of the Dutch might have suspected something and signalled to the keeper to expect something out of the ordinary.
Man. I’d joked before with Gigi to ease the tension but now, seen close up, Van der Sar really did resemble a massive octopus. The orange wall behind him was imposing, and suddenly the goal looked small. I was very afraid of making a mistake, but there was a rock-solid idea in my head. No posing. Be clinical. The chip came out perfectly. The goalkeeper, who had tried to screw with me by feinting left and diving to his right, saw a mocking ball fly over him: it must have seemed so close to him, yet it was unreachable because the weight of his falling body denied him that glancing blow off his torso that might have been enough. 3-0 to us, and no one would be calling me the Talker now.
I looked at the bench and saw stunned faces. Inzaghi had his hand on his forehead as if to say ‘He’s crazy.’ When I passed Toldo as he went to retake his place in goal, I saw him laughing as if he already knew everything and couldn’t wait to enjoy the finale. In fact, shortly after, the spotlight fell back on him: Kluivert scored, Maldini missed, and Francesco saved another, from Bosvelt, sending us through to the final. I was one of the first to run to him, to jump on him and grab him about the neck: ‘Spilungone,’ (Beanpole) I shouted many times, because that’s what I called him. Big guy, I love you.
Gladiator is published by deCoubertin Books priced £14.99. To order a copy visit deCoubertin.co.uk/totti