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The Dreaded Shootout

Regrettable as it may be, the cruel fact of the matter is that the eventful season of our high school boys’ football team ended in disappointment via the often unpalatable but inevitable and necessary penalty shootout. Last Sunday, the boys were involved in a crossover semi-final against Xavier School in the High School Selection tournament of the Rizal Football Association.

I was unable to travel with the boys; but among the advantages of living in the text generation is that I did not have to gnaw at my fingernails before I could discover whether the day’s adventure ended in success or not. It did not, one of the boys replied to my text message.

The game – or so I was told – ended in a goalless draw; but we lost the penalty shootout 3-4. The result was by no means a disgrace; but anybody who loses a match by way of the dreaded shootout invariably lives with the lifelong stigma of the what-could-have-been.

We now know we will not add to the NCAA-South title we won earlier this month; but we also know we were not properly beaten. This is the most galling thing about losing a shootout: you do not really lose the match; you just lose the shootout. Unfortunately, the result of the shootout is adopted as the result of the match as well.

For those who are only just starting to get interested in the beautiful game, penalty shootouts are only used in matches that need to have a result within the day or – depending on tournament rules – within the time allotted for the match to be settled. Hence, shootouts are used to settle knockout round matches as opposed to league matches, when a draw will have earned both teams a point each.

To get back to last Sunday’s loss, it should not detract at all from what the team is and what it has achieved this season. It just fell victim to Mother Luck’s many whims; and last Sunday, we were just not at the receiving end of it.

In nearly three decades of working with high school football teams, I rank the current one as among the best to have suited up in the green and white. The team is certainly one of the most complete I have ever worked with. There is a strong player in every position – unlike in many teams where one or two positions were invariably weak links – and on a good day the team can play with the instinctive passing of a well-oiled professional team.

I am not embellishing this; neither am I saying this to lift the players’ spirits up after last Sunday’s loss. Because I see the boys day in and day out, I know what they are capable of and I feel nothing but exhilaration when the boys turn on the style, even in scrimmage.

For a penalty shootout, though, regrettably style is of little importance. Nerve is; and I am in no way being disrespectful to the boys. Just ask the English. Their national team, over the years, had this regrettable habit of losing penalty shootouts to – of all people – their arch-enemies the Germans in major international competitions.

In other words, if highly-paid professionals can lose their nerves when in one-against-one situations against the opposing goalkeeper, then high school boys may be forgiven for doing so as well. The Germans – it used to be said – rehearsed penalty-taking; while the English – it also used to be said – just left it to who was feeling right at the moment. I rather tend to take the Teutonic point of view; albeit, I had worked with players who were excellent during training shootouts but still lost their nerves when asked to take penalties during the real thing.

The regrettable thing is that – strong as our current high school team is – it has never won a shootout at all. I believe the rot started when we lost last year’s NCAA-South final against PCU-Dasmariñas via the same route after we had drawn the match 2-all. We had – naturally – worked on penalty-taking since; but then, during training – and without the pressures associated with an actual shootout – most of the boys are actually quite competent.

Logic dictates that taking a penalty is easier than trying to score from open play. In the latter, there are fullbacks scampering after you ready to kick your backside if it comes to that. In a penalty, there are no defenders. Just the kicker and the goalkeeper – and he can only guess where the ball is going. The kicker, on the other hand, knows.

Anyone who has taken a penalty – especially in a shootout – of course knows only too well that the laws of logic often do not apply. It is all about striking the ball hard – but not too hard – and placing it into space – but not too wide. The boys – in fairness – all know what to do; but when the heart is racing and the knees are starting to feel a tad like they are made of jelly…

Curiously, I used to have a really mediocre team in the mid-nineties – apologies if you happened to be in that team – that had players with nerves of steel during shootouts. Although this was one of the fairly unattractive sides I have worked with over the years, we reached the round of four of a major regional tournament by packing our defense with bodies and then beating stronger opponents by way of penalties.

As for the coach, well… Put things this way. When the shootout was first introduced to settle matches, and my teams had to be in one, in the old days I used to die many times over before each kick was actually taken. It used to be quite nerve-wracking for me.

Of course in latter years, I was even kind of blasé about it. Early in the new Millennium, I was with the college team in Lucena for a semi-final encounter against a team from Cavite in a regional collegiate tournament. The game ended in a draw, and therefore had to be broken by penalties. We missed our first two; they scored their first and missed their second. Going into the third kick, we were – therefore – behind 1-2.

The basketball coach had gone along as the team’s chaperone; and he could not get over the fact that I was watching the shootout expressionlessly. He was the one dying many deaths before each kick; and was in a state of panic because we were losing. I had to explain that I had been through this many times before; and while I was still naturally feeling the tension, I had also learned how to cope with it.

As things happened, we scored with our last three kicks; while their last two kickers missed. We won the shootout in sudden death to reach the final. Afterwards, some of their players were crying like babies on the field, totally inconsolable. That is just the way things are with a shootout. There must be winners and there must be losers. But losing just happens to be one of the many cruel things that football can serve to those who love it…

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