Football has lately been awash with apologies: from the billionaire club owners who threatened the Super League breakaway; from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for captaining Arsenal to a numbing European failure; from Eden Hazard for laughing with former team-mates after Real Madrid lost to Chelsea; and from Sergio Agüero for . . . missing a penalty?
The billionaires had planned to tear up the whole fabric of the European game until their scheme fell apart amid public outcry; this definitely warranted an apology.
Aubameyang’s “apology” on closer inspection turned out to be more of an expression of sympathy with the fans that Arsenal’s players couldn’t make their collective dreams come true.
Hazard’s apology was forced out of him by a media witch hunt; Madrid had lost to Chelsea and he was the anointed scapegoat. It was ridiculous that he should have to apologise for greeting a couple of old friends like a normal human being but, Madrid’s wounded pride being what it is, maybe smoothing things over was the wisest course.
The Agüero one stood out because he was apologising for a simple football mistake the like of which happens in every game. It wasn't even the most consequential penalty he has missed for City – that would be the one he missed against Spurs in the 2019 Champions League quarter-final – so why, this time, did he feel the need to beg for forgiveness?
Yes, objectively it was a terrible penalty.
The thing to remember with a panenka is that if you want to score it, you have to sell it. If you watch Antonin Panenka’s original against West Germany in the Euro 1976 final shootout, he starts well outside the area and rushes towards the ball as though in a panic, which is why the gentle chip at the end comes as such a surprise. Agüero’s run-up was only three steps and he seemed to freeze up after the second, with the last step happening in virtual slow motion, making his intention horribly obvious.
Why did Agüero decide to take the penalty in such a needlessly complicated way? Because when you do it right, it's a demonstration of casual superiority that demoralises your opponent. This is why Sergio Ramos loves panenkas so much. He has scored so many at this point that you wonder why any goalkeeper bothers to dive against him.
Andrea Pirlo’s panenka in the Euro 2012 quarter-final against England was surely worth more than a standard penalty.
As he placed the ball on the spot, he found himself confronted with the leaping, gurning figure of Joe Hart, who was evidently trying to play some kind of mind game. You've never come up against anything like me old man, Hart's "crazy" display seemed to be trying to say, I can leap 12ft in any direction, I am unpredictable, dangerous . . . The panenka was a judo flip that turned all of Hart's insolent energy against him. It was a devastating wordless put-down from which Hart's prestige never really recovered.
A technique that relies on subverting expectations works best when there is a crowd whose massed expectation you can also subvert. The panenka works best at moments of the highest seriousness, when nobody is anticipating a trick. There aren't many better examples than Francesco Totti against the Netherlands in the Euro 2000 semi-final.
By the time Totti walked up to take Italy’s third penalty in the shootout, the Dutch had missed four penalties in a row, including two in normal time. The last of these had been booted almost clean out of the stadium by Jaap Stam, who had hopelessly miscalibrated his power settings. Totti’s nonchalant chip past Edwin van der Sar was crushing because it was the exact opposite of Stam’s effort: “See? Easy, isn’t it?”
Sebastián Abreu achieved a similar effect with his winning penalty for Uruguay against Ghana in the 2010 World Cup quarter-final. Soccer City in Soweto was near-hysterical with outrage after Luis Suárez had cheated Ghana of victory by saving a goalbound shot in the last minute of extra time. Abreu’s contemptuous chip added insult to injury.
If the panenka is most effective when a desperate crowd is willing the goalkeeper to produce the dive of a lifetime, maybe you are better off avoiding it when the stadium is empty and so quiet the keeper might be able to hear your thoughts.
Actually you didn't need telepathy to read Agüero's thoughts in that moment. He was angry with himself because he should have scored the opening goal a couple of minutes earlier, only to take a bad touch which encouraged Raheem Sterling to steal the chance off his toe. The panenka was an attempt to reassert mastery.
Although a botched panenka is in real terms no more costly than any other penalty miss, it feels worse, as though you have squandered the chance without even properly trying to score.
It’s akin to the logic that compels goalkeepers to dive at penalties; even if it means going the wrong way, they’d rather dive because at least it looks like they’re doing something.
It was natural to feel sorry for Agüero in the moment, knowing he was hoping to play his way into contention for some minutes in the Champions League final and was instead achieving the opposite effect. But the apology was the next level of pathos. City’s star of the decade, in his final weeks with the club, allowed to look sheepish and lonely.
In recent weeks, since the announcement that City would not be renewing Agüero’s contract, Guardiola has been lavish with his praise: “What a player, what a man . . . a top legend, an extraordinary player . . . I love him as a man”, etc. Sometimes the praise has been slightly clumsy, as when, after beating PSG, he thanked Agüero in a list of former players that also included Joe Hart, David Silva and Vincent Kompany.
Yet for all these words, the fact that Agüero would apologise for the simple act of missing a penalty suggests he felt unsupported. It’s remarkable that you can do as much for a club as Agüero has for City, and still, in the end, feel alone.