Monday 15 February 2016, 10:41

Origins of Suarez and Messi's genius

The penalty is a one-on-one battle between its taker and a goalkeeper… well, almost always! For on rare occasions, the man between the sticks finds himself being double-teamed!

On 14 February 2016, Sergio Alvarez found himself just such a victim. The Celta Vigo goalkeeper prepared himself to stop five-time Ballon d'Or winner Lionel Messi's spot kick, which would be no mean feat in itself. Alvarez steadied himself, but La Pulga stuttered in his run up and tapped the ball to his right. The Argentinian's Barça team-mate Luis Suarez rushed onto the trickling pass and slammed home. The Camp Nou applauded in disbelief.

The match concluded with a 6-1 victory for the Blaugrana, with Neymar explaining what happened on the pitch. "That play had been rehearsed and it was supposed to be for me," the Brazilian revealed. "The most important thing is that it worked."

Connoisseurs of the beautiful game will recall another example in December 1982, which involved a man who had also attained legendary status at the Camp Nou. Ajax were leading Helmond Sport 1-0 when Johan Cruyff won a spot-kick. The magnificent attacker stepped up to take it himself, but rather than shoot, he passed it sideways into the path of team-mate Jesper Olsen. The latter drew Helmond No1 Otto Versfeld towards him, before squaring the ball back to Cruyff, who tapped the ball into the empty net.

“That he asked me to do it was great in one way,” the former Denmark international explained to, "But what I had to do was the hard bit! People always ask whose idea was it, and I reply 'What do you think?' I was 21 years old, Johan was 35 when he came back from America, so it was obviously his. We probably talked about it in September of that year and we practised it a few times. There were a funny few seconds when people thought 'Is this allowed?'”

“I was totally flabbergasted,” Versfeld recalled from the opposite end of the move. “I was trying to work out what had just happened!” Cruyff added: “It was just before Christmas, so we wanted to give our supporters a gift to remember!”

Headlines spread across the world that the two-man penalty had been born that day in Amsterdam, but there were instances of it occurring a quarter-century earlier during qualification to the 1958 FIFA World Cup™.

Road to Sweden 1958An early example of the two-man penalty came at Windsor Park on 1 May 1957 when Northern Ireland took on Portugal in a Sweden 1958 qualifying match. After leading 2-0, the Northern Irish were awarded a spot-kick in which captain Danny Blanchflower played a sideways pass to Jimmy McIlory, who found the back of the net and put the hosts further in front.

Northern Ireland goalkeeper Harry Gregg later recalled: “The referee didn’t know what to do. The crowd didn’t know what happened – it had never been seen before!" Billy Bingham, who also featured and would go on to lead Northern Ireland to two World Cups as manager, quipped: "If it didn’t go in though, what would we have said!?”

Another instance came in Brussels just a month later when Belgium faced Iceland on 5 June 1957. Towards the end of the first half, with Les Diables Rouges already leading 6-1, Rik Coppens had the chance to amplify the advantage from 12 yards. Yet instead of going for goal directly, the 27-year-old striker played a one-two with Andre Piters, which drew keeper Bjorgvin Hermannson off his line and presented Coppers with the simplest of tap-ins.

“He was a real extrovert on the pitch,” said former team-mate Theo van Rooy of Coppens. “He loved doing things to make people say ‘wow’, and the whole stadium was saying ‘wow’ that day. It’s a good job he pulled it off mind – can you imagine what they’d have said if he missed doing something like that?”

Two men who discovered what people would say when a two-man penalty attempt went wrong are Robert Pires and Thierry Henry. In the Premier League game against Manchester City in 2005, Pires grossly underhit his attempt to roll a penalty into the path of Arsenal team-mate Henry and the chance went begging. Those two Frenchman will have certainly been ungrateful to Coppens and Piters for giving them the idea!