Rarely have there been so many narratives in a penalty shoot-out as there was in the Spain v Portugal semi-final
Paulo Bento gathered his players in a circle and, one by one, pointed out his penalty takers. First, João Moutinho. Then Pepe. Then Nani. Then Bruno Alves. And then, the decisive penalty, the one that would send Portugal to the second final in their history, Cristiano Ronaldo. Bento and his assistants, discussing the order and then giving the orders, were clear. His players were not. Alves went up third, only to turn back. It was Nani's turn. Nani scored. When Alves went up again, he missed. Ronaldo didn't get the chance to go up at all. His moment never happened.
After the game, Ronaldo said that the decision to take the final penalty was the manager's. Then, in front of different microphones, he said that it was the group's. He scored the final penalty against England at the World Cup in Germany in 2006 and he would have imagined a repeat when Xabi Alonso's first penalty was saved. Yet almost half (42%) of the teams that have been the first to miss this century have still won. And as for the tenth, he is the phantom penalty taker: in nine of the last ten shoot-outs at World and European championships, there has not been a 10th taker.
What Ronaldo could not achieve, Cesc Fábregas did. But his story was not the only story. The cliche talks of the drama of the penalty shootout, and it is invariably dramatic, but there has rarely been one with so much narrative as this: Ronaldo's redemptive moment removed; a first penalty missed but forgotten; the captain saving his team to keep the dream of a unique treble alive; the confusion between Alves and Nani; the final miss crashing off the bar, a moment's doubt as to whether it might have gone in; that penalty from Sergio Ramos; the symmetry for Fábregas.
Iker Casillas, the man they call Saint Iker, saved Moutinho's penalty. Andrés Iniesta and Gerard Piqué scored theirs. And then Ramos scored his ... the way he scored his. The evening before, Vicente del Bosque had recommended that those who do not normally take them practice them. Men like Piqué and Iniesta and Ramos. They practised against Pepe Reina, not Casillas: there was little psychological value for the goalkeeper in seeing penalties fly past him if he was going to face them the following night. "Oh, I suffer," Casillas said afterwards, dismissing suggestions that goalkeepers alone enjoy shootouts. "Mentally, I really suffer!"
Ramos was among those practising. He had an idea going round in his head but wasn't letting on. When he stepped forward way after midnight one image came to Spanish minds: the ball sailing into the stands in the semi-final of the Champions League against Bayern Munich, taking Real Madrid's hopes with it. The German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer commented that he had known which way some players went but hadn't known that Ramos liked to put his miles over the bar. When Bayern lost the final, Ramos took satisfaction in advising Neuer to be a little more humble next time. Still, there was fear. Then catharsis.
"Olé, tus huevos!" as they say. What balls. "Well, grinned Ramos, "I never doubted that I had them."
"Apart from the occasional joke, I had no idea that he was going to do that," Del Bosque said. "Players are brave: they have a lot to lose and nothing to gain but they stepped forward."
"Del Bosque knows I'm a bit mad," Ramos smiled. "Ramos didn't tell us that he was planning that, but from what he said [afterwards] he had been thinking about it for a while," Casillas said. "He's got real guts. Chapeau!"
"I'm not surprised that Sergio took it like that because he's been talking about it for a long time," said Alvaro Arbeloa. "But I didn't believe him."
"I didn't want to practise too many penalties like that in training in case word got out," Ramos laughed. "Maybe there'd be a camera there to catch it. I had the idea but I didn't decide to do it until I was starting my run up. You think about the situation and what could happen. I thought dinking it was the best way to beat the goalkeeper because I could see clearly that he was going to the side. I was doubting, thinking about going to my favourite side – and I'm not going to tell you which one that is in case! – but when I saw the goalkeeper so straight, so serious, I decided. I looked him in the eyes and thought I'd dink it."
Ramos was beaming, his man-of-the -match award in his hand. "This is my first," he said. "I was able to remove the thorn from my side from the semi-final of the Champions League. You're aware of the comments people make – that it's a lot pressure, that you're not equipped to take on that kind of responsibility and all that … In fact it's the complete opposite: I like to take on the responsibility." Crack under pressure? I'll show you crack under pressure.
Next up, Fábregas. The fifth and decisive penalty that Ronaldo was denied; the moment. "I was going to shoot down the middle and then at the last minute I thought: 'No, no, I'm going to go to the side'," he explained. "I changed my mind. The same thing happened against [Gigi] Buffon [in 2008]. I could see that he was going to go to one side and I changed. It's not something you control, it just happens."
"Did you know you were going to score?" he was asked. "How would I know that?" he shot back, "I'm not some psychic!" He paused. "But, yes, I did have a feeling, an intuition."
Fábregas had been thinking about it all afternoon. Remembering the past and seeing the future. In 2008, he scored the penalty that changed Spain's history forever, beating Italy in the shoot-out after a 0-0 draw in the quarter-final. "I had the feeling that it was going to happen again," he said. "I just had a sense. And, that's life, it did. It's a miracle. I was down to go second after Xabi Alonso and I said 'no, no' because I had that memory from last time and I was positive about it. I don't know how to explain it; it was kind of like a deja-vu."
Cesc stood where he had stood four years ago, on the night that started it all. He stood over the ball and talked to it; it was time to make history together. Again. And then he started his run-up.