Penalty shootouts are perhaps the cruellest end to any sporting contest. Used in football (I believe they call it soccer across the pond) to settle most knock-out matches tied after normal play and extra time, they consist of each team taking five shots at goal from the penalty spot 12 yards out. Most scored from 5 wins: sudden death if they're tied after that. Sounds straightforward.

In reality they are, of course, amongst the most stressful activities a human being can be involved in: this arises from the onus of individual responsibility combined with the knowledge that a mistake will cost at least 10 others a great deal. Consider poor Roberto Baggio, who missed the decisive penalty in the 1994 World Cup final; or Gareth Southgate, who missed for England against Germany in the semi of Euro 96. At least a mistake in a tennis tie-breaker costs only you - the guilt associated with blazing the ball over the bar can wreck careers.

Of course, they can be incredibly exciting. The tension is staggering when such a small event can decide so much. They seem rather unfair - for often the worse team, who may feel they have less to lose, will feel under less pressure and hence perform better in the shootout. It is a fact that penalties (in this situation, at least) have much more to do with your state of mind than your raw ability. If you are nervous, you are much more likely to miss. Simple as that.

Being an Englishman I know only too well how much pain a miss in a shootout can cause. England have lost three times in the final stages of major international competitions since 1990, all thanks to failures in penalty shootouts: the most painful was against Germany in the semi-final of the World Cup in 1990, when Chris Waddle blazed the ball over the bar and never really recovered: nevertheless, the other two were pretty painful too. All three were made worse by the fact that we had clear cut chances to win all three games in open play.

Still, they have their upside. My favourite shootout moment was when England played Spain in Euro 96 - we won it, and Stuart Pearce scored a vital penalty. He had also missed one in the 1990 semi, and had been inconsolable: his bravery in taking the shot and risking further agony was amply rewarded by the catharsis of putting it in the back of the net. His relief and joy, finally redeeming himself after six years of suffering, were plain to see.

If this makes sport sound more important than you think it is, then I apologise - but these moments matter to some. The responsibility of a nation on your shoulders is a heavy burden, as any politician will tell you: when you consider most people in this country care more about the World Cup than they do about public services - any great international victory invariably results in a sudden upsurge in the government's poll ratings - the pressure on the players becomes clear. Just pray you never have to take one.

Finally, some advice in case you do: unless you are exceptionally talented, do not try and place it in the corner. Whilst this is naturally the best position - top corners especially - as it is the furthest from the goalkeeper, the margin for error is very slim, and you will most likely hit it wide. Instead, aim straight down the middle, and hit it low and above all hard. Hopefully the goalkeeper will try and second guess you by diving early, leaving the centre open; also, if you keep the ball low he will find it harder to save with his trailing hand. Another option for the extremely cheeky and confident - I'd recommend practicing this at home first - is to take a leaf out of the West Ham striker Paolo Di Canio's book: when you are about to hit the ball, momentarily pause and look which way the keeper is diving. Then place it in the opposite corner. Naturally, if you mess this up you will look very stupid.

If you are in goal, your task is even harder, though less pressurised. Keep watching the penalty taker, who may well fleetingly glance towards the place where he intends to put the ball, and take note of his body shape as he hits it: you may be able to work out which way it is going. Always dive, as a save with your legs when you have dived too far is more likely than one with your hands when you have stayed still. If you are feelingly morally questionable, you may wish to try and put your opponent off, by, for example, taking your time getting into place and jumping up and down. Bruce Grobelaar, the eccentric Liverpool goalkeeper, famously did a bizarre leg-shimmying dance: it worked. All's fair in love and war.

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