Would this complex exist if England had lost to another nation on penalties in 1996? Switzerland, say? Or the Czech Republic? Alex Gordon is a professional semiotician and chief executive of Sign Salad, a cultural insight agency that looks for meaning in everyday events and symbols.
“It’s clear to me that international football is the modern-day replacement for battle,” Gordon says. “We see that not just with the language used in football reporting – “from the camp”, “gaining territory”, that kind of thing – but also with national anthems and exchanging of pennants before matches.
“A penalty shootout is critical to the way a nation views itself. Its whole cultural narrative is being written as it takes place, and the national myth is being reinforced or transformed. In England’s case, it absolutely matters because every loss on penalties is a reminder of our loss of Empire; the penalty defeat is about the loss of our global status.”
Gordon also links the clarity and simplicity of the penalty’s one-on-one combat, especially in today’s social media-driven crowd-sourced landscape, to a romantic appeal that can be traced back to Hector, Lancelot and Robin Hood. “Historically the duel is about chivalry and romance, all of which are true of the penalty,” Gordon says.
“There’s the respect of waiting till your opponent is ready; the romantic stories of penalty heroes and villains. And masculinity plays a huge role; only the brave take a penalty, but missing one is like losing your alpha-maleness. Like the lion who loses a fight and is banished from his pride: this is about the essential structure of the human and animal tribal system.”
England have not won a shootout in the 20 years since that dramatic summer’s night at Wembley. Their last two European Championship knockout matches have ended the same way: with shootout defeats, by Italy (2012) and Portugal (2004).