Czechoslovakia was a nation torn between toeing the party line and self-expression. And then Antonín Panenka stepped up. 

Antonín Panenka was born in the centre of mainland Europe, in Prague, on December 2, 1948. In February of that year, his home country Czechoslovakia had experienced a coup d’etat led by the Czechoslovak Communist Party (KSČ), ushering in a regime that would last until the fall of communism in Europe in 1989. 

Czechoslovakia had only been formed three decades earlier out of the rubble of the First World War but was dragged under the Nazis’ sphere when Hitler proclaimed the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia in March 1939. 

Before Nazism and communism, however, there was football

In 1934, the national team of the newly-formed republic reached the World Cup final in the second instalment of the global competition, losing 2-1 to hosts Italy after extra-time. 

(Image: Newsquest)


Then, during the communist era, Czechoslovakia reached their second global showpiece in the 1962 finals tournament in Chile, when Brazil chalked up their second consecutive victory with a 3-1 win in the final. 

Panenka was barely a teenager then. After the dogmatic administration of communism during the 1950s, he grew up in Prague during a decade of relative liberalism in the wake of the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953. The 1960s brought calls for a more progressive approach to socialism which manifested in a burgeoning Czechoslovak culture propelled by the post-war youth movement.  

Around the same time the Czechoslovak team returned from South America with their World Cup runners-up medals wrapped around their necks, the first graduates of the renowned FAMU film school at Prague’s Charles University were leading the cultural charge with a subversive, avant-garde approach which would influence world cinema and became known as the Czechoslovak New Wave. Figures like Miloš Forman and Věra Chytilová were cutting their teeth with an expressionistic and often surrealist palette. 

From within a system which deified the value of the collective, freedom of individual expression and subversivism remained politically taboo, and the culmination of this period with the Prague Spring of 1968 led increasingly nervous neighbouring bloc nations to convince the Soviet Union to front an invasion into Prague in August that year and force a political reset. 

A period which became known as normalisation ensued, where the authorities clamped down on the liberal goals of the Prague Spring, and this lasted throughout the 1970s and 1980s right up until the fall of the regime at the end of that decade. 

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There was a period of significant challenge to the regime during normalisation, however. In 1976, following arrests of figures associated with an underground rock band named Frank Zappa and the Plastic People of the Universe (a group who looked Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band if they had spent three years inside a fallout shelter) a charter was circulated calling for their immediate release. This became part of a movement calling for the protection of human rights and freedom of expression, which these political arrests flew in the face of. 

Again, working in the background during this period was the Czechoslovak national football team. By now, Panenka was a household name in his homeland as the leader of the Bohemians team in Prague. But the football team, the sporting epitome of the national collective, were building up a head of steam in qualifying for the 1976 European Championships. 

After topping a group containing England, Portugal and Cyprus to qualify for the quarter-final play-off, the Czechs did the unthinkable and defeated the Soviet Union 4-2 over two legs to reach the four-team finals in Yugoslavia. 

Panenka & Co exorcised their 1962 World Cup final demons by defeating European competition in extra-time after seeing off the Netherlands 3-1 in Zagreb to reach the final. 

West Germany, a nation situated on the dividing line between East and West during the Cold War, had themselves progressed following extra-time at the hands of hosts Yugoslavia with a 4-2 victory to set up a Belgrade showpiece. 

Czechoslovakia shot into a 2-0 lead, before West Germany produced a comeback when Bernd Hölzenbein equalised at the death. 

Once again, the match went to extra-time, but on this occasion neither side could find a winner. Cue the first-ever penalty shootout to decide a European Championship. 

Slovak Marián Masný went first and dispatched past Sepp Maier. Rainer Bonhoff levelled, and it bounced back and forth between Zdeněk Nehoda, Heinz Flohe, Anton Ondruš, Hans Bongartz and Ladislav Jurkemik, until Ulrich Hoeness fluffed his lines from 12 yards, leaving the stage set for Panenka to make history. 

Having grown up at the centre of a fluctuating continent, in a nation which had been dragged to the far right before swinging to the far left, the little Czech striker stepped up to plant the ball on the spot looking with his bob and moustache like late 1960s Ringo Starr. 

Panenka’s job was to deliver for a nation. It was 1976. His homeland was split over ideas of toeing the party line and self-expression. A pioneer of the penalty shootout, standing at the vanguard of the footballing continent, Panenka began his trademark long run-up. 

Which way would he go, left or right? Maier guessed left when the leather of the Czech’s boot made contact with the ball. What the world witnessed instead was the delivery of a technique that would become synonymous with the taker’s name. 

The ball gently clipped off the front of his boot and delicately landed right down the centre of the goal. This was the ultimate expression of the individual in football. The Panenka was born.