Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Phase Two: The Knockout Stage - Portugal vs. Spain

When you start the journey that is the World Cup, there's always a sense of anxiety.

You try to focus on the two segments of the tournament: there's the qualification aspect, which Team Portugal has already achieved, and then there's the knockout phase, which requires a winning mentality. The loser goes home and the winner stays. We've reached the knockout stage and we don't want to go home.

As Team Portugal prepares for the match against Spain, we're in a good space and a good frame of mind. The game plan is on track. We haven't conceded a goal at the World Cup and if we can maintain that discipline and sense of structure, we're always in a position to compete.

I think our game against Spain is going to be a lot like a boxing match. Each opponent is going to take a few punches here and there to see how the other team adjusts and reacts. That will determine the rhythm of the match and I think that will be extremely important. These are two teams with skillful players who will try to assess the opposition. The teams who are able to identify and expose areas of weakness and capitalize on their opponent's mistakes generally are the teams that come out on top.

It's only natural that the history between these two nations gives the match a bit more significance. After all, we are neighbors'. It's also kind of ironic that the two counties have combined efforts to bid for either the 2018 or 2022 World Cup and now we're in opposing positions where one of us will go home.

Entering the knockout phase, there has been a greater emphasis on penalty kicks in training. We divide the players into three teams with each player taking three penalty kicks, rotating at three different goals. I've taken the opportunity to share my philosophy on defending penalty kicks with Portugal's three goalkeepers. Ultimately, it's their style and personality that should dictate how they react to a shooter.

There are a number of things a goalkeeper can look for as the opposing player prepares to shoot. Essentially, it's psychological warfare between the shooter and goalkeeper. When penalty kickers train, they try to master a routine: they get a bag of balls, put them down, place one ball down in a particular way with the valve facing a certain way, they take so many steps in their approach. What a goalkeeper can try to do is interrupt that routine and there are various ways to do that: taking their time to set up, walking up to the ball, moving on the line, switching to a second pair of gloves.

Then, you get into the technical aspects by looking at the approach the shooter takes. If it's a normal approach to the ball, then in most cases it's a normal swing from the player. For example, if a right-footed shooter stands to the left of the ball, then the natural swing would be the right foot kicking to the right of the goalkeeper. If there's some sort of deception used, like a long run to the ball or a short arching one, they're likely to go against their natural swing. Then, a goalkeeper can look at physical aspects such as where the hips are facing. If the hips are opened up to a certain side, then generally that's where the ball is going. These things happen very quickly and it's very difficult to process all this in a few split seconds.

Some players are getting craftier now. They have those little hesitation run-ups to see if a goalkeeper moves. If he does and the shooter is clever enough and skilled enough to go to the other side, he has an advantage. If a goalkeeper doesn't fall for it, the shooter will try going to his strongest side.

And of course, we try to get a history on the opposing players. Even during the match, you try to study the tendencies of certain players. If a player has had several shots on goal and tends to go to the same side, chances are that's his favorite side in taking a penalty kick. Sometimes during a warm-up before games, a potential penalty taker wants to practice his penalties and we try to alert our team to those types of situations.

All these may help prepare a goalkeeper, but I don't have the perfect answer or solution. If I did, then you could only imagine how valuable I would be to a team!

On Monday night before the match, we had a special guest visit the Portugal team. Francois Pienaar, the former rugby player who captained the Springboks when they won the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa, spoke to the players. If you've seen the movie Invictus with Matt Damon as Francois and Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela, then you are familiar with his story. The players watched an edited down version of the movie and the highlight of the presentation was having Francois there to give an incredible inspirational message to the team.

Number one, he asked the players to imagine. He asked them to imagine the support of the nation; to visualize those young boys and girls who wear their jerseys with their names on it to bed the night before in great anticipation to watch them play.

Number two was no "ifs." Don't accept the word "if" like, "What if I don't make the right pass? What if I don't make the right tackle? What if I don't take the right shot?" He told the team to remove that word from their language. Instead use the word "if" I do this than there is a positive outcome.

And the third point was positive energy. From the moment you wake up, maintain positive energy because it's contagious. Francois truly captivated our players and he left them with one final message: Don't play with fear, but play with excitement.

Live the World Cup!
Dan Gaspar

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