A needlessly detailed guide to the best penalty in history: Hélder Postiga’s waist-high chip against England

Helder Postiga of Portugal celebrates at the Luz Stadium on June 24, 2004 in Lisbon
Helder Postiga of Portugal celebrates at the Luz Stadium on June 24, 2004 in Lisbon

Whatever you received this Christmas, it probably wasn’t as good as the gift bestowed upon the world by the editors of French football magazine So Foot.

They chose 25 December to launch the first part of a whopping 100-entry list of ‘legendary penalties’, drip-feeding us the rest over the last couple of weeks. It is, even if you don’t happen to speak French, a thing of startling beauty, and – fair warning – about as addictive as opium. Do not click that link if you want to get any work done in the next four hours.

Part of the charm of the list is that it takes in misses and mishaps as well as notable successes. So alongside the Olsen-Cruyff one-two for Ajax (#8) and Andrea Pirlo’s delicate dismantling of Joe Hart’s ego (#34), you have Diana Ross ruining the opening ceremony of the 1994 World Cup (#90), Martin Palermo adorably managing to miss three spot-kicks in one Argentina match (#41) and Roberto Baggio’s iconic miscalculation against Brazil (#2). Plus a bunch of other amusing moments you may not have seen before.

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There is, however, one major oversight that casts a shadow over the whole endeavour.

It is the choice of the 2010 shootout between Uruguay and Ghana as #1. Not that those fraught minutes in Johannesburg weren’t dramatic – they were unrelentingly, pulse-quickeningly so. But that soap-opera plot cannot hold a candle to what is, without question, the single best penalty kick of all time – a heady cocktail of fragile aesthetics and high-stakes derring-do that defined a generation and immortalised its author.

No, not Antonín Panenka’s patent-securing chip (#3); Hélder Postiga’s Euro 2004 masterpiece against England.

Literally everything about this is wonderful. It’s cheeky. It’s weird. It’s hard to know what he was trying to do, let alone whether he managed to do it. It’s romantic. It’s fundamentally a bit crap, but its crapness elevates it. It’s fun. Just watch it again – go on – and try not to smile. Or giggle.

If you’re not yet convinced – and I do detect a dose of scepticism coming through my internet connection – here is an itemised list of considerations that should help realign your thinking:

It’s an optical illusion. When he first hits it, before your brain has clocked that the ball is travelling unbelievably slowly, it looks as though he’s belted it towards the top-left corner. But he has not. Hélder Postiga just messed around inside your mind.

It feels like – but isn’t – an oxymoron. Before we get into the semiotics of the waist-height chip, a brief clarificatory Q&A: Q: What is the difference between a chip and a lob in sport? A: a chip refers to the manner in which a player addresses a ball, and a lob refers to the ball’s trajectory relative to an opposition player.

These are distinct phenomena, which are nicely delineated in most sports (golf: no goalkeeper but lots of chips; tennis: lots of lobs over opponents) but routinely conflated in football. “He’s chipped the goalkeeper,” we might say, when we really mean “he’s lobbed the goalkeeper”. (Working folk theory: someone, somewhere once shortened the phrase “he’s chipped THE BALL OVER the goalkeeper”, not realising that it would catch on.)

What this means is that chips don’t tend to get the credit they deserve when they’re not also lobs. And, more importantly, that we unthinkingly set the bar higher than it should be – figuratively and literally – for a shot being a chip: we relate the term with the ball going over head height, say, or at least high enough to beat a diving goalkeeper.

Postiga’s effort does not meet those false criteria, but he has chipped the ball here: his boot slices under it, imparting backspin and lifting it into the air. He hasn’t lobbed David James, obviously, nor has he chipped the ball over him. But he has beaten him with a chip – a slow-motion, one-metre high chip, aka the coolest chip imaginable.

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The great thing here, aside from the fact that Postiga has made us think about semantics, is the unnecessariness of it all. James has gone the wrong way anyway; he could just have rolled the ball into the corner. But that would have been dull, whereas this is impish and magical. And the fact that James would clearly have saved it had he gone to his left – and thus that the very nature of the penalty makes you think about that very possibility and its likely consequences for Postiga – is the cherry on the cake. It’s a penalty that’s acknowledges the existence of possible worlds.

David James is stood up before the ball has even gone in. He’s not just watching the ball go over the line from a comfy position on the floor; he actually has time to climb to his feet for the best possible view. This is both generous and cruel.

Everyone in England thought Postiga was absolutely rubbish. “He is a player who will definitely add striking quality to our squad,” said Glenn Hoddle when Spurs paid Porto £8.25million for him in June 2003. “I’m sure the supporters will enjoy watching him over the coming seasons.” But they didn’t: Postiga went back home with his tail between his legs, one season and a grand total of two goals later.

Was Postiga any good, really? Probably not: he only managed one 15-goal season and never lived up to the early promise. But we didn’t know that then, and the possibility that Spurs had actually let a genuine talent slip through their fingers lent an extra sheen to the f***-you nonchalance of his penalty.

This was obviously the best moment in Deco’s life. It is 2004. This man has won three Portuguese titles and the Champions League. He has, you assume, watched a great many hours of football, watching countless penalty kicks. But look at his face, lit up with glee, and tell me this isn’t going to be the first story he tells his grandkids when they ask him about his playing career.

The commentator absolutely loses it. “Here comes Postiga with the shot… OOOOOOOHHHHHHUUIIIIII! What savagery! Ooooh, Mister Postiga!”

It has inspired its own genre. Look, we all know a successful Panenka when we see one. Francesco Totti, Pirlo, ‘Loco’ Abreu, your mate Gavin with the topknot at five-a-side: they’ve all done them. They’re cool. But they’re also a bit too neat and, yes, too safe. Dinking the ball a couple of feet into the air and hoping for the best: that’s the real quiz. Just ask Aritz Aduriz. Or Arjen Robben…

The ball bounces before hitting the net. That’s how softly he hit it. In a major-championship knockout game. In his home country. After a season during which he barely looked capable of describing a goal, let alone scoring one. Gutsy.

It’s good because it’s rubbish. Look, I’m well aware that, objectively speaking, this is not that great a penalty. The risk factor is off the chart, there’s a good chance that he wasn’t even trying to put the ball where it ended up, and realistically it’s not even the most fondly-remembered kick in that shootout (hi, Ricardo!), let alone the history of football. But these are all reasons to like it even more: it’s one for the dreamers and the underdogs.

“All my favorite singers couldn’t sing,” The Silver Jews once sang, and that’s really the point here. The best penalty in history isn’t that good a penalty, but it is cooler than all the others. Take note, So Foot.

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