English footballers are not as bad at taking penalties as many people assume, according to new research from an unlikely source: Germany.


Researchers from the German Sport University of Cologne, analysing data from international and club football over four decades, said there is no such thing as England’s “penalty curse”.

Moreover, their conclusion was that England has produced some of the best spot-kick takers in the world, although English performance in penalty shoot-outs has been a slightly weaker area than penalties from open play.

Looking at the 223 penalties awarded in open play across all World Cups and European Championships, England players in fact boast the highest success rate.

They scored around 90 per cent of the time, putting them ahead of players from countries including Germany (75 per cent), Brazil (87.5 per cent), Spain (77 per cent), Holland (75 per cent) and Italy (65 per cent).

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Analysing players of various nationalities in major leagues over a 10-year period, a study involving 4,708 spot kicks, the research again found that English players fared well, placing around the top.

English footballers converted 75.14 per cent of penalties in that period, marginally lower than their Dutch (77.1 per cent) and Italian (75.61 per cent) counterparts, and ahead of German (69.03 per cent), Spanish (69.41 per cent) and Brazilian (73.2 per cent) players.

The area in which England’s results are not as strong, however, is penalty shoot-outs.

England has only won three of its nine shoot-outs since that nerve-shredding decider was introduced, failing in the World Cups of 1990, 1998 and 2006, and in the Euros of 1996, 2004 and 2012.

However, the success rate of England players in these shootouts – 61.32 per cent – was not substantially lower than the international average of around 70 per cent, with the researchers calling this a small deviation “by statistical convention”.

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England’s result on this score compares with those of Spain (67.83 per cent), Italy (69 per cent), Holland (67.39 per cent) and Brazil (68.75 per cent).

It may surprise few, and reinforce another footballing stereotype, to learn that German players are well ahead in this category, with a success rate of 85.29 per cent.

The research team concluded England’s reputation regarding penalties suffered because the misses that meant the most – such as in World Cup penalty shoot-outs – were remembered far more clearly than, say, the successful conversion of in-play penalties by English players.

“This cognitive bias might contribute to the stereotype that English players are bad at penalty kicks as a loss in an emotional penalty shoot-out during a World or European Cup arguably comes more easily to mind than an in-game penalty,” the paper concluded.

“In turn, people believe that English players miss more penalties than they actually do.

“Compared to the respective sample means, English players slightly over-performed in in-game penalties and under-performed in shoot-outs.

“However, none of these comparisons reached statistical significance.


“We conclude that the nationality factor does not explain meaningful variance in penalty performance, and the explanation for the poor performance in penalty shoot-outs of the England national team in the past most likely lies with other factors, including the unreliable measurement of penalty performance.”

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Alexander McNamaraOnline Editor, BBC Science Focus

Alexander is the former Online Editor at BBC Science Focus.