When Spain were awarded a penalty at 1-1 in Monday night’s Euro 2016 Group D decider against Croatia, it was not immediately clear who would take the kick.
Andres Iniesta has taken and scored penalties for both Barcelona and Spain. Cesc Fabregas has also had that responsibility. Villarreal midfielder Bruno takes them for his club. Aritz Aduriz scored four of six from the spot for Athletic Bilbao last season.
But as the Croatia players were [understandably] complaining to referee Bjorn Kuipers about the harsh decision, new Spain captain Sergio Ramos quickly grabbed the ball.
Ramos looked confident as he placed it on the spot, but not so much as he staggered his run-up, waiting for Danijel Subasic to dive one way or the other. The Monaco keeper took advantage to advance well off his line and easily parried Ramos’ hesitantly struck effort.
The missed penalty did not seem that important at the time, as Spain only needed a draw to advance as group leaders and receive a relatively straightforward path through the knock-out rounds.
But Ivan Perisic’s late winner for Croatia turned those tables and means La Roja are now likely to have to overcome Italy, Germany and France to even make the final in Paris on July 10.
Ramos has had a pretty complicated relationship with penalties over his career. The Real Madrid defender famously fired high into the night sky in the shoot-out against Bayern Munich in the 2013/14 Champions League semi-finals, before just weeks later cooly clipping in a ‘panenka’ against Portugal in the Euro 2014 last four. He also converted during the UCL final shoot-out against Atletico Madrid just a few weeks ago.
“It’s always a question of confidence,” he said bullishly after Tuesday's game. “There is nothing new in me taking a penalty. I‘ve always wanted to take this type of responsibility. If there is another chance to take a penalty, I would take it tomorrow.”
Ex-Spain and Madrid coach Jose Antonio Camacho, on duty for Spanish TV station Telecinco, commended Ramos for having the “courage” to step up.
“Ramos missed the penalty, but you need to show the courage to take it,” said Camacho before turning to a well-worn Spanish cliche: “Only those who take the penalties can miss them.”
Ex-Spain and Athletic Bilbao player Julen Guerrero had a different view - saying that Ramos’ performances since replacing Iker Casillas as captain had suggested that he was not dealing well with the extra responsibility.
“It hit me that the player who was most unsure during the game was Sergio Ramos,” Guerrero said on El Larguero. “He had a few slip-ups. Plus the yellow card the other day [against Turkey]. Maybe if you had asked us who we did not want to take the penalty, who offered most doubts, it would have been him.”
Iniesta took and converted Spain’s most recently awarded penalty - against Slovakia in qualification last September. And the very in-form playmaker suggested after the game that he had expected to be asked again but had stepped aside.
“I was going to take it, but Ramos was confident,” Iniesta said quietly. “There is full confidence whoever takes them. We had the bad luck to miss it.”
La Roja coach Vicente Del Bosque was asked about the issue afterwards, and said he always left it to the players themselves to decide who felt like taking it.
“This is something we have talked about many times,” Del Bosque said. “When we have a penalty the player most confident takes it. It is not for the coach to intervene.”
Del Bosque’s strategy here goes against the advice given by Ben Lyttleton in his excellent book ‘Twelve Yards: the art and psychology of the perfect penalty’. Lyttleton argues that managers must take charge of such important calls - and even turns to Spain for one his examples.
Another Madrid legend Raul Gonzalez became the symbol of Spain’s struggles at international level, especially with his penalty miss against Italy at Euro 2000. Eight years later then La Roja coach Luis Aragones controversially dropped Raul from his squad altogether, with 20-year-old replacement Fabregas hitting the winner in the quarter-final shoot-out against Italy.
Since Del Bosque took over Spain’s record from the spot has been pretty poor. David Villa and Xabi Alonso both missed at World Cup 2010, against Honduras and Paraguay respectively. Fabregas has actually failed with all of his last four penalties at international level. Ramos fired wide from 12 yards as Spain were beaten 3-0 by hosts Brazil in the 2013 Confederations Cup final.
None of these misses ended up being too decisive, but they do point to a problem in the team. Del Bosque's penalty policy fits with his idea elsewhere of allowing the team to manage themselves in many ways. The veteran coach feels that his experienced players, who have won so much already, respond best to being trusted to know what to do in most situations.
But when it comes to who takes the penalties they need someone to make the call for them. Iniesta’s laid-back personality makes him less likely to dart over and grab the ball. A similar attitude at Barcelona means he has only taken one spot-kick in the last decade at club level - which he scored - even as Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez have all missed recently.
Ramos’ wish to prove himself, and Iniesta’s reticence, have made it much less likely that Spain will win Euro 2016.
Should they get another penalty later in this tournament, Del Bosque should for sure step in and make sure the right man takes it.
Read more from Dermot Corrigan