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June 6, 2014 1:19 pm
Holland’s 6ft goalkeeper Michel Vorm strides towards me and, with a frosty stare, thrusts a football hard against my chest. I am standing on a penalty spot at the training ground of his club, Swansea City, and the man dubbed “The Penalty Killer” for his fearsome ability to save spot kicks is coaching me in football’s darkest art.
I place the ball on the spot and step back. Vorm retreats slowly to the goal line, rattles the crossbar with his giant hands and bellows: “Are you nervous yet?”
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Somewhat off-script, he then starts giggling. The Dutchman is simply too amiable to keep up his sinister charade. But he wants me to feel what it’s like for a professional footballer. “Goalkeepers play mind games,” he explains. “We delay the penalty and let the tension build because the pressure is always on the kicker.”
I run forward, kick the ball to Vorm’s left and he gobbles it up in his arms. “Pressure,” he says, nodding. “The goal is 7.3m by 2.4m, so you think: how can anybody miss? But pressure changes everything. You see players change their mind, panic – or slip like John Terry in the  Champions League final.”
The truth is I had already lost our mental duel earlier when I had to park my Renault Clio next to Vorm’s red Ferrari. But I shouldn’t be nervous when the crowd consists of one photographer, two media officers and a groundsman. For the last World Cup final in 2010 the global television audience topped 700 million.
Spain beat Holland 1-0 after extra time that day, sparing the players the ordeal of a penalty shootout. But Vorm, who was Holland’s reserve goalkeeper, would have relished the chance to be a hero.
Vorm hopes that Dutch manager Louis van Gaal will make him first-choice goalkeeper this time around, ahead of Ajax’s Jasper Cillessen and Newcastle’s Tim Krul. “It doesn’t get better than playing football in Brazil,” says the 30-year-old. “We have a tough group with Chile, Spain and Australia but to play in Brazil would be unbelievable.”
Vorm’s penalty-saving skills could prove invaluable in a knockout tournament. He first earned his reputation at Dutch club FC Utrecht, which he joined as an apprentice aged 14, making 136 first-team appearances between 2005 and 2011. After moving to Swansea in August 2011 he became an instant hero, saving more than two-thirds of the penalties he faced in his first season. “When you save a penalty, you go crazy,” he says. “I saved one in my first home game for Swansea against Wigan. You get so much adrenalin and feel so important for the team.”
I try a second penalty low to Vorm’s right and the ball squirms in. “Anything hard into the bottom corner is tough to save,” he explains. “Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard normally kick it there. You know it’s going there but it’s still not easy to stop.”
He suggests that I could better disguise my run-up. “When right-footed players run in an arc from the left-hand side I think there’s an 80 per cent chance it will go to my right because that is the easiest place to kick it. Some players, like Robin van Persie, can kick through the ball and put it the other side, but it’s a harder skill.”
I decide to try my favourite penalty: running straight at the ball and striking it with the outside of my right foot. If you get it right, your foot looks like it is aiming towards the goalkeeper’s right, but the ball flies to his left. If you get it wrong, you could bring down a low-flying aeroplane. This time it works. “Did you miskick it?” asks Vorm, puncturing my joy.
He grew up in the province of Utrecht, where his father was an amateur goalkeeper as well as a barber. “He’s 73 now but people always said to me as a kid: ‘Your dad was a great keeper.’ He still watches Match of the Day and gives me advice.”
Today Vorm enjoys his battles with the Premier League’s finest strikers. He reveals how the much-maligned Luis Suárez always nods respectfully when he makes a good save, and how Wayne Rooney constantly glances at his position in case he can surprise him with a shot. On the pitch, his highlight was winning the Capital One Cup with Swansea in 2013. Off the pitch, he enjoys spending time with his wife and two sons. “I live near the beach, so we play football there and walk the dog. I like a simple life.”
We swap places and I take my turn in goal. Vorm tells me that saving a penalty requires a peculiar alchemy of research, science, instinct and psychology. “You can now find almost every penalty on the internet, so I do my homework on players,” he says. “Last season Emmanuel Adebayor hit five penalties in the same corner but when he took his sixth penalty the goalkeeper went the other way. Why? I couldn’t believe it.” The scientific component involves working with percentages: “I look at a player’s eyes because they almost always have a final look at the corner in which they want to shoot. Dive that way and you will save more than you let in.”
But intuition is just as important. “Sometimes I just have a gut feeling,” says Vorm. He also likes to examine the psychology of the moment. “If the player’s team is 1-0 up, he might try anything, but in a pressure moment players go back to their special, reliable penalty. So I ask myself: what is he thinking?”
None of this helps me as Vorm confidently slides his first penalty to my right. “Make sure your feet are touching the ground when I shoot, but don’t put your heels down or it’s hard to jump,” he advises. On the next shot I get a hand to it. “Not bad,” he says.
For his next penalty Vorm strikes the ball straight down the middle and it bounces in through my legs. That was to teach me a lesson. “The most important thing is to wait until the last second,” he says. “A lot of penalties are not that good, so wait longer and you will save more.” This time I wait and miraculously get a left hand to it. Vorm gives me a round of applause.
We both know that there is only one way to finish this training session: the penalty shootout. Vorm shakes the crossbar again and teases me, but I manage to score two goals, both low to his right. “They are hard to save when they hit the side netting,” he says. “Leighton Baines does that. When it hits your fingers and still goes in, I hate it.” I, on the other hand, let in four penalties, the final one drawing another giggle. “I was looking at you so I saw you move early and went the other way.”
Final score: Michel Vorm 4 – FT 2. Perhaps it was inevitable. I am, after all, an Englishman.
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