The 72-year-old contracted Covid-19 at the end of last year and was put in intensive care. The obituarists were waiting with pens poised.
Panenka knows that despite everything else he did in his career, including playing in a Cup Winners’ Cup final for Rapid Vienna against Everton and being among the first Czechs to experience football beyond the Iron Curtain, accounts of his life will boil down to the audacious dinked penalty that saw Czechoslovakia beat West Germany to become European champions in June 1976.
He’s glad he’s still here to celebrate next weekend's anniversary, just a few days after Scotland host Czech Republic in their opening match of the same competition. Covid has no obligation to spare moustachioed football pioneers.
“Like most who got it, I thought it was incredibly uncomfortable, and people around me were worried,” he says. “But I didn't think it could end badly – not even for a second. I had pneumonia and was in the hospital for a week.
“After this and during the lock-down, I missed exercising and playing sports, which I still enjoy doing even though I've retired. The lock-down did feel a bit long towards the end.”
The illness put his place in the Bohemians seniors’ side under threat. The Prague club is Panenka’s club and they survived their own brush with death after a financial implosion in 2005. He still turns out for the old boys’ team. “My name is so tied to Bohemians that I have to stick around as long as I can!” says the honorary president.
The last time he felt in such mortal danger was in Scotland. Or to be strictly accurate, he was 150kms from Scotland. This is how far away, at least, from Glasgow it was decreed by Uefa that a European Cup-Winners’ Cup second round clash between Celtic and Rapid Vienna in 1984 had to be replayed after a bottle-throwing incident at Parkhead.
The venue chosen was Old Trafford and Panenka described it as the most hostile night he experienced in football. Unhappy Celtic fans, already angered by Uefa’s decision and Rapid Vienna’s roughhouse tactics, saw their team beaten 1-0 after a 3-1 defeat in the first leg (they had been leading 3-0 when a Rapid Vienna player tumbled to the turf near a corner flag, although it was never established if he had been hit by an object).
“There was a massive wave of raging fans who held a grudge against us because of this enormous injustice that had happened during the previous game,” recalls Panenka. “I was scared for life when we were sitting on the bus going to and from the stadium, and I kept thinking the fans might break the windows and kill us; this sort of behaviour does not belong to football.”
It must provide Panenka with some comfort to know that he is assured immortality when his number eventually does come up.
He is in the same company as Pele, Maradona and Cruyff in being generally referred to only by his surname. Indeed, it’s a surprise to find yourself saying “hello Antonin” when he answers a call first time at the allotted hour.
If he had been able to patent the Panenka, triggering a fee every time someone like Zinedine Zidane or, ahem, Jason Cummings tried to follow in his distinguished footsteps, he would not have had to open the sweet shop or later, a wine bar, in Prague that sustained him financially until he realised that this, too, was becoming too dangerous for his health.
The trouble with being the inventor of the Panenka is that everyone wants to buy you a drink and talk to you about the Panenka.
“People come and go while you have to be there the whole time,” he says. “When people came to drink, I would always have a glass with them and chat about football.
“I realised I drank more alcohol during those two years than I had done during my entire life, so I thought this isn't ideal. I would go to bed late and didn't live the healthiest of lives. The wine shop was right across from our house, which didn't help.”
Long before Scotland goalkeeper David Marshall made his momentous stop in Belgrade, Panenka sanctified the very same goalline when devising the then creative ruse of trying to outfox the keeper by dinking the ball down the middle of the goal. Fortunately for him, West Germany’s Sepp Maier, then recognised as the best goalie in the world, chose to dive to his left – just like Marshall last November as Scotland secured their place at this summer’s finals.
How Aleksandar Mitrovic will wish he had the guts to casually chip a shot down the middle as Panenka had done in that very stadium. The impudent strike gave the Czechs their first ever major tournament success at international level after finishing runners-up at two World Cups.
Panenka is a remarkably good sport about re-living it all again for the benefit of his Scottish fans via an interpreter, the Edinburgh based, Prague-born journalist Anna Koslerova. These are busy times for someone guaranteed to feature in countdowns detailing the best European Championship moments. It’s why he retains the services of a media manager.
Prior to an appointment with The Scotsman, Panenka has been entertaining a Spanish football culture magazine. Its name? “Panenka.” Even his dog, a white-bodied Jack Russell called Benik who makes his presence felt down the phone line with intermittent barks, is recorded as Benik Panenka on its birth certificate. Its master describes their day so far.
“I had some filming to do earlier,” says Panenka. “After talking to you, I will do a commercial photo shoot. I am at home 40 minutes away from Prague, I was sitting at the computer earlier looking at the penalty kicks.”
Panenka is in particularly high demand just now because it’s European Championships-time, his country have qualified and they are playing Scotland – against whom he made his international debut in front of 100,000 at Hampden Park in 1973 – in next week’s eagerly anticipated Group D match.
He also scored, though not from the spot, against Scotland in Czechoslovakia’s first competitive game as European champions, a 2-0 World Cup qualifying win in Prague in 1976.
He was an established, nay marquee, player by then, which wasn’t the case three years earlier at Hampden when he trembled at the sight of the vast, packed terraces.
“I was like Alice in Wonderland because I used to play the second league for Bohemians,” he recalls. “I was used to playing in front of 15,000 fans at most, and all of a sudden I came to Hampden Park, where 100,000 Scottish fans were waiting for us. I was shaking, felt small and was scared.”
And that was before he encountered Joe Jordan – “he had no teeth, only two, otherwise a completely empty mouth,” he once recalled – in the tunnel.
The latest clash falls 45 years almost to the day since he executed a shot heard all around the world and then was subsequently copied with varying levels of competence by a succession of ballsy footballers.
Perhaps only Zinedine Zidane has eclipsed Panenka’s brilliance in terms of producing something so extraordinarily artful at such a high stakes moment when he gently clipped his penalty, in the seventh minute of a World Cup final no less, into the net off the bar.
But his France side were beaten on penalties and Zidane did not even get the chance to think about repeating the trick at the shootout having already been sent off.
Some have been more successful than others. In Scotland alone, there’s been Andy Walker, Jim McIntrye and…..former Hibs striker, Cummings. His effort, against Dundee United in the Scottish Cup semi-final, cleared the bar although he did make amends in the shootout when he scored with a more straightforward finish to send his side into the final en route to glory.
It’s amusing to think of Panenka sitting assessing Cummings’ strike – but as he confirms, this is what he has been doing prior to speaking to The Scotsman. He was also sent links to those by Walker, for Ayr United v Kilmarnock in 1999, McIntyre, for Dunfermline v Hibs in a Scottish Cup semi-final in 2007, and, just to bring things up to date, Simeon Jackson’s terrible effort for St Mirren v St Johnstone a couple of seasons ago.
“The technique the players used in the two unsuccessful ones was very bad,” he says. “I must say the best one must have been by McIntyre, he did a great job.
“The run-up was good, he slowed down his foot a little at the end and kicked the ball with a smooth arch into the middle. I think he did the best job.”
High praise indeed. The gimmick of getting Panenka to analyse other attempts is not as novel as we’d hoped. It turns out it’s pretty much all he’s ever asked to do – a Mexican TV station once invited him to run the rule over 50 efforts. “They wanted me to watch them and give them my opinion on what they had done right or wrong,” he says.
“A player, whose name I can't remember, scored an even more excellent one than I did. I believe it was in the second Argentinian league.”
When Odsonne Edouard converted a Panenka in the 2020 Scottish Cup final, played last December, it generated renewed discussion about the rights and wrongs of a technique where the unavoidable consequence of success is the humiliation of a fellow professional. Pundit Neil McCann suggested the method was “disrespectful” and former teammate and Hearts goalkeeper Craig Gordon seemed to agree, chucking the ball towards the Celtic striker after retrieving it from the net.
“I strongly disagree – it was never meant to ridicule anyone,” says Panenka. “It is a technique that requires hard work and precision. I reject and disagree with all claims that state otherwise.
“Knowing that I inspired others makes me proud, especially when I see world-famous players have a go at it. I have seen many of them – when it ends with a goal, it is a great success, but those that miss look a bit foolish.”
He’s tickled by the Panenka’s seeming comeback this century, from Andreas Pirlo to Zidane. “There weren't so many in the 80s and 90s, and now there are more of them,” he says.
“It is something that players need to practice to be good at it, they need to be able to do it if woken up in the middle of the night blinded – they need to automatise it and perfect it. Otherwise, it is a big risk.”
Panenka had laid the groundwork for a moment Pele once described as the work of “a madman – or genius”. He says: “I don't think it would be possible to just kick the ball like that without prior practice. I came to think of it about two years before the European championship. I would practice on a daily basis during football practice, in friendly matches and later in the Czechoslovakia top league. The highlight was, of course, the European championship.”
Nowadays it would be described as very meta when Panenka dusted down his “Panenka” at international level to embarrass the superbly named French goalkeeper Dominique Dropsy in a European Championship qualifier in 1979. There is a flicker of empathy when he recalls the haunted look of a goalkeeper after another successful attempt while on tour in South America.
“I watched the goalkeeper jump for the ball, and then I could see his eyes follow the ball – he had this helpless look in his eyes as he watched the ball lightly glide into the net. I could see the sadness and frustration, but I never considered it to be disrespectful or manipulative to the keeper. I was never trying to ridicule anyone, just deliver a clean goal.
“My lifelong mission was to entertain people and play so that people have something to talk about in the pub and to make sure people have something to remember,” he explains.
“My aim was for people to have something to talk about, look forward to and come back next week.
“I executed many passes and goals; I am very happy with the famous penalty. It makes me proud, but I understand it also overshadows everything else I did and achieved.”