The kick that killed a career: the sorry decline of France star Reynald Pedros

Reynald Pedros

Twenty-one years ago, the attacking midfielder was a rising star in the French Euro 96 squad whose name was spoken in the same breath as Zinedine Zidane. One missed penalty later, and his life in football took a very different turn

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Words: Ben Lyttleton and Cedric Rouquette

France and the Czech Republic had gone the distance. After 120 draining and ultimately goalless minutes, their Euro 96 semi-final – played at Old Trafford mere hours before England faced Germany at Wembley – was set for the inevitable conclusion: a penalty shootout.

Les Bleus had defeated the Dutch 5-4 on penalties in the previous round at Anfield, when each of their five kickers made no mistake. The tie was won when Bernard Lama saved from Clarence Seedorf.

France kicked first against the Czechs, and once again every one of their five men scored. Zinedine Zidane, Youri Djorkaeff, Bixente Lizarazu and Vincent Guerin all found the net. So did Laurent Blanc, wearing No.5 and taking penalty No.5, although his effort was weakly hit and almost saved, the ball squeezing under Czech keeper Petr Kouba.

Laurent Blanc

Blanc was a little fortunate to score his penalty

Every time France scored, the Czechs responded in kind. First Lubos Kubik, then Pavel Nedved, Patrik Berger, Karel Poborsky and Karel Rada – all five converted. So, after 10 kicks and with the shootout score tied at 5-5, it went to sudden death.

Promising start

Pedros had a role in one of the most memorable goals in French football history, scored by Loko in August 1994 against Paris Saint-Germain

Up next for France was 24-year-old midfielder Reynald Pedros. He'd joined Nantes at the age of 14, then worked his way through their academy to make it to the first team under the fabled Coco Suaudeau, who instigated ‘jeu a la nantaise’ – a fluid style of one-touch attacking football that would culminate in Nantes winning Ligue 1 in 1995. Pedros played on the left wing and, alongside Patrice Loko and Nicolas Ouedec, was part of the ‘trio magique’ that would routinely destroy defences.

Pedros had a role in one of the most memorable goals in French football history, scored by Loko in August 1994 against PSG. Running in from the wing, Loko exchanged a volleyed one-two with Pedros on the edge of the area and then smashed home a stunning goal, without the ball bouncing once. The following season, Nantes reached the Champions League semi-finals, losing to eventual winners Juventus 4-3 on aggregate.

Pedros played for France Under-21s and then the seniors; in fact, he was on the pitch for France’s lowest moment, the World Cup qualifier against Bulgaria in 1993 in which they conceded a late goal that prevented them from going to the United States. Strangely, 5ft 8in Pedros was meant to be covering the post at the corner from which Emil Kostadinov scored Bulgaria’s opener.

By the time Euro 96 came along, Pedros was seen as part of French football’s exciting future. With a World Cup on home soil just two years away, there was an enormous buzz about a group of players that included Zidane, Djorkaeff, Christophe Dugarry and Pedros, Nantes’ 24-year-old star.

Stepping up to the plate

I decided to aim to the goalkeeper’s left, as I had done on the few previous occasions I was asked to take a penalty

- Reynald Pedros

Yet the fierce competition for places at the tournament meant Pedros wasn’t quite top of les Bleus’ pecking order. He played half an hour as a substitute against Bulgaria in the group stage, and 40 minutes of the quarter-final against the Netherlands. Pedros had put himself forward as the sixth kicker against the Dutch, not that he was required, and did the same having come on after an hour against the Czechs – even though one of his team-mates wasn’t so sure about the idea.

“I was surprised to see Reynald go to take a penalty,” said Guerin. “I thought a more experienced player would be taking that kick. I almost told him to come back, but hey, you can’t say that to a player – he’s the one who has made the decision to go.”

Pedros saw it as his responsibility. Although he didn’t regularly take penalties for Nantes, he was a technical player and practised them in training. “I was focused, thinking: ‘There’s no need to rush’ – there was no anxiety at that moment at all,” Pedros tells FFT over coffee on a sunny Parisian afternoon 20 years later.

Reynald Pedros

Pedros turns away after failing to convert from 12 yards

“I knew I had to make a decision, so I made one. I decided to aim to the goalkeeper’s left, as I had done on the few previous occasions I was asked to take a penalty.”

It was a decision that would prove costly, and – incredibly – mark the beginning of the end of Reynald Pedros’ career.

Fateful kick

Pedros ruffled his hair, then lifted his shirt over his head so he wouldn’t see his team-mates’ reactions

Pedros was left-footed, so aiming to the goalkeeper’s left means kicking to his natural side – something most players who aren’t regular penalty takers tend to do. The problem, explains Pedros, was “the technical execution”. He’s right: after a slight stutter in his run-up, he took a poor penalty.

“There just wasn’t enough power,” the 44-year-old admits. “It was too central, and not very high. But then, if the goalkeeper had gone the other way, nobody would have mentioned it. He made the right decision.”

Pedros looked lost after the kick was saved. He ruffled his hair, then lifted his shirt over his head so he wouldn’t see his team-mates’ reactions. After all, the Czechs hadn’t missed any of the 19 penalties they’d taken in major tournament shootouts up until that point. Miroslav Kadlec stepped up next, and smashed his kick straight down the middle. Bernard Lama, who dived early, had no chance.

Petr Kouba

Kouba saves Pedros' spot-kick to send the Czechs to the final

“When that went in,” Pedros remembers, “I just thought: ‘Shit. It’s all over’. I don’t remember any bad words from my team-mates, though. No one had a go at me.”

In fact, one of the coaches, Philippe Bergeroo, took him aside in the dressing room to cheer him up. “There are worse things than this that happen in life,” he said. Coach Aime Jacquet felt sorry for Pedros, and blamed himself for putting the relative novice in that position.

Pedros thought about the French penalty just before his; the one taken by Blanc. It was in almost exactly the same spot as his, but Kouba failed to stop it. “Five centimetres the other way,” he says. “That’s where fortune comes in.”