This list is based on personal preference, but my opinion is worth more than yours anyway.
10. Pierre van Hooijdonk
When he isn’t busy calling Robin van Persie an ar*ehole, Pierre van Hooijdonk often passed the time by perfecting his free-kicks. Even with his curling efforts, the Dutchman was able to exert an unyielding amount of pressure and force to his efforts. While Roberto Carlos and Cristiano Ronaldo are famed for their blasted and often inconsistent attempts, Van Hooijdonk was capable of applying the ideal amount of control to a powerful strike. The perfect free-kick is created with an intricate blend of numerous ingredients, and Van Hooijdonk owned the recipe for a fearsome thunderb*stard of a set piece.
9. Sinisa Mihajlovic
Branislav Ivanovic took a free-kick for Chelsea against Aston Villa on Saturday. From 20 yards out, the Serbian’s effort was lofted comfortably into the arms of Brad Guzan, a keeper who had transcended the description of ‘hapless’ in a 90-minute performance during which he conceded four goals. It was the prime example of why centre-halves very rarely take free-kicks.
In that respect, Sinisa Mihajlovic differed from the norm. The Serbian is the Serie A joint record-holder for most goals scored directly from a set piece, with 28. Few professional footballers can lay claim to having scored a hat-trick of free-kicks, a feat achieved by Mihaljovic in a league game for Lazio against Sampdoria in December 1998. His were not the most aesthetically pleasing efforts, but few allied power and precision quite like the controversial defender in order to deceive a goalkeeper. The less said about those ‘controversies’ the better.
8. Dimitri Payet
Artur Boruc. Jason Steele. David de Gea. Yuri Lodygin. Wayne Hennessey.
The goalkeepers against which Dimitri Payet has scored a free-kick for either club or country this season alone is a mixed selection, ranging from brilliant to ordinary. But do not be fooled, there could be three goalkeepers facing him and the Frenchman would find a way to manipulate the ball and, invariably, score. In the words of Daniel Storey, explaining why the strike against Crystal Palace was his goal of the season:
‘Having scored a sublime free-kick for France during the international break (and other similar goals for West Ham), there was no doubt that Payet would shoot at goal. Yet he fooled every single person in the ground with his shot. So adept is Payet at curling the ball over the wall and away from the goalkeeper’s right hand that nobody thought he would do anything else. Least of all Wayne Hennessey, who had planted his weight on his right foot in order to dive for the ball.’
Wayne Hennessey is 6ft 6ins. He was made to look two-feet tall. Has Zinedine Zidane ever done that? Has he heck.
7. Roberto Baggio
Baggio’s Magical Kicks may not have breached the list of the top 10 football computer games, but it is a testament to a truly iconic specialist of the art of free-kick taking. Only three players scored more in Serie A than Il Divin Codino, an illustrious list including the aforementioned Mihajlovic, Alessandro Del Piero and Andrea Pirlo. The instinctive reaction for many upon hearing the Italian’s name is to recall his decisive penalty miss in the shootout of the 1994 World Cup final, but that does an absolute disservice to one of the greats of the game.
One of Baggio’s party tricks was his free-kicks. Juventus fans will fondly remember his effort in the second leg of the 1995 UEFA Cup semi final, curling the ball beyond the grasp of a stranded Stefan Klos, handing The Old Lady a 4-3 lead on aggregate which they would not squander. Parma defeated Juventus in the subsequent final, but Baggio’s heroics at the Westfalenstadion live long in the memory, as does each of his other numerous efforts.
6. Ronald Koeman
While the majority of players compiled on this list are remembered for numerous free-kicks, few are synonymous with just one. But then fewer still have settled a major tournament final with one. Ronald Koeman falls firmly into the latter category, with his winner in extra time of the 1992 European Cup final for Barcelona against Sampdoria the most enduring example of his set piece excellence. The Dutchman, questionable bowl haircut and all, hammered a decisive effort past Gianluca Pagliuca in the 112th minute to seal a first ever tournament victory for John Cruyff’s the Catalan club.
His most famous free-kick was a powerful strike, but variety was the most potent weapon among Koeman’s arsenal. England found that out for themselves during their qualifying campaign for the 1994 World Cup. As Joe Lovejoy wrote for The Independent in October 1993:
‘The Dutch scored when the kick was retaken, Koeman surprising England’s defenders by opting for precision instead of power, and chipping the ball past Seaman’s flailing right hand.’
David Seaman being chipped from a free-kick? Never.
They say practice makes perfect. And a Zico free-kick is the quintessential embodiment of the phrase. The brief, insouciant run-up. The caress of the ball. The ripple of the net. Those are the three steps which became synonymous with the original free-kick specialist. The Brazilian is regarded as one of the world’s greatest players of the 1980s, and his stature owes much to his set piece prowess. While at Udinese in Serie A, it once took him five minutes to take a single free-kick against Juventus due to constant encroaching from the opposition defence, desperate to prevent what almost amounted to a penalty for ‘the White Pele’.
“I remember, he always stayed on after training,” former Flamengo and Brazil teammate Leonardo once said. “He placed two shirts, one on the left corner, one on the other corner, and he had to get them down. But it was really impressive. He took 50 free-kicks, and he took the shirts down 30 or 35 times.”
If the free-kick was ever considered a simple by-product of the regulations of football, Zico ensured that the set piece could become a masterpiece through hours, days and years of practice. Just ask Scotland’s Alan Rough. Or Fiorentina goalkeeper Giovanni Galli, who had reportedly taunted Zico days before an upcoming game, claiming that the Brazilian would aim for the bottom right corner were he to be awarded a free-kick. Zico was awarded a free-kick, and Galli positioned himself of the left-hand side of his goal, true to his declaration. Zico simply lofted the ball into the slightest of gaps to his left.
4. Andrea Pirlo
Andrea Pirlo is far cooler than you, and he is far cooler than me. So why not let Andrea Pirlo tell you why he is good at free-kicks?
‘I’m Italian, but I’m also part-Brazilian. Pirlinho, if you like. When I take my free-kicks, I think in Portuguese and at most I’ll do the celebrating in my native tongue.
‘I strike those dead balls alla Pirlo. Each shot bears my name and they’re all my children. They look like one another without being twins, even if they do boast the same South American roots. More precisely, they share a source of inspiration: Antonio Augusto Ribeiro Reis Junior, a midfielder who’s gone down in history as Juninho Pernambucano.
‘During his time at Lyon, that man made the ball do some quite extraordinary things. He’d lay it on the ground, twist his body into a few strange shapes, take his run-up and score. He never got it wrong. Never. I checked out his stats and realised it couldn’t just be chance. He was like an orchestra conductor who’d been assembled upside down, with the baton held by his feet instead of his hands. He’d give you the thumbs up by raising his big toe – somebody at Ikea was having a good laugh the day they put him together.
‘The further away from goal I am, the better. As the distance increases, so does the effect I can impart. The greater the space between me and the keeper, the quicker the ball tends to drop as it hones in on its target.
‘I can obviously mix things up a bit, throw in a few little tricks to make every free kick unique, but the underlying concept never changes. Scoring from a dead-ball brings me massive satisfaction. It sets me up as an example for other players to follow, copy and perhaps even emulate over the course of time. For them, I’m a Juninho Pernambucano 2.0, a Brazilian with a Brescia accent.
‘I’ve never told anyone, but my ambition is to become the leading all-time scorer of free kicks in Serie A.’ – An extract from Pirlo’s autobiography: I Think, Therefore I Play.
Pirlo studied Baggio; he analysed Diego Maradona; he learned from Juninho. The Italian achieved his ambition last year, tying with Mihajlovic on 28 free-kick goals. The one-time apprentice is now one of the masters.
3. Rogerio Ceni
Choosing your favourite playing position in football is a delicate task. The decision between preventing a goal or scoring a goal is an inherently difficult one. Some relish the thrill of defence, where an excellent performance is so often overlooked, but a single mistake can alter the outcome of the game. Others prefer to attack, craving the adoration from the fans that only scoring a goal can provide. Rogerio Ceni wondered why he had to choose.
Jose Luis Chilavert pioneered the art of the goalscoring goalkeeper, but Rogerio Ceni took the bar and set it higher than perhaps anyone will ever reach. As of his retirement last year, the 43-year-old had scored 131 goals in 1237 games for Sao Paulo. He holds the record of scoring the most direct free-kicks for only one club, with 61. His most remarkable year came in 2005, where he played a staggering 75 games and scored 21 goals. Save for last-minute corners and freakish goal kicks, football rarely pits goalkeeper against goalkeeper. But Ceni ensured such instances became a sport within the sport. He was so often the victor.
2. Juninho Pernambucano
The Swiss army knife of free-kick taking. Juninho Pernambucano had the requisite tools to make any angle, any distance, any method surmountable. 20 yards out? No problem. 30 yards out? Fine. 40 yards out? Not to worry. Curl, precision or power? Heck, all three if you like. Few sights are more imposing for a goalkeeper than Juninho analysing a dead ball situation. The Brazilian built up the most impressive free-kick repertoire imaginable in his 20-year playing career, scoring 44 in eight seasons at Lyon. As of his retirement three years ago, official records claim the 41-year-old scored 76 goals direct from free-kicks. But while the sheer volume alone is impressive, the unique variation Juninho boasted sets him apart.
Pirlo’s love for Juninho is discussed above, but here it is in more detail: “I studied him intently, collecting DVDs, even old photographs of games he’d played. And eventually I understood. It wasn’t an immediate discovery; it took patience and perseverance. From the start, I could tell he struck the ball in an unusual way. I could see the ‘what’ but not the ‘how’. And so I went out onto the training pitch and tried to copy him, initially without much success. In the early days, the ball sailed a couple of metres over the crossbar, or three metres above the sky to borrow from the Italian film of the same name.”
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and there is no bigger compliment than being the inspiration behind one of the modern game’s most respected players.
1. David Beckham
In the living room of my friend’s house, joining the rest of the nation in deliriously celebrating what I had just witnessed.
What about you? Where were you when David Beckham scored that injury time free-kick against Greece in October 2001? With Germany failing to beat Finland in the final game of their World Cup qualifying campaign for the 2002 tournament, England required only a point against Greece to secure an automatic place at Japan and South Korea the following summer. But the Three Lions were struggling at Old Trafford, going 1-0 down after half an hour. Teddy Sheringham equalised in the second half, but Greece regained the lead just a minute later. Heading into stoppage time needing a goal, a difficult play-off against Ukraine awaited.
It is a wonder that Beckham even managed to complete his run-up after England were awarded a free-kick with minutes remaining. The hopes, the dreams, the expectations of a nation weighed heavily on his shoulders. But three years after being cast as the villain in France, Beckham cemented his place as a hero with an equaliser dubbed ‘The Goal That Shook The World’.
Beckham scored 17 goals for England. His first came from a free-kick. His last came from a free-kick. His most memorable came from a free-kick. And that is without even mentioning his efforts at club level.
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