Cast your mind back to Saturday August 15th 1998. Manchester United were kicking off their season with a home game against Leicester City and one David Beckham was making the headlines for all the wrong reasons. His infamous moment of petulance at the 1998 World Cup saw him transformed from hero to zero in the space of ten seconds. The British press could smell blood!
United had looked sluggish and were staring down the barrel of a 2-1 defeat. Three minutes into extra time and United were awarded a free kick, 25 yards out. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Beckham stepped forth and struck a superb free kick past the hapless Pegguy Arphexad.
With a single free kick Beckham had sent a defiant message to his critics. He wasn’t prepared to let the ghosts of Saint-Etienne hold him back. Beckham would go on to have his greatest ever season in a United shirt, playing a crucial role in securing United’s famous treble.
As Beckham demonstrated, the free kick specialist can with a moment’s inspiration turn a game on its head. Looking back throughout history there has been some truly gifted free kick specialists, who have taken the free kick to the verge of being an art form. But which of these “artists” would rank as the top ten free kick specialists of all time? To answer this question I considered a few different criteria:
- Frequency – How often the player scores from free kicks
- Importance – How important was the game the free kick was scored in
- Legacy – What impact did the player have on the game from his free kicks
With those criteria in mind lets commence the top ten.
10.) Pierre Van Hooijdonk
Perhaps a controversial choice to start off with. Undeniably talented, Van Hooijdonk was a bit of a footballing enigma, never truly reaching the heights his talent perhaps warranted. His free kicks however were truly spectacular, especially during his stay at Dutch giants Feyenoord. His free kicks during the 2001/02 season, particularly his wonder strike against Freiburg in the UEFA cup, propelled Feyenoord to European glory and secured Van Hooijdonk’s place in Feyenoord folk lore.
9.) Roberto Carlos
Roberto Carlos generated bullet like speed with his free kicks. Whilst his consistency has been called into question, I feel he warrants a spot in the top ten due to the legacy he has left on the game. His style of driving the ball at the goal with brute force offered something different to the traditional approach of bending the ball over the wall. Whilst others had used the same approach in the past, Roberto Carlos brought the approach into the mainstream and in part inspired the techniques of Cristiano Ronaldo and Juninho. His goal against France is truly one of the most amazing free kicks ever.
Youtube video: http://au.youtube.com/watch?v=-t5MF7NRQh4
8.) Jose Luis Chilavert
Jose Luis Chilavert has the unique distinction of being the only goalkeeper on my list. I remember being truly captivated by Chilavert as a kid. After all it’s not every day you see a goalkeeper come up and take a free kick, let alone score! Whilst Rogerio Ceni the Brazilian keeper scored more free kicks, Chilavert captivated crowds with his bravado and was able to deliver on the highest stage with some important strikes for Paraguay. Something Ceni wasn’t able to do.
7.) Michel Plantini
Perhaps the greatest French player of all time, Michel Plantini was well renowned for his free kicks. During his playing career he scored some crucial free kicks for both Juventus and France. The standout strike would have to be his strike against Holland in the 1984 World Cup qualifier. His perfectly placed free kick resulted in a victory which guaranteed qualification for the French. He also scored from a free kick during the 1984 Euro final against Spain, although he had a helping hand from the Spanish goalkeeper!
6.) Diego Maradona
Diego Maradona, arguably the greatest player of all time. Like pretty much anything Maradona attempted his free kicks were awe inspiring. With an almost delicate feel to them, He would get the ball to gently rise over the wall and always seemed to be able to place it just inside the post, making it almost impossible for the keeper to save. Maradona consistently delivered from the deadball for both club and country.
5.) Alessandro Del Piero
Del Piero one of the most gifted players of our generation, who freakishly seems to be improving with age! His free kick are no exception to this rule, this season alone he has scored six times from dead ball situation! Whilst Michel Plantini has recently claimed his own ability from free kicks was superior to Del Piero’s, I have to respectfully disagree and give Del Piero the nod due to his consistent ability to find the back of the net.
I’ll be honest and say that before I started looking into this article, I didn’t know much about Zico’s free kick prowess. However after watching his technique I now understand why Zico is considered by many to be the original free kick specialist. His control and placement is a delight to watch. One thing that really stands out for me is that he strikes the ball from almost a standing start, relying on his aforementioned control rather than power. A true free kick great!
3.) David Beckham
David Beckham is the most famous sportsman in the world. His trademark is his brilliant free kicks which have been immortalised by the phrase “Bend it like Beckham”. What sets Beckham apart is his ability to deliver when his team needs him the most. From the earlier mentioned free kick against Leicester, to the great free kick for England against Greece to secure qualification for the 2002 World Cup. Beckham consistently steps up to the plate when required and fully deserves his place amongst the greatest free kick specialists of all time.
2.) Sinisa Mihajlovic
Often criticised for racial and spitting probes there is one thing that everyone can agree about with Sinisa Mihaljlovic, he was a truly brilliant free kick specialist! Mihaljlovic ability to score from the dead ball situation was feared throughout Serie A. He scored close to 30 free kicks during his career including a hat trick of free kicks for Lazio against Sampdoria in 1998. A feat which to my knowledge has yet to be replicated by any other professional player.
1.) Juninho Pernambucano
Step forth the free kick master. Juninho currently plies his trade for Lyon and is absolutely deadly from a set piece. He has scored over 40 free kicks for Lyon with an unconfirmed conversion rate of over 50%! His unique style which sees the ball move in an unpredictable fashion should be familar to fans of the English Premier League as Cristiano Ronaldo uses a similar technique. Juninho has scored free kicks from just about anywhere on the pitch. It’s been said that a free kick for Lyon anywhere near the 18 yard box is almost as good as a penalty kick. That is a true testament to the ability of Juninho, the greatest free kick specialist of all time.
Who are your favourite free kick specialists of all time?