What have football and flying got in common? Not much, you may think, but both are thoroughly fascinating in their own way and evoke the passion and excitement of those involved. Technically, you could even argue that there is such a thing as flying footballers, namely goalkeepers, who frequently launch themselves into the air in the line of duty. That said, nothing flies more in football than the ball itself, with the majesty of its flight never more in evidence than in the case of spectacular goals.
Just a couple of weeks ago, Greek international Georgios Tzavellas managed to score from a phenomenal 73 metres for Eintracht Frankfurt against Schalke 04. Standing in the opposing goal was none other than Germany No1 Manuel Neuer who, after being completely wrong-footed by the flight of the ball, became part of a Bundesliga record he could well have done without. In scoring, the 23-year-old left-back joined an elite band of players who have previously managed equally incredulous feats.
Rivaldo's star began to shine
Long-distance goals are the icing on the cake of any footballer's career. Fans can now look back on these magnificent moments time and again thanks to the wonders of the internet, while the footage is forever immortalised in the inevitable yearly review shows. One Brazilian FIFA World Cup™ winner explained how scoring such a goal can change a player's life - for the better.
"I became famous when I scored that goal for Mogi Mirim direct from the kick-off against Noroeste. It was 18 April 1993, if I'm not mistaken," said former Barcelona and AC Milan star Rivaldo in a recent interview with FIFA.com. "After that my name was in all the papers. They wrote that not even Pele had managed to score a goal like that. I wasn't even 21 years old and yet I was being compared with him. Sometimes it's about the little things in football, and this little thing changed my life. It opened many doors for me!"
Early strikes from 'Becks' and 'Zizou'
Long-distance goals actually occur more often than you might think. They always live long in the memory, and Rivaldo is far from the only star to burst onto the scene with a similarly stunning strike. David Beckham found himself thrust into the spotlight on the first day of the 1996/97 season, when the then 21-year-old beat Wimbledon goalkeeper Neil Sullivan from the halfway line. That unforgettable moment was the catalyst for the rest of the sporting world to stand up and take notice of the future England captain.
Another celebrated international, this time from Asia, also showcased his incredible accuracy at a young age with some extra-long range shooting. In qualifying for France 1998, fledgling Iranian international Mehdi Mahdavikia struck from distance twice within the space of 90 minutes against China PR to help his side come from two goals down to win 4-2. The former Hamburg crowd favourite swiftly earned a regular spot in the national side and went on to collect several individual awards during a glittering career.
A certain Frenchman, just 23 years old at the time, also attracted the attentions of the football world when he showed what his magic left boot was capable of. In a UEFA Cup tie for Bordeaux against Spanish outfit Betis on 6 December 1995, Zinedine Zidane was the recipient of an aimless headed ball following a long punt up the field by the opposing goalkeeper. The future world champion reacted instantly and thumped the ball directly into the net, in the process putting his star futher in the ascendancy. "I just followed my instinct," said 'Zizou' at the time. Few doubted him.
The game kicks off... Goal!
Breathtaking long-range strikes do not only occur in open play either. They have been known to happen straight from the kick-off, when the opposing goalkeeper should have everything under control. As well as Rivaldo, other greats such as Diego Maradona have also hit the net from almost the first kick of the game. In a friendly match in May 1992 in Posadas, around 1,000 kilometres north of Buenos Aires, Maradona somehow found the target despite the keeper standing practically on his line. Brazilian striker Alex Alves and Argentinian Mauro Boselli also managed the feat, earning instant hero status.
Perhaps the most comical example of a halfway-line strike involved Hans-Jorg Butt, the German goalkeeper who appeared in UEFA Champions League finals with both Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich and made a name for himself by converting penalties for his club. When the then-Leverkusen shot-stopper netted from 12 yards against Schalke 04 in April 2004, he took a little too long in celebrating on the way back to his own area. In the meantime, quick-witted striker Mike Hanke grabbed the ball and took it back to the centre spot. From there, he got a colleague to tee him up before lofting the ball over Butt's head and straight into the net for a prompt equaliser. Thankfully for Butt, he was able to smile about the incident afterwards as Bayer ran out 3-2 winners.
From scapegoat to star
Goalkeepers are almost always the victims of long-distance strikes, although they can sometimes be the heroes too. Legendary Northern Ireland and Tottenham keeper Pat Jennings, aged just 22 at the time, managed to find the net from a kick-out against Manchester United in the 1967 Charity Shield. After the teams shared the spoils with a 3-3 draw, the United coach Sir Matt Busby admitted: "That was the most bizarre goal I've ever seen." 36 years later, Jennings himself explained: "I always say it must have been an angel who carried the ball into the goal."
Current Korea Republic No1, Jung Sung-Ryong, also netted in similar style for his country's Olympic side. While space prevents us from mentioning a host of similar feats, one keeper does deserve a particular mention. Jose Luis Chilavert, the extrovert former Paraguayan custodian, once scored a free-kick from no less than 58 metres for Argentinian first division side Velez Sarsfield against River Plate. "Even the opposing players said I was a genius!" he later said of the goal.
Chilavert always enjoyed a good time and remains one of the most popular personalities among fans across the globe. Yet like Hans-Jorg Butt, he also once conceded as a result of an over-exuberant celebration. Recalling the incident later, the South American told FIFA.com: "It was probably the most stupid goal I ever let in."
A 'heading monster' and the mist
There have also been numerous free-kicks converted from way out, with Brazilian duo Roberto Carlos and Juninho Pernambucano among the finest exponents of this art. Romania's Gheorghe Hagi also once netted from an outrageous distance, though his hopeful shot for Barcelona against Celta Vigo had a lot to do with the opposition keeper being short-sighted by the thick fog. Liverpool's one-time midfield duo Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso each scored similar goals within a few months of one another in 2006.
Unsurprisingly it is another Argentinian who left fans astounded with one of the most extraordinary long-distance goals of recent times. Martin Palermo scored from 39 metres for Boca Juniors at his home Bombonera stadium in October 2009. Perhaps not quite as far as some of the abovementioned strikes, but the incredible thing about this goal was that he scored it with his head!
Palermo's looping header left German Montoya, the Velez Sarsfield goalkeeper who had strayed too far off his line, watching helplessly as the ball bounced into the empty net. The experienced striker himself was perhaps the only person in the arena able to fathom such an unforgettable feat: "I know it was an extremely unusual goal, but at the end of the day it was only a header."