Kings of the free-kick
© Getty Images

“I don’t think I would ever have played football if free-kicks had never existed,” said Lazio legend Sinisa Mihajlovic, the scorer of a record 27 Serie A goals from set-pieces, a haul that includes a hat-trick of successfully converted ones in a 5-3 defeat of Sampdoria in 1998.

The Serbian is not the only player in the history of the game to express gratitude for the introduction of football’s Law 13, which regulates free-kicks. The likes of Juninho Pernambucano, David Beckham, Roberto Carlos and Michel Platini have all excelled at the art of propelling a dead ball with pace, guile and venom towards opposing goals, as FIFA.com reveals in its tribute to some of the greatest set-piece specialists the sport has ever seen.

In the eyes of many people the most spectacular free-kick ever to hit the back of the net was the banana-kick Roberto Carlos swerved round a French wall at the Tournoi de France in June 1997. It was a strike that seemed to defy logic as it bent its way past the astounded Fabien Barthez, so much so in fact that a team of French boffins conducted an in-depth study of it.

“That was my most spectacular goal,” said Roberto Carlos in an interview with FIFA.com earlier this year. “I can still remember our coach at the time, Mario Zagallo, betting someone on the bench that I would score before I took it.”

As fate would have it, the incombustible left-back struck that stunning goal at Lyon’s Stade Gerland, a stadium that would see many more superlative strikes by fellow countryman by the name of Juninho Pernambucano. Between 2001 and 2009, the Brazilian wizard crashed home 44 free-kicks in 100 attempts for Les Gones, one of the most fondly remembered being a long-range right-footed curler past Bayern Munich’s Oliver Kahn in the UEFA Champions League in November 2003. Juninho is now enjoying a second spell at his beloved Vasco da Gama, where he earned the adulation of the fans for a memorable dipping effort in a Copa Libertadores 1998 semi-final with River Plate.

Michel Bastos is another Lyon-based Brazilian with a flair for free-kicks. The versatile wide man scored his first goal for his country from a dead-ball situation, a fizzing drive in a 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ warm-up match against Zimbabwe, which registered nearly 140km/h on the speed gun.

What I’m proudest of is that people can no longer say I’m just a free-kick specialist!
Michel Platini after being named UEFA President

Brazil has, of course, produced more than its fair share of free-kick virtuosos over the years, chief among them Zico, who memorably left Scotland keeper Alan Rough flat-footed with a delicious curler in A Seleção’s 4-1 defeat of the Scots at Spain 1982.

Full-back Branco was another expert in the field, taking his trademark long run-up before unleashing strikes such as the low swerving drive that took the Brazilians past the Netherlands in the quarter-finals at USA 1994, en route to world title number four.

Compatriot Ronaldinho scored a much-commented FIFA World Cup free-kick of his own against England eight years later, lofting the ball over the stranded David Seaman from wide on the right, fully 35 metres from goal.

Perhaps Brazil’s most unique contribution to the history of FIFA World Cup set-pieces was the one conjured up by the peerless Rivelino against East Germany at Germany 1974. Lining up the ball 25 yards from goal, with team-mate Jairzinho stationed right in the middle of the opposition wall, the moustachioed maestro proceeded to fire a searing drive right at his colleague, who ducked just in time to allow the ball to arrow its way into the net.

Spreading the gospel
The man who showed the way for Rivelino et al was the incomparable Didi, the inventor of the folha seca (dry leaf) shot, made popular today by Cristiano Ronaldo and others. 

Didi was responsible for my free-kicks and shooting, and for turning me from a right-footed player into a two-footed player,” said one of the Brazilian great’s many disciples, Peru’s Teofilo Cubillas, himself a more than accomplished dead-ball practitioner.

Cubillas showed his free-kick finesse in the 3-1 win over Scotland at Argentina 1978, caressing the ball round the Scottish wall and into the top corner with the outside of his right boot, with the unfortunate Rough once again the victim between the posts. No less an authority than Zico described the strike as “perfect”, while Paraguayan goalkeeper Jose Luis Chilavert, who was himself no slouch when it came to set-pieces, once said: “When I saw that goal I decided that I wanted to take free-kicks too.”

In Europe, meanwhile, there was no more dispiriting sight for goalkeepers than Michel Platini grabbing hold of the ball just outside the box. Just ask Spain keeper Luis Arconada, who let a Platoche free-kick wriggle under his body in the final of the 1984 UEFA European Championship against Spain.

That was one of 11 decisive free-kicks the graceful French genius would convert during his illustrious international career, the first of them coming against Czechoslovakia in 1976, with key strikes against Bulgaria in the Argentina 1978 qualification campaign and against the Netherlands on the road to Spain 1982, also living long in the memory.

“What I’m proudest of is that people can no longer say I’m just a free-kick specialist!” joked Platini after being appointed UEFA President.

The king of the free-kick for many years across the English Channel was David Beckham. The former Manchester United midfielder scored no finer goal for his country than the unstoppable last-gasp effort that rescued a 2-2 draw for England against Greece at Old Trafford in 2001, booking his side a place at Korea/Japan 2002 and sending the home fans wild. “There was nothing lucky about that. It was just pure class,” said an appreciative Sven-Goran Eriksson, the then England coach.

Practice makes perfect
The dead-ball talents of Diego Maradona, Rogerio Ceni, Alessandro del Piero and Wesley Sneijder have all lit up the game, while those of Ronald Koeman and Bruno N’Gotty have also made history. The Dutchman it was who clinched Barcelona’s first Champions League title in 1992 with his thunderous right foot, with N’Gotty converting from long range to secure UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup glory for Paris Saint-Germain in 1996.

Other set-piece technicians worthy of mention are Argentina’s Juan Roman Riquelme, the scorer of a sumptuous carbon-copy double against Chile in a South Africa 2010 qualifier, and Michael Ballack, whose high-speed rocket helped Germany to victory over Austria at UEFA EURO 2008. Few free-kick takers have struck from further out, however, than Sport Colombia custodian Wilson Quinonez, who stunned Paraguayan second division opponents Cerro Porteno PF when he converted from 83 metres out in a game earlier this year.

The final word on an art form that has never been out of fashion goes to Andrea Pirlo, another entertainer who can work wonders with a stationary ball: “I’d like to see young players understand how important set-pieces can be, because they can often decide the outcome of a game. All it takes is a little practice every day and you can improve your touch and accuracy no end.” 

It is a lesson Pirlo and his fellow magicians have learned well, honing a skill that has only added to the theatre and spectacle of the world’s most popular game.