Head boys make their mark
© AFP

Football history is full of balls bouncing off players' craniums. Pele's bullet against Italy in the 1970 FIFA World Cup™ Final, Zidane's double against Brazil in the 1998 decider and Ahn Jung-Hwan's giantkilling flicks for Korea Republic at Korea/Japan in 2002 are only a few examples. The game's great aerial combatants have come in all shapes and sizes too, so join us for a look at some of the best heads in the game.

In a 2008 'Have Your Say' debate, FIFA.com users were emphatic in their touting of Boca Juniors striker Martin Palermo as the best header in the game, past or present. "It's cool to get that kind of recognition," Palermo, who recently scored his 200th goal for Boca, told FIFA.com. "Heading has always been my strength. I know how to calculate the distance, when to jump and how to connect."

Although South American football is typically associated with the passing game, the towering Palermo stands on the shoulders of heading giants from the region. For all of his dribbling ability, Brazilian legend Pele was a also genuine threat in the air. Though by no means a giant, O Rei had a great spring, as a viewing of his first goal against Italy in 1970 would attest. Argentina's captain in 1978, Daniel Passarella, was another superstar with his head. The most prolific defender in the Albiceleste's history, he hit the net no fewer than 99 times during his glittering career.

Brazilian leapers
In Brazil, Dario (Dada Maravilha), who played for a host of clubs in the 1960s and 1970s, earning seven caps for the Selecao in the process, was a terror in the air. A tall forward, he attributed his tremendous leaping ability to hopping fences in his youth to avoid the police, and was famously quoted as saying: "Only three things can hang in the air: a hummingbird, a helicopter and Dada Maravilha!"

More recently Chile's Ivan 'Bam Bam' Zamorano distinguished himself in the art, as have Uruguay's Sebastian Abreu and former Argentina captain Roberto Ayala. Not all great headers have been cause for celebration in South America though, and Argentinian football fans still shudder in horror when thinking of the opening game of the 1990 FIFA World Cup. Underdogs Cameroon beat the holders due to a gargantuan leap and a header, by Francois Oman Biyik, in an iconic moment for African football.

Only three things can hang in the air: a hummingbird, a helicopter and Dada Maravilha!
Dario

CONCACAF has produced its share of players with aerial prowess, like Rafa Marquez of Mexico and Barcelona, retired US striker Brian McBride and Costa Rica icon Paulo Wanchope. However, Mexican striker Jared Borgetti rises above the rest. His goal against Italy at the 2002 world finals still inspires awe. Spinning his body in mid-air to connect with Cuauhtemoc Blanco's near-post cross, the Desert Fox caressed the ball over his shoulder, past an admiring Gianluigi Buffon and gently into the far corner.

British brigade
Many associate the art of heading with the British Isles, due to the propensity for playing with wingers. John Charles, the giant Welshman, gained fame playing for Juventus and was renowned for his heading ability. Dixie Dean, England's most prolific scorer in the 1920s and 1930s, was best described by fabled Manchester United boss Sir Matt Busby. "When Dixie went up for a ball, he was unstoppable," he said. "Defenders were absolutely terrified of him."

Other British greats of yore include Nat Lofthouse, Alan Gilzean and Jimmy McGrory, a third of whose record 550-goal haul came from the Celtic legend's head. Joe Royle, one of the best headers of the ball in the 1960s and 1970s, recently expressed some concern about the state of the art. "It's not dying, but it's getting rarer. There are very few masters of the art left in the English top flight," said the former Everton and England star.

Despite Royle's concerns, there is a crop of fine headers in the English Premier League at the moment. John Terry, Fernando Torres and Tim Cahill are all fine practitioners. Perhaps chief among them, though, is Nemanja Vidic, Manchester United's Serbian centre-half. "I love to get forward whenever I can," Vidic, who has four goals this season, told FIFA.com. "It's a great feeling to score, and when I do it's usually with my head."

Although the British may be credited as having developed and perfected the header, they have no claims to exclusivity up in the air. Ironically, one of the members of Hungary's Magical Magyar side that routed England at Wembley in 1953, Sandor Kocsis, is considered to be the greatest in history, earning the nickname the Golden Head.

Continental aerial prowess
Eusebio and Jose Torres led the line for years at Benfica and helped Portugal to a place in the semi-finals at the 1966 FIFA World Cup. Both were among the best headers of their time and paved the way for Portuguese stars of today like Cristiano Ronaldo, who is renowned for his ability to time his jump.

In Spain, Telmo Zarra of Athletic Bilbao's teams of the 1940s and 50s was so good with his head that a journalist who saw him finish fourth with Spain at Brazil 1950 remarked: "He has the best head in Europe, after Churchill!" His compatriot Marcelino scored the title-winning goal for Spain at the 1964 UEFA European Championship against the USSR, and it took something special to head a ball past Lev Yashin. More recent Spanish stars like Ismael Urzaiz, Fernando Morientes and Torres have kept the tradition alive.

Miroslav Klose and Michael Ballack are indebted to those who came before in Germany such as the amazing Uwe Seeler, battering ram Horst Hrubesch and Oliver Bierhoff, while AC Milan ace Filippo Inzaghi is launched from the platform of Italy's finest-ever header, Luigi 'Gigi' Riva.

What seems a prosaic skill, heading has come to be imbued with an elegance and grace through the years. Even one of today's most talented footballers, Lionel Messi , a dribbling wizard in the vein of Pele and Diego Maradona, recently admitted that he has one wish: "I would like to be a better header of the ball."

Have your say:
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