The bicycle kick, football’s most spectacular sight
It is a move that has always been able to instantly get football fans up out of their seats. Known as a rovesciata in Italy, a Fallrückzieher in Germany and a ciseaux-retourné in French, the bicycle kick (or overhead kick, scissor kick) has been very much en vogue in recent weeks.
Oscarine Masuluke, a South African goalkeeper, used the method to score a sensational injury-time equaliser in a league match, Senegalese striker Moussa Sow knocked in no fewer than three of them in a month for Fenerbahce, and Brazilian attacking midfielder Marlone produced an eye-catching version of the acrobatic move to earn a spot in the three-man shortlist for the 2016 FIFA Puskás Award.
In fact, it is another Brazilian, Leonidas da Silva, who is generally credited with the invention of the bicycle kick. On 12 June 1938, during the quarter-final of the FIFA World Cup™ in France, the man known as the “Black Diamond” pulled off what would become his signature manoeuvre against Czechoslovakia, winning over the crowd at Bordeaux’s Parc Lescure in the process.
“The man is like a rubber band,” said Paris Match reporter* Raymond Thourmagem at the time. “On the ground or in the air, he has the devilish gift of being able to control the ball no matter where he happens to find himself on the pitch, and to fire in a cracking shot just when you least expect it. When Leonidas scores, it’s like you’re dreaming.”
In reality, the bicycle kick likely dates back even further than France 1938. According to the respected Uruguayan author, Eduardo Galeano, it was in Chile that it first saw the light of day. Ramon Unzaga, a Spanish-born Chilean, is said to have invented the move in 1914 during an away match in Talcahuano. “Body in the air, back to the ground, he shot the ball backwards with a sudden snap of his legs, like the blades of a pair of scissors,” described Galeano in his book Football in Sun and Shadow*.
After Unzaga demonstrated his aptitude for the jaw-dropping stunt several times during the 1916 and 1920 Copa America tournaments, many Spanish speakers took to calling it a Chilena, a designation that endures to this day.
However, some South American observers of the beautiful game refer to it as a Chalaca, which stems from another theory about the move’s beginnings. In Callao, Peru’s largest port, the inhabitants of which are known as “Chalacos”, a local resident apparently successfully attempted a bicycle kick during a match with British sailors in 1892, according to Peruvian historian Jorge Basadre. But whether it emerged from Brazil, Chile or Peru, all the evidence does seem to point towards South American origins.
As for a technical explanation, it is also difficult to find a consensus. Is the bicycle kick the automatic reaction to a poor pass from a team-mate, as Klaus Fischer – the man behind one of the most celebrated examples in footballing history, executed versus West Germany against France in extra time of the semi-final of Spain 1982 – once suggested?
Or is it simply the product of a mix of hard work and natural talent, as Beach Soccer star and bicycle kick exponent Gabriele Gori described last year? “It comes down to an awful lot of training,” the athletic Italian told FIFA.com at the 2015 Beach Soccer World Cup in Portugal. “I also play 11-a-side football, and you score a goal like that once a season. On the sand, though, you need to have that trick up your sleeve so you can lift the ball up whenever you get a chance and go for goal.” The question remains, therefore.
What is certain is that bicycle, overhead and scissor kicks have punctuated the history of the game. Some, including the ones scored on the World Cup stage, remain particularly renowned. Rivalling Fischer’s spectacular goal, Manuel Negrete volleyed Mexico ahead against Bulgaria in similar fashion at the 1986 World Cup and Belgium’s Marc Wilmots did the same type of damage to Japan in 2002.
At club level, Mauro Bressan’s long-range overhead kick for Fiorentina versus Barcelona in 1999, Rivaldo’s astonishing effort from the edge of the box for La Blaugrana against Valencia in 2001, and Marco van Basten’s bicycle kick for AC Milan against Gothenburg are also likely to be remembered for a very long time. In love with Lira More recently, Wayne Rooney’s stunning overhead kick in February 2011, scored during a Manchester United-Manchester City derby, was voted the greatest goal of the English Premier League era. And Zlatan Ibrahimovic arguably outdid his future team-mate in November 2012, improvising marvellously to loop the ball into the net from long range via an overhead kick during a Sweden-England friendly as he claimed the 2013 FIFA Puskás Award. Later that same month, French defender Philippe Mexes notched a similar effort for AC Milan against Anderlecht.
In France, however, it is not generally the name of the former Auxerre centre-back that springs to mind when discussing bicycle kicks; Jean-Pierre Papin and Amara Simba are generally the players associated with the nimble act.
All over Planet Football, there are certain players who have become intrinsically linked with bicycle kicks: Fischer in Germany, Hugo Sanchez in Mexico and Carlo Parola – a former Juventus defender, nicknamed Signor Rovesciata (Mr. Bicycle Kick) – in Italy. In Brazil, aside from Leonidas, a player who will be forever associated with the move is Wendell Lira, winner of the 2015 FIFA Puskás Award, who announced his retirement just a few months after scooping the prestigious prize with a memorable overhead.
“When I scored that goal in the Goias State Championship, there were exactly 297 fans in the stands. I never imagined that that goal would change my life in such a dramatic way,” he said of his magnificent strike, carried out on the run as he latched onto a through ball in the box. Those 297 pairs of eyes have since multiplied to over 1.5 million views on YouTube and votes on FIFA.com, proving once and for all that the acrobatic feat does truly pique the interest of football fans worldwide.