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Is there a more satisfying thing to witness on a football pitch than a free kick that leaves a wall looking over its shoulder to see the ball nestling in the back of their net?
Many players put in long hours on the training ground to perfect their dead ball execution but when it comes to lining up a strike on match day, some are simply better than others. Some players will score the sublime, others will deliver in a moment of pressure and a few will make the net bulge time and time again. Here we look at the best 10 to have ever stepped foot on the pitch.
10. Roberto Carlos
Some go for dip others go for whip and some just whack the ball towards goal as hard as they can – Brazilian Carlos falls into the latter category. The diminutive left back was famed for his tree trunk like quads and, whilst he often saw his set piece attempts sail harmlessly beyond goal, when he did combine his power, which statistics show to be in excess of 100mph, with accuracy there was no wall or keeper who wanted to get in the way.
Carlos is well remembered for the way in which he struck the ball despite actually only scoring a handful of free kicks and, in no small part, that’s due to the wonder strike he put past Fabian Barthez in 1997; Carlos lined up in a central position 40 yards from goal, he struck across the ball but his 85mph effort looked to be wayward until it inexplicably moved and clipped the inside of the right hand post. To this day, it’s one of the best free kicks ever scored and, that alone, puts him on our list.
9. Andrea Pirlo
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. At least that’s what they say but Pirlo registers on our top 10 and his free kick stats have grown as the years have ticked on by. Pirlo openly admits his ability to strike a dead ball was limited until he began studying another player – you can find out who when you get to number 1 – and it did him no harm at all as his conversion rates improved as his career went on. All in all, the Italian master netted a total of 45 free kicks. Not too shabby.
8. Cristiano Ronaldo
It must be near impossible to find a football top 10 that doesn’t involve this man. When Ronaldo started dispatching free kicks into the back of the net on a regular basis for Manchester United it wasn’t the frequency that made people pay attention – after all, several players have been deadly with free kicks. Nobody, however, had ever approached them with the stance, the run up and the way he struck the ball.
Over time, CR7’s conversion rate hasn’t been all that incredible but the sight of him standing over the ball, legs spread shoulders width apart with his chest puffed out is something that puts fear into every keeper in the world and when he delivers, he really delivers. Perhaps his greatest ever hit is the one he planted into David James’ top corner against Portsmouth. 25 yards out, James one side, a six man wall the other; in anyone’s mind it would have to be thundered beyond James or lifted up and over the wall. Instead, the Portuguese did both. Laces through the ball in such a manner that not only did it leave James flat footed on the line but it was over the wall and spinning into the onion bag.
7. Ronald Koeman
It’s the 112th minute of a European Cup final that is deadlocked 0-0, Koeman lines himself up over a ball planted 23 yards out. His teammates tweak the angle on the ball and bang, like a bullet from a gun it flashed into the net.
Not many players can boast a European Cup winning goal and fewer can say the bagged it in the same manner as Koeman. Rest assured though, it was no fluke. When the foul was given Sampdoria surrounded the ref in protest as they knew what would likely happen. Koeman did net 60 throughout his career with the vast majority being leathered home at speeds of over 115mph.
6. Shunsuke Nakamura
Nakamura is best known for his time in Europe when playing for Celtic and his legendary status in Glasgow is largely due to his wand-like left foot. When the former Japanese international lined up a free kick everyone knew he was going to hit it with a combination of pace and bend but there was rarely anything they could do to prevent the outcome.
Considering he spent eight years plying his trade in Europe, Nakamura is the leading free kick scorer in J League history and he’s still banging them in now at the age of 41! Mind you, he could play until he’s 100 and not score a better one than the 35 yard beauty he scored in Celtic’s 1-0 Champions League triumph over Manchester United in 2006.
5. Rogerio Ceni
Put free kicks to one side for a moment and think about players who average a goal every 10 games over their entire career; most strikers will achieve that rate with ease, many midfielders will too but plenty don’t and lots of defenders definitely don’t so the fact Ceni achieved that statistic throughout a career spanning over 1200 games as a goalkeeper is nothing short of sensational.
Ceni netted a total of 131 goals with 61 coming from free kicks – the others all being penalties with the exception of one from open play. To think people suggest it’s only in the last couple of years that keepers need to be good with their feet. Ederson, eat your heart you.
4. Roberto Baggio
If our number 10 pick Carlos was a power finisher then Baggio was the polar opposite relying on ultimate precision. Often, the Italian forward almost cut a lackadaisical figure in his approach to the ball – a run up usually consisting of all of two yards – but the bend and placement he would put on his efforts was simply world class.
Despite the famed short run up, the one time Ballon d’Or winner adapted his style later in his career and one of his most important free kicks was hit with that technique. It was in the 1995 Uefa Cup semi-final against Dortmund, Baggio lined up with a straight run up and tweaked his feet at the last moment to bend the ball rather than straight forward thump it and, via the inside of the woodwork, beat Stefan Klos. His Juventus side won the match to earn them a spot in the final.
3. David Beckham
Beckham is world renowned for many things and his ability to strike a football is just one of them. The ex-England and Manchester United number seven is widely regarded to have one of the best right feet in the world and it’s hard to dispute.
During his career ‘Becks’, as he was often referred to, netted an impressive 65 free kicks with some of them producing the most memorable of moments – none more so than the curling effort he struck for England in the 2002 World Cup Qualifier against Greece.
England were trailing on home soil and facing the prospect of missing out on a spot in the finals of the World Cup but in the dying seconds, Beckham produced a free kick from 30 yards that whipped perfectly past the Greek wall and into the top corner leaving Antonios Nikopolidis rooted to the spot.
When you’re seen as one of the greatest free kick takers in the history of Brazilian football then you know you’re doing something right and Zico fits the bill.
Although most of his playing career was spent in his home nation with Flamengo that shouldn’t take away from his set piece statistics; his numbers are a little woolly given the era he played in but it’s believed he notched over 100 goals from direct free kicks. The crowd would watch on in anticipation as Zico started on his slow run up, he’d strike the ball with his instep and, ultimately, it would leave keepers grasping thin air as he managed to put pace and accuracy on almost every strike.
1. Juninho Pernambucano
When a foul is committed 45 yards from goal it should be considered a safe distance for the defence but somehow Juninho would regularly find a way to make the net bulge regardless of where he lined up. During his career, he recorded an almighty 77 strikes from free kicks – most of which were scored for Lyon – and the sight became such a consistent picture it’s even rumoured that opposing dressing rooms would rather concede penalties!
Juninho often chose to lash his free kicks with many crediting him with the invention of the knuckleball technique, which sees the ball unpredictably dance through the air before – in Juninho’s case – finding the net. Having fired stunning strikes beyond keepers like Oliver Kahn in the biggest club competition in the world you’d think it might be his favourite goal but he’s all about the team with his personal pick a 25 yard effort against River Plate. It saw Vasco level the Copa Libertadores semi-final and his team went on to lift the trophy. The best free kick taker ever? Sure thing. But a modest man who lived for the team as well? Absolutely.
There you have it, our top 10 dead ball specialists of all time and yes, there was no Pele, no Maradona and no Lionel Messi. If you think we’ve done someone an injustice then let us know below.