There is no doubt at all in my mind that we live in an era in which hyperbole is the order of the day as far as football is concerned. Indeed, round the clock news coverage and overwrought promo vids from the likes of Sky and BT recurrently chime with Bill Shankly’s famous adage that ‘Some people believe football is a matter of life and death.’
Such statements are patently untrue in the grand scheme of things, of course, and I myself am part of a cynical few that fail to see the sport as a logical companion for other art forms; a manifestation of art if you like, as it is so often portrayed. Very rarely, in my opinion, does the game reach that sort of pinnacle, yet a perfectly executed free-kick from one of the world’s great technicians comes pretty close.
There, the taker battles to defy the odds imposed upon him by geometry. According to OptaPro, the average angle of error for all direct free kicks in since 2011’s Premier League season has been 14.1 degrees. On goalscoring direct free-kicks, this average angle reduces to 6.1 degrees, “considerably more precise” notes Opta.
My study of the best in the business in this particular field took me from early pioneers such as Zico and Ronald Koeman to modern visionaries like Andrea Pirlo, Lionel Messi and Hakan Çalhanoğlu, yet the three free-kick takers that I found myself returning to for insight time and time again were José Luis Chilavert, former AC Milan boss Siniša Mihajlović and the extraordinary, now retired, Brazilian, Juninho Pernambucano.
For the aforementioned trio, who rarely managed to replicate the excellence of their dead ball abilities in other aspects of the game, each direct free-kick presented itself as a complex puzzle to solve; one which, in many ways, resembled a Rubix cube that changes shape and dimension depending on the position in which the player found himself. What differentiates these guys as true masters of their own, rather niche art form from the great pretenders such as David Beckham and Roberto Carlos is that they possessed the ability to tweak their whole style and methodology to find a solution to the puzzle put in front of them, and the statistics bear this out.
Take Beckham and Juninho for instance. The former is deemed by many to be one of the greatest of his generation when it comes to dead ball situations, and yes, he did score memorable free-kicks against Greece and Colombia to name but a few, but Opta, in conjunction with the Premier League, place the former Manchester United’s success ratio in England’s top division at 9.3 percent – well behind the latter’s haul of 76 goals at a percentage estimated to be at least two times higher than that of his peer.
This is the study of those very same pioneers; the art of the perfect free-kick.
“That man made the ball do some quite extraordinary things. He never went wrong. Never. I checked out his stats and realised it couldn’t just be chance. The search for Juninho’s secret had become an obsession with me. It was all about how he struck the ball, not where. Only three of his toes came into contact with the ball, not the whole foot.”
You’ll note that Italian midfielder Andrea Pirlo appears on my list of the game’s modern greats when it comes to free-kick taking. This will be of no surprise to anyone who has seen the sublime technical ability of one of Italy’s most decorated players. So it’ll no doubt come as a bit of a shock to discover that the above quote, which sings with a desire to emulate another has, in fact, been lifted from the New York City player’s most recent book.
Pirlo, we learn, studied Pernambucano’s unique and innovative style fastidiously, seeking ways to replicate the Brazilian’s methodology. Whether or not he managed to succeed in achieving the latter is up for debate, yet the former Juve man’s status as one of the best free-kick takers in the modern game is in no small part down to the influence of the man who visited Pirlo at Italy’s World Cup 2014 training base, and offered his admiring student an insight into the intricacies of the well-refined methodology.
So what was so singular about Juninho’s style that everyone wanted to imitate? A clue lies in an interview with French TV back in 2013: “When you watch the footage he doesn’t try to strike the ball as hard as possible. He strikes it with a very particular part of his foot,” notes one observer.
It’s clear from the video that the connection, at its best, is made with the instep of the foot – a style now imitated by a whole host of the world football’s biggest names including Pirlo, Drogba and Ronaldo.
“He is able to consistently hit the ball hard, and with precision. He is the only one in the world who can do this. For me he is the best free-kick taker in the world,” said Juninho’s former manager at Lyon, Paul Le Guen.
During long practice sessions with then Lyon number one Rémy Vercoutre, Juninho would strike hundreds of free-kicks so as to perfect his methodology. At a time when match balls would change from competition to competition, Juninho asked his club to purchase all of the available options so that he could work on a way of perfecting his technique with each and every one. It’s another example of the player’s meticulous preparation, and an indicator as to why he, above all others, has led the way for many years.
From distance, the Brazilian would hit the ball harder, with more dip, and usually with a trajectory that would result in the ball bouncing just in front of the opposition keeper. Often, it was the abrupt change in direction; the sheer swerve on the ball that would bamboozle the goalkeeper. Remarkably, this made him as deadly from 40 yards as he was from just outside the area.
Juninho Pernambucano remains statistically the greatest free-kick taker of all time.
“I like to shoot with swerve into both sides of the net. I often try scoring directly from the corners.”
If precision and dip characterised Juninho’s free-kicks, then former Lazio and Yugoslavia full-back Siniša Mihajlović’s stood out due to their combination of sheer swerve and power. Another world-renowned free-kick specialist, Mihajlović netted a staggering 29 strikes in Serie A, the highlight being a hat-trick of efforts in a 5-2 victory over Sampdoria in the 1998-99 season.
“Siniša Mihajlović would charge in off his long run to take his free-kicks, which would set off like a space exploration vehicle only to descend absurdly as they homed in on goal.
“Towards the end of his career at Internazionale, it was sincerely suggested by some that he was basically being picked to take free-kicks. A few years earlier, Mihajlović told some bald bloke that, “I don’t know if I’d play football if there were no free-kicks”.
“His skill was honed from childhood, when he would drive neighbours to distraction by practising at all hours, smacking the ball against the metal yard gates. By his early teens his free-kicks were so powerful that his father had to replace those gates every few week,” mused Guardian writer Rob Smyth in a feature on free-kick takers back in 2009.
There can be no greater testament to the Serbian’s talent from dead ball situations than to suggest that, as current holder of the record for the most free-kicks scored in Serie A, Mihajlović’s dead ball prowess eclipses notable names such as Zinedine Zidane, Andrea Pirlo and Francesco Totti. Quite a feat for a left-back.
José Luis Chilavert
“The fans used to freak out and scream at me to get back in goal. I’ve never stopped to think about what others are saying. I just rely on my abilities. Later I started to practice penalties and free kicks until they gave me the job for real.”
The final part of this article is devoted to the most eccentric figure on the list by quite some way.
Paraguayan keeper José Luis Chilavert, who took free-kicks and penalties for both Vélez Sarsfield and the national team, hit the back of the net an astonishing 58 times in an extraordinary career in which he was also voted World Goalkeeper of the Year on no less than three occasions.
Chilavert had a hammer of a left-foot, and assumed totem-like status in his home country, as well as becoming something of a cult hero around the world. Like the others mentioned before him, Chilavert displayed a seemingly insatiable desire to perfect his rather unique craft. The Paraguayan credits this as the main factor behind his stunning success from set pieces, and admits to spending extra time after training practicing between 80 to 120 free kicks at any given time.
José Luis Chilavert, simultaneously goalkeeper and free-kick phenomenon. How often do you hear those two things uttered in the same sentence?
By Patrick Boyland @Paddy_Boyland