The direct free-kick may be one of the most iconic images in all of football; the sight of a wall being lined up by a nervy goalkeeper is known throughout the world as the footballing shorthand for ‘Watch this!’ Here I pay tribute to some of my all-time favourite direct free-kicks.
1. Roberto Carlos vs. France, Le Tournoi de France, 1997
The most staggering set piece ever. We’ve all seen it, we’ve all deliberated how he did it, we’ve all even attempted to recreate it with our mates and ended up jogging half a mile to retrieve it from the park’s duck pond. In case you missed it, here’s how it went down; it was the first game of Le Tournoi, a nothing-tournament organised by France and also featuring Italy, Brazil and England. Brazil won a free kick about 35 yards out and Roberto Carlos planted the ball, turned and paced back a distance. He then took his now-trademark stuttering run up and swung his left foot as hard as he could through the back of the ball. It veered horribly to the right, to the extent that a ball boy some 10 yards wide of the goal ducked to avoid it. But it curled back in as it covered the distance and clipped the upright before hitting the back of the net. Fabien Barthez, the wall, the Brazil strikers and the crowd all looked at the diminutive left-back with astonishment, for they had just been witness to a moment that would truly live forever.
2. Teofilo Cubillas vs. Scotland, World Cup Group Stage, 1978
One of the finest players of his generation, Peru’s Teofilo Cubillas worked magic at two World Cups, in 1970 and 1978. In this particular game though he was hell-bent on showing the world exactly how good he was. Having already set up the equaliser, Cubillas stood over the ball for a free-kick to the right of Scotland’s penalty area. Everyone prepared for a cross, but Cubillas instead stepped forward and hit a shot with the outside of his right foot which swerved magnificently around the near end of the wall and smashed into the top corner of Alan Rough’s goal. He went on to add a third 5 minutes later and signal the beginning of the end for Scotland’s World Cup campaign.
3. Paul Gascoigne vs. Arsenal, FA Cup Semi-Final, 1991
A goal as famous for its commentary as for its execution. 1991 marked the first year that semi-finals had been played at Wembley and it was on this grand stage that Spurs faced local rivals Arsenal. Spurs were awarded a free-kick about 30 yards out and Gascoigne was one of several candidates for a strike at goal, when Barry Davies in the commentary box remarked, “Now, is Gascoigne going to have a crack?”, followed by an affirmation of, “He is, you know.” when he saw Gascoigne begin his run up. Gazza duly unleashed an absolute thunderbolt that David Seaman in the Arsenal goal could only get fingertips on but couldn’t keep out, and the ball crashed into the top corner as Davies bellowed a Dan Maskell-esque “Oh I say!”. Gazza sprinted towards the Tottenham fans with his arms aloft and the whole country stood and applauded the mercurial genius of Paul Gascoigne.
4. David Beckham vs. Greece, World Cup Qualifying, 2001
Sometimes it’s more about what happened before the goal than the goal itself. England needed a draw or better to qualify automatically for the 2002 World Cup but found themselves 2-1 down as the clock wound down. Beckham had been a one-man team in the match, his performance standing out in an otherwise lacklustre England showing, but as time ticked away he spurned several good free-kick chances. However, as the clock ticked over into injury time Teddy Sheringham was fouled about 25 yards out and Beckham stepped up once more. The nation held its breath as Becks lifted it over the wall and curled it brilliantly into the top corner, the keeper Nikopolidis left standing helpless in the middle of the goal. Old Trafford erupted and Beckham was mobbed by his teammates, and England duly qualified for Japan-Korea. It was an incredible strike under such pressure.
5. Jose Manuel Rey vs. Ecuador, World Cup Qualifier, 2007
A surprising entrant you might say, unless you’ve actually seen it in which case you’ll probably asking ‘Why only No. 5?’ Venezuela, unfancied and unlikely, were facing an Ecuador side who had not lost a home game in capital city Quito for six years. The Venezuelans won a free kick just to the left of the centre circle around 9 yards inside Ecuador’s half. Centre-half Jose Manuel Rey stepped up and, to the astonishment of everyone in the stadium, shaped as if to shoot. He took a run-up from the halfway line and just leathered the ball as hard as he could. It flew high, straight and true, dipping beautifully over the despairing dive of the Ecuadorian ‘keeper Vinces and smashing full-pelt into the back of the net. It was an incredible strike, rare among huge-distance free-kicks for being driven with power rather than looped high, and as the only goal of the match it ended Ecuador’s impressive streak in the capital and secured three unlikely points for the visitors.
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