Bend it like Ronaldo

AP

Practice makes perfect and it is no surprise to know that Ronaldo is constantly out half an hour at a time on the training field, perfecting those kicks.

The phenomenal free kick goal scored by Cristiano Ronaldo for Manchester United against Portsmouth at Old Trafford will long linger in the mind. It curled, it dipped, it swerved into the net past a goalkeeper as experienced as England’s David James. People asked: how does he do it? An attempted explanation suggests that what Ronaldo does, unusually, is to press the ball into the turf. Therefore when he puts his left foot down, hand beside it, it springs up, thereby a llowing him with his right foot to execute what amounts to a volley — legitimate or not? — thus imparting such swerve to the ball, which soars over the defensive wall of players, then dips to elude the hapless goalkeeper.

Practice makes perfect and it is no surprise to know that Ronaldo is constantly out half an hour at a time on the training field, perfecting those kicks. This was how Michael Platini, pride of France and now the President of UEFA, honed his diabolic right-footed free kicks. He in fact would line up a series of dummies on the edge of the penalty box then concentrate on swerving the ball round them.

But perhaps the most spectacular free kick of all time was executed in June 1997 by Brazil’s left back, Roberto Carlos. Playing in France against the home team in the so called Confederations Cup, he took a free kick from the left, left-footed. It reached a clocked 85 miles an hour, zoomed wide of the far post, then suddenly, almost miraculously, changed direction and flew into the top corner of the French goal. The then England manager Glenn Hoddle, no mean exponent of the free kick himself, opined, “I don’t think I have even seen a ball bent as much. I doubt we will see a better free kick.”

“It’s the greatest goal I have ever scored,” said Roberto Carlos. “But it wasn’t lucky. I scored one just the same for Real Madrid against Celta Vigo. I took it from about the same position and it swerved as much. The difference was that, it wasn’t in an international, in front of the world’s media. But I approached it in exactly the same manner. Every time I take a kick I think I’m going to score. There’s no point taking them, otherwise.

“I always practise every day. I prefer to kick with the outside of my foot. There’s no secret, just concentration. Against France any one of several of us could have taken the free kicks. But when I saw we had the free kick I felt confident. I said, ‘I’m OK to shoot’, so Dunga, our captain, gave me the all clear. The goalkeeper didn’t make a mistake. The wall was well placed. The ball went a long way off line and then came back too fast. That’s all.”

Only that? As for Ronaldo, he declared, “I only think about which side of the net I’m going to aim for. I look at the net and say to myself, ‘Take the kick, Ronaldo’, then I shoot.” (Using the top of his toes.)

Brazilians of course have been the accepted masters of the free kick. Didi, known as the coal black master spirit of the teams which won the World Cup in 1958 and 1962, was famed for his speciality of the so called ‘falling leaf kick’. Whereby the ball would suddenly, so to speak, fade and drop into the goal. One such free kick in 1957 gave Brazil a perilously narrow win in Rio, 1-0 against Peru, thereby just qualifying them for the World Cup Finals in Sweden.

It should be said, especially of Britain, that in recent years a far lighter football on largely flat, trim pitches has made it much easier for players to put bias on the ball. In the remote past, sheer strength was the chief factor. As when Dr. Kevin O’Flanagan, a superb amateur athlete who played rugby and soccer on consecutive days, showed when scoring for Arsenal against Bolton at Highbury in 1947. Thirty yards out, O’Flanagan carefully cleaned the mud off the heavy leather ball, always liable to soak up moisture, placed it, and sent a tremendous right-footed drive wide of the Bolton goalkeeper.

‘Bend it like Beckham’ has become a well known phrase, and whatever his limitations as a right winger — pace, elusiveness — David Beckham is beyond doubt a master of the swerving, right-footed free kick. With them he has scored memorable and decisive goals for England. Not least in 2001, at Old Trafford, when in a vital World Cup 2002 qualifier, England had fallen behind 2-1 to a lively Greek team. Teddy Sheringham, on as a substitute, gained a free kick somewhat dubiously and wanted to take it himself. Beckham, who that afternoon had tried and failed half a dozen times, insisted he should take it. This he did, cleverly fading the ball away from the Greek goalkeeper and getting England through, however precariously, to the World Cup Finals.

In the 2006 World Cup in Germany, he largely looked static and ineffectual; except when it came to those free kicks. In England’s first match against Paraguay one of Beckham’s insidious free kicks produced the own goal which gave England victory. And in their second round match against Ecuador, his was the free kick which sailed home to make it 1-0; afterwards to be highly praised by the manager of Ecuador.

Gianfranco Zola was another who was endlessly out on the training field to perfect his wonderfully elusive free kicks. He was greatly admired by the fans of Chelsea, for whom he played after spells in Italy with Parma and Napoli. Zola was for years inexplicably ignored in his native Sardinia and limited to playing for at best 3rd division clubs. But his technique was impeccable.

Ronald Koeman, now a well established manager, took powerful, right-footed, swinging free kicks for Holland and Barcelona. For the Catalan club, one such free kick won a European Cup final in extra time against Sampdoria. More controversial was the one which gave Holland in Rotterdam a crucial World Cup eliminator success against England in 1993. Arguably Koeman should have been sent off just five minutes earlier for a blatant “professional foul” on David Platt. But an indulgent referee not only allowed him to stay on but, in sharp contrast to his decision, at a previous England free kick, allowed him to take his again, when it was changed. So he scored.