An audience of millions sucks in breath; defenders hurriedly assemble on the command of their goalkeeper; attackers whisper a plot for their downfall. All the while, the ball lies perfectly still and the crowd is hushed. An explosion of both is imminent.
Up steps the ball striker—his run-up the beating heart of his team's fortunes. The defensive wall braces; the goalkeeper is up on the balls of his feet now, ready to pounce in desperation. Here it comes. Thud. The ball is sent fizzing, or swerving, or arcing, towards its target.
If we add to the stage a master of the free-kick art, you have yourself one of the most compelling scenes in sport—a duel of wits and skills, where a buildup of tension gives way to release. The very best have made taking free kicks a concentrated expression of their genius; a singular, frozen moment in time where nothing else matters.
Free-kick technique, like football itself, has evolved with the decades. Since football was first televised in 1937, the design of balls and boots has advanced to impact what's possible. We've also seen the transition to professionalism and the impact of sports science, not forgetting the simple progress made possible by learning from what came before.
Due to the limited footage available, we can only go back so far, but in this article, I plan to chart to evolution of the free-kick masters from the dawn of the televised era to modern day.
Note: The dates in parentheses refer to the years of their active playing careers.
Giuseppe Meazza (1927-1947) and Didi (1946-1966)
FIFA's profile of Giuseppe Meazza, the legendary Italian striker who led his nation to successive World Cup wins in 1934 and 1938, speaks of his ability to strike "viciously dipping free kicks."
As this ESPNFC profile and his tribute website recount, Meazza was one of the early proponents of the "dead leaf" technique of ball-striking. Despite the heavy balls of the time, Meazza was able to impart enough topspin on his shots to encourage dip. In baseball parlance, he was armed with a "sinker."
Sadly, there was no footage of a Meazza free kick to be found in my search. The same can be said of the Brazilian Didi, who is credited with inventing the "dry leaf" free-kick technique of curling the ball, presumably like a leaf picked up by a gust of wind.
You don't score 1,281 goals in a career without dead-aim shooting and the ability to out-fox a goalkeeper in a one-on-one situation. When it came to free kicks, Pele was not a groundbreaker, but he brought fierce power and the ability to bend the ball both ways.
As this example at the 1970 World Cup shows, Pele could blast them with the best of them. His all-round technical mastery allowed him complete control of rising drives and daisy-cutting skimmers, meaning goalkeepers never quite knew what to expect.
Pele's fellow Brazilian, Rivelino is probably most famous for his mesmerising dribbling and inventing the "elastico." He was also a fine free-kick exponent, as evidenced by this clever strike against East Germany at the 1974 World Cup—achieved with the carefully choreographed help of Jairzinho in the wall.
"It's magic, because at that moment everybody is watching and waiting for you," said Zico of the anticipation that came before every free kick he stood over (as per the clip below).
Zico took what Didi, Pele and Rivelino had done for the free-kick art form and refined it. His trademark was a more subtle execution than we'd seen before—a short run-up followed by a curled shot that invariably dipped over the wall and into the top corner. He would often wait for the goalkeeper to give himself away, then send the ball to his opposite side.
By the early 1980s, balls were easier to move in the air. Zico took full advantage and will go down as one of the great free-kick takers—possibly the greatest of them all.
Michel Platini (1972-1987)
Platini was an exquisite passer blessed with a brilliant football brain—a combination that lends itself perfectly to executing free kicks. The Frenchman scored his fair share in a glittering career, many of which echoed the Zico approach of taking a few steps before flicking a curled shot into the corner.
As this showreel from his time at Juventus attests, Platini was also one to improvise. He could go low, drive his shots or even fool the goalkeeper with a disguised chip.
Diego Maradona (1976-1997)
Maradona could do it all. The maverick Argentine genius had the ball at his complete command, so it stands to reason he was a threat from set-piece situations.
Maradona's free kicks could be deft; they could also be devastating. He wasn't prolific, but he scored enough of them to deserve mention here and he proved capable of threading his shots into the tightest spots to gain a reward.
Sinisa Mihajlovic (1986-2006)
Mihajlovic, who can now be found managing the Serbian national team, scored a record 27 free kicks in Italy's Serie A for Sampdoria and Lazio (FIFA)—including, remarkably, a hat trick of them in the same game.
According to The Guardian, the defender honed his left-footed missiles against metal gates in his garden as a child. "By his early teens his free-kicks were so powerful that his father had to replace those gates every few weeks," wrote Rob Smyth.
Mihajlovic's ferocity meant he was a danger from anywhere inside 35 yards. He achieved wicked dip and bend on his shots, though lacked the guile and variation of Zico and Platini.
Roberto Carlos (1991-2012)
Carlos' free-kick output will forever be defined by his 1997 blockbuster for Brazil against France.
"It was a freak free kick but it wasn't a fluke," professor Christophe Clanet told the Daily Mail after studying the physics of the goal. "For it to come off Carlos had to hit the ball at a high velocity—about 130km an hour—and from a distance of about 35 metres."
Carlos would score other free kicks, but none so memorable. He technique of driving through the ball with the outside of his boot to exact late bend—the equivalent of a pitcher's curve ball in baseball—has never since been matched with such devastating result, though his countryman Hulk came close.
Juninho Pernambucano (1991-Present)
Juninho is recognised as a free-kick phenomenon—perhaps the most prolific we've seen. The Brazilian is famous for his "knuckleball" technique, which prompts the ball to deviate unpredictably in the air and leaves goalkeepers guessing where it will end up.
It's a strike made possible by technology now driving the design of balls—which are lighter and rounder—but very few have mastered it, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale among them.
Juninho is far from a one-trick pony, though. His repertoire also stretches into Zico-curler territory and he has guile to his craft as well.
David Beckham (1993-Present)
Beckham came upon something new. His dead-ball technique marries the curled placement of Zico and Platini with the "dead leaf" dip of Didi and Meazza. What you get is a fizzing missile, struck at almost a right angle with Beckham's foot exerting side- and topspin at the same time.
"Bend it like Beckham" became a movie title. Scientists developed an equation to calculate how he makes it happen. The former Manchester United, Real Madrid and L.A. Galaxy midfielder has yet to execute a Beckham special in the colours of Paris Saint-Germain, but it's surely only a matter of time.
Cristiano Ronaldo (2002-Present)
The familiar pose—hands by his side, steely eyes on his target. Then comes the deep inhale of contemplation. Then the deliberate run-up. Then the explosion as his right boot rips through the ball and sends it towards goal.
Lionel Messi might be the best player of this generation, but Ronaldo is the more feared during free kicks. Using Juninho's "knuckleball" technique, he's capable of getting the ball up and down very, very quickly.
Ronaldo has power and accuracy. He also has the weapon of surprise, as his shot weaves and bobs en route to its destination. There's no spin to inform the goalkeeper where the ball is going, just the knowledge it might suddenly dart in any of the four directions.
Lionel Messi (2003-Present)
Ronaldo might be better, but that doesn't mean we should ignore Messi altogether. The four-time Ballon d'Or winner is a fairly accomplished free-kick taker himself—employing the same left-footed clipped placement you might recognise from the man to which he is so often compared, Maradona.
Among the many other players who deserve mention in any history of free-kick excellence are Ronald Koeman, Ronaldinho, Zinedine Zidane, Andrea Pirlo, Roberto Baggio, Alessandro Del Piero, Wesley Sneijder, Steven Gerrard, Franck Ribery and Gareth Bale. Paraguayan Jose Luis Chilavert also, if only for being the best free-kick-taking goalkeeper in history.
Our walk through the evolution of free-kick masters is complete. From Didi and Meazza to Beckham and Ronaldo, we've visited over 80 years of football history and touched upon some of the great dead-ball experts of their time.
There will be some I've missed. And some you don't believe deserved mention. With that in mind, let the debate begin here as to who is the greatest of them all. I look forward to reading your comments in the section below.