Where Does Andrea Pirlo Rank Among the World's 20 Best Free-Kick Experts?
All of the experts have a story.
It was David Beckham who took “maybe hundreds of thousands” of free-kicks with his father in the local park, sometimes in the garden, per The Times of London (subscription required). And then when he got home, he would carry on inside the house, kicking teddy bears from his sister’s bedroom.
Preparation is the secret. Even the great Juninho said in an interview with The Guardian that he loved to go through “a series of free-kicks after training.” He did not magically create the knuckle-ball effect on the ball.
And so the same goes for Andrea Pirlo. He studied Roberto Baggio, Maradona and, of course, Juninho. It was on his toilet that Pirlo realized that Juninho hit the ball with only three of his toes. Each kick is measured. The Italian has struck plenty of free-kicks since.
But Pirlo is not the only one. There are plenty of players still active in the game that make the ball do ridiculous things in the air, en route to the back of the net. Sometimes it is a special kind of delivery; other times it is the winning goal.
Here's a look at the specialists still playing, and how Pirlo stacks up.
20. Alessandro Diamanti
Alessandro Diamanti does it at the club and international level. He looks like a bit of a madman with those wild curls, but he puts the same amount of curl on each of his free-kicks. He wraps his foot around the ball and puts a little power behind it. He last scored in China.
19. Juan Arango
This one is a little bit different. Juan Arango does not need to spend hours after training. He told the German newspaper Bild (h/t goal.com): “I just need a few minutes. I just know how to do it.”
His left foot is his weapon of choice, and he can finesse the ball just right, or power through it. He takes a pretty big wind-up, but he has the ball under his control.
18. Frank Lampard
The greater the distance, the greater the goal. It is almost exclusively that Frank Lampard takes the free-kicks at least 30 yards away from the net. And he scores magnificent goals. The flight of the ball is sometimes direct, but it is accurate.
17. Sejad Salihovic
Sejad Salihovic almost hunches over the ball when he strikes a free-kick. He takes just three or four steps, and he likes to hit it with the inside of his foot. That’s his own little secret. “If you’re putting spin on the ball,” he told Bundesliga TV, “it’s better if you’re next to it.”
16. Miralem Pjanic
He has scored just twice off a free-kick in Serie A this season, but Miralem Pjanic could rival Francesco Totti as the best taker on Roma.
He set up a win against Napoli with a crucial free-kick in stoppage time—and he scored with Maradona as his audience.
15. Wayne Rooney
Rooney puts a lot of spin on his free-kicks. He hits them with the inside of his right boot, and the ball dips into a corner. He has scored three goals this season in those dead-ball situations.
14. Ivan Rakitic
Ivan Rakitic told UEFA.com that he knows exactly where he is going to put the ball. He once scored a 47-yard free-kick for Croatia against Macedonia, but he can also cannon the ball into the top corner.
13. Francesco Lodi
They call him the left-footed Beckham, and for good reason: Francesco Lodi almost exclusively scores off free-kicks. He doesn't strike the ball gently, but it glides in the air as it reaches the back of the net. It's all very pretty.
12. Luis Suarez
Luis Suarez scores every way imaginable. His free-kicks are not so much spectacular as they are precise. He finds the little cracks in the wall and he slots the ball through the seam. He anticipates where there will be an opening.
Sometimes the ball bounces on the ground before it hits the net. And he strikes the ball so that it is just out of the goalkeeper's reach.
11. Christian Eriksen
Christian Eriksen does not only score off free-kicks. He sets up his teammates for the easy tap-in or header. But when he does score, the shot is unstoppable. He puts a lot of power behind his kicks—sometimes he hits the bar—and he often scores at a crucial moment in the match.
10. Leighton Baines
The best Englishman on a free-kick is Leighton Baines. He once scored twice from the exact same spot in a game against West Ham this season.
He can also score from distance, much like Frank Lampard. He's also a perfect 13-of-13 from the penalty spot in Premier League action. The man is a dead-ball specialist.
9. Mario Balotelli
His free-kicks don’t always turn into goals. But Mario Balotelli always makes the keepers work. Rarely does he fire a free-kick up into the stands. And he makes sure to sting their gloves. He has scored four goals off set-pieces this season.
8. Marco Reus
Marco Reus has a secret of his own. He told Bundesliga TV that he likes to keep his shoes real tight. "That gives me tighter control of the process, and it feels good," he said. "Of course, it's nice if the shoes are light." He can complete all those crossbar challenges, and he too wraps his foot right around the ball.
Ronaldinho still has it. He may not get all the fanfare abroad while playing in Brazil, but he can still strike a ball hard into the net. Sometimes he is a little tricky, and he'll slot the ball right underneath the wall as it jumps.
Once he played in a team with Andrea Pirlo and David Beckham. All three hovered over the ball for the free-kick. It was the single scariest moment in that goalkeeper's life.
6. Zlatan Ibrahimovic
You can guarantee he is going to hit it hard. He takes long strides forward and smacks the ball, almost punishing it. For Zlatan Ibrahimovic, it is all about power. The ball goes well over 100 km/h (per 101 Great Goals), and he just walks away as if it's nothing special.
5. Gareth Bale
Gareth Bale takes four steps back and a step to the right as he lines up his free kick, and then he takes a glance to see where the goalkeeper is.
Sometimes there is a little spin on the ball, but he hits his best free-kicks—from distance or close range—when the ball soars still in the air.
4. Yaya Toure
One of the more surprising scorers in the game, Yaya Toure has also turned into one of the deadliest free-kick specialists. He has scored four goals this season, good for an 80 percent conversion rating at one point. Before this campaign, Yaya Toure had not scored off a single free-kick for Manchester City, per Michael Cox of ESPNFC.
3. Lionel Messi
He does everything right. Free-kicks are no exception. Lionel Messi is the most creative player with a dead ball.
He chooses the type of shot based on the situation at hand. Sometimes he arches the ball; other times he weighs it perfectly. Sometimes he just sends it beyond the goalkeeper's reach. Just this past weekend, he blasted the shot from a free-kick to score against Athletic Bilbao.
2. Cristiano Ronaldo
He has that particular stance, arms by his side. He blows out some air and then races to take the kick. Some of his shots are wild. The ball goes up and away. But Cristiano Ronaldo scores plenty of goals off the free-kick, even if he wastes just as many or more.
1. Andrea Pirlo
This season, Andrea Pirlo has scored six goals off free kicks, per Paolo Bandini of Bleacher Report. That’s more than any other player in the big leagues. And it is not just that: It’s the sudden reawakening.
Pirlo scored just eight goals off free-kicks in a decade with Milan; he has scored 12 in just three seasons with Juventus. And many of the goals were winners in very close games.
He studied the craft, and now he is teaching.