Words: Max Freeman-Mills
Images: Offside Sports Photography
It’s why Liverpool supporters are licking their lips at the thought of Harry Wilson making his return. It’s why I wouldn’t be remotely disappointed if Hakan Çalhanoğlu came to the Premier League, even to a rival. It’s another little reason why Messi is simply on another plane to Cristiano. Seeing someone who can take the fuck out of a direct free kick, reliably, is one of the best things in football.
Being in the presence a genuine free kick master, a dead-eye marksman from anywhere thirty yards from goal, is a pleasure. It’s a weapon that could come good at any moment, that’s in the back of opponents’ minds at all times, a wild card openly boasted, waiting to be played. Here’s what I can do, they’re telling their opponents. Don’t give me the opportunity. From getting out of jail to securing points you actually deserved, it’s a hell of an option.
Think of West Ham in their Payet phase, when he was whipping in scary kicks from all sorts of places. It was a great time to be alive and a terrifying time to concede a foul. This sorta tubby lad standing behind the ball, chest puffed out, knowing he’s already popped in three this season, and that the goalie knows it too. Knowing his dip and swerve means either side of the goal is a valid target, that the wall’s meaningless. God. Jesus. It’s so good. It’s an absolute boon.
Because the reality is most teams don’t have one. We’re over halfway through this season, and only two players have scored direct more than once in the Prem, and Granit Xhaka is one of them. Juan Mata’s about the only specialist left and he hardly ever gets a game. The bloody good sides don’t necessarily need a main man on the dead ball. Manchester City, with Pep at the helm, score a fair few free kicks, but the taker switches according to seniority, form, positioning. It can be fun, the merry-go-round of who’ll take a punt, but it’s also symptomatic of square pegs in the round hole of an expert role.
The NFL has a different attitude to specific jobs. Its punters are paid phenomenal sums to jog on for one specific kick, a laughably simple one compared to almost any rugby conversion. But in the US they decided that the person kicking should be the best possible kicker, not someone who practices kicking after training and thinks they’re actually half decent at this, on occasion, and thinks it might be worth a pop every now and again.
At the 2014 World Cup, Louis Van Gaal successfully brought on Tim Krul to face penalties, the statistically better spot kick stopper compared to first choice Jasper Cillessen, and the adulation was widespread. I dream of the day when Jürgen Klopp, with the Reds tied in the final moments of a match, sees a free kick awarded and turns, screaming to the waiting specialist to get his trackies off.
When, on a remote pre-season tour, a gurning presenter asks a couple of squad-mates who the best free kick taker is, I don’t want them hesitating, working out the funniest answer or the most cutting. I want them to think, “Oh, well, that’s a stupid question, obviously” before naming the man who actually scores free kicks. It’s all he does: puts the ball down and then puts it in the goal. Like it’s the most natural thing in the world.
Give me an ageing Juninho, Dimi Payet, even a Rogério Ceni, someone who just knows how to do it. There’s no finer sight than seeing that ball arching through the air past a scrambling keeper and nothing better than that spark of excitement inside you knowing that at any moment, something special can happen. Let’s hope we get another one soon.
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