A definitive ranking of every kind of free-kick, from worst to best
From classics like the Beckham instep to modern approaches like the Cristiano knuckleball, free kicks have provided football with some of its greatest moments.
Some kinds of free kick, however, are objectively better than others. And below is a list of every* type of attacking free kick, ranked from wall-whacking worst to Barthez-beating best.
*Every type we could think of. Let us know @planetfutebol if we’ve forgotten any.
13. The knuckleball
Truth be told, the knuckleball — so named after a baseball pitching style that makes use of the knuckles — should be considered an important innovation in footballing technique.
When the Premier League was first treated to Cristiano Ronaldo’s unusual ball-striking approach in the mid-2000s, many fans couldn’t believe what they were seeing: the ball went this way, then that way, and ultimately nowhere near David James’ hands.
If ‘bending it like Beckham’ involved the precise application of Newtonian physics, the knuckleball moved things swiftly and unpredictably into quantum theory.
The knuckle isn’t just about Ronaldo, either. Brazilian Juninho Pernambucano pulled similar tricks at Lyon between 2001 and 2009, while others like Gareth Bale and David Luiz have attempted to hone the technique.
For at least three reasons, however, this kind of free kick remains one the worst things about modern football.
Firstly, the knuckleball virtually always hits the wall, whether it’s Ronaldo or a Sunday League copycat in the park.
Secondly, everyone tries it these days, even though nobody can really do it, which results in even more walls getting hit.
Worst of all, however, Ronaldo does that horrible legs-apart stance, probably in order to sell action figures or something, and it’s just not nice to look at.
12. The quick pass
Yes, that’s how bad the knuckleball is. Watching Sergio Busquets knock the ball sideways to keep possession is more palatable than CR7 taking a dramatic intake of breath before thumping one into the wall.
11. The cross
Only marginally more exciting than the quick pass, the crossed free-kick is sometimes better than a corner, sometimes worse. Nothing to write home about. Unless…
10. The fake cross
Chelsea versus Liverpool in the Champions League has produced some great moments, many of which came in Chelsea’s quarter-final win of 2009, a tie that ended 7-5 on aggregate.
It could have gone Liverpool’s way, however, had the Reds built upon a brilliantly sneaky free-kick from left-back Fabio Aurelio.
You can obviously wind up your team-mates by getting this wrong, but just look at Petr Cech’s despair when Aurelio’s strike creeps in.
Note: Brazilian left-backs take good free kicks.
9. The under-the-wall creeper
Mixed feelings about this April Fool of a free kick. Clever, yes, but unnecessarily cruel on the opposing side? Perhaps.
Recently deployed by Coutinho to humiliate an overexcited Brighton wall.
8. The flick-up
A great way of getting the ball over the wall is having the ball in the air to start with, hence the occasional appearance of the flicked-up free kick.
Flicking can be provided by the shooting player or a team-mate.
7. The donkey kick
Would rank higher were it not so illegal, this trick free-kick — a more whimsical version of the flick-up — remains a playground classic.
In a match against Everton in October 1970, Coventry’s Willie Carr sandwiched the ball between his heels, flicked it up behind him, and watched as team-mate Ernie Hunt volleyed over the wall and into the net.
You won’t see another like it: the trick was eventually outlawed because the assisting player technically touches the ball twice.
6. The dummy
Pretending to hit it before someone else really hits it: achieves nothing, but still absolutely brilliant fun. Even better with multiple dummies by multiple players.
5. The John Arne Riise
Maybe it’s unreasonable to highlight another Liverpool left-back as a pioneer of his craft, but it can be hard to dissociate very, very powerful free kicks from the ginger Norwegian. A 2001 effort against Man United remains his most iconic.
Really though, this is hardly something Riise can trademark: other exponents of the very powerful free kick, occasionally assisted with a little lay-off, include Alan Shearer, Steven Gerrard, and every German ever.
Note: Fabien Barthez can be beaten with a free kick.
4. The David Beckham
Take nothing away from the Greece goal, nor Beckham’s many other bending strikes, nor the majority of direct free-kicks in football history, but bending it like Beckham has ever so slightly lost its wow factor.
Perhaps because it’s a relatively common skill, perhaps because of our creeping acceptance of the knuckleball as a more ‘exciting’ striking technique, Beckham-like free kicks are now much less sexy than the man himself.
Mind you, Steven Defour’s recent strike to beat David De Gea was great.
3. The inside-the-box indirect tee-up
Introduced in 1992, the back-pass rule helped to stamp out overly defensive play, just like the silver goal rule did.
It did better things than that, though: every now and again, when a goalkeeper gets a rush of blood to the head, the back-pass rule leads to a very, very satisfying free kick situation.
2. The intricate routine
Look, I’m not obsessed with the knuckleball, but perhaps the reason why it grates so much isn’t because of what it is, but rather what it isn’t.
Here’s a thought experiment: have you ever seen an intricate free-kick routine, successful or unsuccessful, and not instantly wondered why more teams don’t attempt them?
Of course you haven’t. Because intricate routines, in all their countless forms, are great…even when they’re scored by Javier Zanetti against England.
They’re great because they demonstrate the power of footballing teamwork, of putting in a collective shift on the training pitch in order to outwit the next opponent. The shared celebrations after a successful routine reflect that thinking: it’s not all about the goalscorer; it’s about the team.
The egotistical knuckleball is the very opposite of this philosophy. One player attempts the spectacular, knowing full well that a different approach might have a better chance of at least clearing the bloody wall.
1. The Roberto Carlos
Actually, forget all that. Free kicks are about one man and one man only: Brazil’s Roberto Carlos.
Few dispute that the full-back’s 1997 strike against France was one of the greatest free-kicks ever, but the goal is still debated to this day.
That’s because nobody is quite sure how it happened. Was it the ball? The wind? An act of God?
In 2010, a study published in the New Journal of Physics suggested the goal wasn’t as physics-defying as many had made it out to be, and that it could be repeated under the right circumstances.
Last year, Carlos himself told L’Equipe: “The ball was going completely wide, but the wind brought it back to the goal. It was a miracle.”
I’m not sure “wind” and “miracle” are compatible explanations, but it ultimately matters very little how the goal happened. What matters is that very few players have tried to replicate the technique, and that is something of a footballing tragedy.
Is it fear of embarrassment? A miscued outside-footer can go very, very wide, and that’s surely on a player’s mind when considering to attempt such a shot. No other free kick is more likely to hit the corner flag.
But is that a good enough excuse? Football is due another Carlos goal, and some left-back needs to give it to us. Charlie Daniels? Justify that 11 on your shirt. Luke Shaw? Prove a point. Stephen Ward? We believe in you.