There’s a foul thirty yards out. The whistle goes. You’re not worried. Your team have got this. It’s too far, the wall will block it, and if not your keeper will surely get a hand to it.
The taker steps up. Ah. There’s the stirrings of that worry. He’s done it before, but it’s only a free kick.
Even the best don’t score every time, and certainly not from there. You clutch your match ticket in anticipation.
It’s going to be fine, you tell yourself as the referee puts his whistle to his lips. It’s going to be absolutely f-.
Oh. Oh wow. He’s put that right in the top bins. And now the away fans are going wild and your keeper’s picking it out of the net.
There’s nothing like a free kick. It’s the quickest way to make half a team look stupid. The player who gave away the free kick. The helpless wall watching the ball sail over their heads. And the keeper, wrong-footed by that last second bit of swerve.
Done right, a free kick is a thing of absolute beauty.
Here are five of the very best.
5: Lionel Messi, Barcelona vs Liverpool, 2019
There’s a cliche that commentators like to shout about any free kick that goes within a foot of the top corner. “He’s put that on a postage stamp.”
It’s ridiculous. A postage stamp is tiny. Nobody can be that accurate with a football. Nobody, apart from perhaps Lionel Messi.
You’d be hard pressed to squeeze a postage stamp in between the ball and the post here, so accurate is the Argentinian’s delivery. He might not be doing things like that at Camp Nou anymore, but it might be worth tracking down PSG tickets just on the off chance he can rediscover this old magic for his new team.
4: Ronaldinho, Brazil vs England, 2002
“Beckham territory,” they called it. The part of the pitch close enough to the goal that shooting would be worthwhile, but not so close that you don’t have room to get the ball up and down over the wall. Unfortunately, nobody told Ronaldinho that, and nobody told England goalkeeper David Seaman.
From much too far out, and from much too far wide, Ronaldo looks up, spots Seaman’s ponytail flapping around four yards in front of his line, and just gently lofts the ball into the back of the net.
The tiny deflection as it kisses the crossbar on its way in is the icing on the cake.
3: Cristiano Ronaldo, Manchester United vs Portsmouth, 2008
Nowadays, we think of CR7 as one of – if not the – greatest players of all time. But back in 2008, the Portuguese phenomenon hadn’t scored more than 20 goals in a season, certainly hadn’t won a Ballon d’Or, and was more famed for his stepovers than his technique with the ball.
Then he went and did this.
Swerve? Dip? Off the bar and in? No thanks. Just up and down, in a perfectly straight line, before nestling in the top corner. Nobody else hits a free kick in quite the same way. Nobody else can.
2: David Beckham, England vs Greece, 2001
Everyone who remembers England’s campaign to qualify for Japan/Korea 2002 remembers the Germany 1-5 England game. But when it comes to the match that actually put England through to the finals, nobody remembers the score (it was 2-2), or who scored England’s first (Teddy Sheringham). All they remember is this absolute peach of a free kick from David Beckham in the third minute of injury time. With ice-cold veins, Beckham steps up, and absolutely leathers it into the top corner.
Anyone who bought Manchester United tickets in the late 90s and early 2000s knew Beckham had this in his locker. But very few players could hit a free kick so well, under so much pressure.
1: Roberto Carlos, Brazil vs France, 1997
It’s not fair. This was only a friendly. And there’s nothing friendly about the way Roberto Carlos sends in a free kick so bizarre that it’s like the laws of physics don’t exist.
He strikes it with his left foot after a staggeringly long run-up. The ball swerves around the wall – there’s four, five feet of space between it and the nearest defender. It’s pointing closer towards the corner flag than the net, and then… And then impossibly, it swerves back inside the post, leaving France’s Barthez flat-footed and clueless.
France took their revenge in the final a year later, but even those with World Cup tickets would have to admit that not one of their goals at the tournament was as memorable as this free kick.