International Football

Ranking the 16 Greatest Free-Kick Takers of All Time

Alex RichardsContributor IDecember 13, 2013

Ranking the 16 Greatest Free-Kick Takers of All Time

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    Jasper Juinen/Getty Images

    When play stops dead some 25 yards from goal, the crowd goes silent and waits in anticipation. It knows what's about to happen.

    For many, there will be little worry. Indeed, the vast majority will think, "It's going to need to be one hell of a hit." Or, more likely, "Bah, the keeper's got it covered."

    This isn't about those players.

    This is about those specialists who have perfected their crafts and who make opposing supporters think, "Uh-oh, this could be trouble."

    This is about the players who have mental fortitude—aligned with technical brilliance—to fire the ball up and over or around a wall, past a startled goalkeeper, and into the back of the net.

    It's about those who can do it again. And again.

    These are the masters of the free-kick, and here is an attempt at ranking the top 16.

    Remember, don't hesitate to leave your opinion in the comments section below if you think there's someone who deserves a place.

    Until then, read on, watch the videos and enjoy.

Honourable Mentions

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    Getty Images/Getty Images

    There are a number of absolutely brilliant free-kick takers that have to go in the "honourable mentions" section rather than the top 16.

    Some, from recent times, just didn't quite make the cut in comparison to others.

    They include:

    • Andrea Pirlo—Blasphemous, I know.
    • Luc Nilis—Wonderful technique, mixing placement and power.
    • Roberto CarlosSome complete and utter screamers, but with only intermittent success.
    • Juan Roman RiquelmeOozing class, no question.
    • Alvaro RecobaOccasionally magnificent, often infuriating.
    • Shunsuke NakamuraTremendous left foot.
    • Pierre van Hooijdonk—Really came into his own during time with Feyenoord.

    Additionally, there are also those from yesteryear who retain legendary/cult status, but for whom there simply isn't enough footage to compare and contrast. Therefore, I couldn't justifiably place them in the top 16.

    They include:

    • DidiMaster of the Falling Leaf
    • Teofilo CubillasThe Pele of Peru, scorer of this outrageous goal against Scotland
    • Ruben PazUruguayan midfielder, 1988 South American Player of the Year with a penchant for the nonchalant.

    Now, on to the top 16.

16. Marcos Assuncao

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    A part of Fabio Capello's Roma squad that won the Scudetto in 2001 and a Copa del Rey winner with Real Betis four years later, Marcos Assuncao made a decent career for himself as a holding midfielder.

    A decent passer and an astute reader of the game, the biggest weapon in the Sao Paulo native's armoury was unquestionably his ability with a dead ball.

    A wonderful striker of the ball with his right foot, Assuncao could make the ball dip and swerve tremendously, finding supreme power even with only a short run-up.

    The Brazilian international (11 caps) is still knocking around in his homeland even today, at the age of 37.

15. Cristiano Ronaldo

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    Up there as one of, if not the best player in the game today, Cristiano Ronaldo is the prototype of the modern forward, combining strength, speed and skill—not to mention clinical finishing.

    And one of the most fantastic weapons at the Real Madrid man's disposal is his ability with a dead ball from anywhere within 30 yards of goal.

    "It was the best free-kick I've ever seen," said Sir Alex Ferguson, his former manager at Manchester United, of one effort against Portsmouth.

    And it's that deceptive movement, aligned with the stunning pace that Ronaldo's approach generates, which makes him one of the most dangerous free-kick takers currently active.

    Certainly, he's missed plenty throughout his career. Who hasn't? But he has been—and remains—a major threat.

     

14. Marcelinho Carioca

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    As the video shows, the Brazilian Marcelinho Carioca was as clean a striker of the ball as you could wish to find, and such immaculate technique played a major part in his prowess from set pieces.

    Capable of striking either from distance or closer range, he could impart brute force or delicacy, putting swerve, dip, curve or whatever he wanted on the ball.

    Such was his prowess with a dead ball that he earned the nickname Angel Foot.

    Perhaps outside of Brazil he isn't as well known as he should be, but you cannot deny his excellence with a set piece. 

13. Rogerio Ceni

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    In a career spanning more than two decades, Rogerio Ceni has netted over 100 goals during his professional career at Sao Pauloa feat made all the more ridiculous by the fact that Ceni is a goalkeeper.

    During his career, all of his goals have come via set pieces, either penalties or free-kicks from anywhere within 30 yards of goal.

    In itself, the fact that Ceni comes to take free-kicks is somewhat awe-inspiring—to have that much confidence in his own ability that he's happy to leave his goal completely open to go and fire at the opposing goal.

    But aside from the mental part of it, Ceni has excellent technical ability. He can thrash the ball toward goal or gently caress it over a wall looking for the top corner.

    At the age of 40, he's signed a new one-year deal with Sao Paulo for 2014.

    Having netted six times in all competitions in 2013, there are a few goals left in him, surely.

12. Gianfranco Zola

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    A diminutive genius, Gianfranco Zola graced both Serie A and the Premier League with a wonderful creativity and intelligence that set him apart from all but very few of his opponents.

    Blessed with technique of the highest order, the former Chelsea and Parma man was devilish with a dead ball, whether going directly for goal or whipping in from wide areas.

    A master craftsman, Zola's chief weapon was his ability to put the ball wherever he wanted. The run-up may have been identical time and again, but where he put the ball varied every time.

11. Ronald Koeman

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    Ronald Koeman was a magnificent footballer, part of Barcelona's so-called Dream Team in the '90s, a two-time Dutch Footballer of the Year and part of PSV Eindhoven's European Cup-winning side in 1988.

    Throughout his career, he married defensive skills with a wonderful technique on the ball, noticeable both in his range of passing and his dead-ball prowess.

    It was Koeman's free-kick in 1992 at Wembley that handed Barcelona their first European Cup against Sampdoria. He notched more than 200 goals during his career.

    Many of those came from dead-ball situations, be they penalties or free-kicks, thanks to a wonderful guile and precision that he displayed time and again.

    Down the years, there were more than a few teams, both at club and international levels, that felt the full force of Koeman's excellence.

10. Ronaldinho

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    A two-time FIFA World Player of the Year and winner of both the European Cup and Copa Libertadores, not to mention his 2002 World Cup triumph, Ronaldinho has had an outstanding career.

    At his peak, he mixed an extravagant array of flicks and tricks with explosive bursts that took him away from defenders, as well as moments of sheer brilliance and genius.

    Then, there were also his goals and the wonderful set pieces that have been a staple throughout his career, even into his twilight at Atletico Mineiro.

    Power, pace, curve, dip and no shortage of inventiveness—as seen by those efforts that went underneath a jumping wallRonaldinho has long been a set-piece specialist of the highest order.

9. Alessandro Del Piero

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    Alessandro Del Piero was nothing less than a Juventus legend, a No. 10 of magnificent quality. His greatest attribute was his loyalty, a characteristic which ensures he will always be revered by supporters of the Bianconeri.

    A World Cup winner, he spent 19 years with the Old Lady, scoring 290 goals in 750 games with them, all the while showcasing a wonderful intelligence and technique.

    And the Italian, who currently can be found in the Australian A-League with Sydney FC, has throughout his wonderful career shown an excellence in dead-ball scenarios, not least shooting directly for goal.

    Whether bending with his instep from the very edges of the penalty area or firing from further out with his laces, Del Piero produced wonderful dip, curve and power, all achieved with tremendous accuracy.

8. Roberto Baggio

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    The Divine Ponytail was one of the deadliest dead-ball specialists seen in "calcio" in the last 30 years.

    Blessed with sublime technique, intelligence and his own wealth of inventiveness, Baggio's all-round game was a joy to behold.

    His free-kicks, however, were a major part of his magnificence.

    Anywhere around the 18-yard box, they were almost as good as gifting his side a penalty, such was his ability.

    Whether driving low, going over or around the wall, floating into the top corner, or whipping across goal, Baggio had plenty in his locker.

    And boy did he display it.

7. David Beckham

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    The poster boy for the set piece since the late 1990s, David Beckham was truly a wonderful dead-ball specialist.

    Perhaps because of what he has becomesomething more than a footballerhis legend is looked upon through rose-tinted glasses.

    However, there can be no doubt about his ability when that ball was dead some 20-30 yards from goal.

    With wonderful technique, Beckham could fly the ball with such fantastic whip and pace that he invariably made quite the habit out of scoring goals that were simply fantastic.

    His consistency was a major plus, and, of course, he often netted just when his club or country needed him tosee Greece in 2001.

6. Gheorghe Hagi

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    Perhaps the premier playmaker coming from Eastern Europe in the last 30 years, Gheorghe Hagi was jaw-droppingly good.

    The Romanian, nicknamed "The Maradona of the Carpathians," had such command over not only the ball but the entire game, always dictating and organising, mixing his own ability with the vision and foresight to direct his colleagues.

    Hagi was a great leader, both for the national team and during his glory years, mixing his explosive personality with a left foot that could just about do it all.

    Whether breaking down a defence with deftness or just bludgeoning a shot from 35 yards, Hagi's left foot was a major weapon. And from dead-ball situations, it made opponents fearful.

    Capable of vicious dip, swerve and breathtaking pace—or of being more deft and subtle when necessary—Hagi could pretty much do it all as a free-kick taker.

    And crucially, he could time and again put the ball wherever he wanted.

     

5. Diego Maradona

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    Perhaps the greatest footballer of all time, Diego Maradona led Argentina almost single-handedly to the 1986 World Cup. He dazzled during his career both for his country and his clubs, chiefly Barcelona and Napoli.

    And although the Argentine No. 10 is mostly remembered for his individual runs, clever passes and all-round dominance from open play, he was also more than handy to have when his side won a free-kick in a dangerous area.

    A player who could make a football bend to his will as and when he saw fit, Maradona could use his left foot to do pretty much whatever he wanted with a dead ball.

    Whether caressing into the net from the edge of the penalty area, lifting it up and over the wall from 25 yards or smashing round a wall from 30 yards, Maradona had plenty at his disposal.

    You'd expect that from one of the game's all-time greatest players.

4. Michel Platini

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    The French playmaker was arguably the greatest European footballer of the 1980s, a true legend of the game and an absolutely wonderful footballer who scored good goals and scored them regularly.

    A massive part of Platini's game was his sensational ability from set pieces in and around the box.

    And it wasn't sensational in terms of his ability to fire extravagant 35-yarders into the back of the net every now and then. Rather, it was sensational in the wonderful consistency and execution that the three-time Ballon d'Or winner portrayed time and again.

    With a wonderful delicacy and curve, the ball would arc up and over the wall and into the back of the net beyond the goalkeeper. It was so simplistic, yet so deadly.

3. Zico

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    Once upon a time, the gifted Brazilian attacking midfielder Zico was the benchmark for set pieces, the man who set the standard and showed just how vital they could be to a quickly evolving game in the 1970s and '80s.

    A wonderful striker of the ball, Zico matched tremendous technique with a lovely control and placement, which so often left the ball beyond the reach of opposing goalkeepers.

    Close to the penalty area, the Brazilian would embark on a mere two-step run-up, yet he could still generate as much or as little power as he felt the situation needed.

    Perhaps the first to turn set-piece taking into an art form, he netted more than 500 goals during his career, including 48 for the Selecao.

    Of those, there were plenty of dead balls to marvel at.

2. Sinisa Mihajlovic

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    So close to being my No. 1 pick but having to settle for second is the former Yugoslavia and Serbia defender Sinisa Mihajlovic.

    Every inch a no-nonsense defender (though he wasn't bad technically either), he had a wonderful career, from his time in the early '90s with a much-vaunted Red Star Belgrade side, to a 14-year spell in Serie A, most notably spent with Sampdoria and Lazio.

    He was a controversial figure who saw a number of red cards and was involved in incidents of racism (NSFW) and spitting. But when Mihajlovic set the ball down for a set piece, opposing defenders knew they were in trouble.

    His left foot was a magnificent beast, something akin to Thor's hammer. It was capable of unwieldy blows of sheer brutality, of outrageous vicious strikes from distance.

    Yet there could also be a wonderful versatility and depth to Mihajlovic's dead balls, a beautiful shape and arc, as well as the ability to curve the ball with the instep or to lash it from right to left with the laces.

    During his time with Lazio, Mihajlovic scored a hat-trick of free-kicks against former club Sampdoria in the same game.

    It would be his "set piece de resistance."

1. Juninho Pernambucano

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    Say Juninho Pernambucano's name, and the first response is likely to be, "Great free kicks." He was the greatest and most versatile free-kick taker there has ever been.

    As he got older, through his early years at Vasco De Gama and his eight-year stint at Lyon, Juninho developed his knuckleball technique, something which the likes of Didier Drogba, Cristiano Ronaldo and David Luiz, to name just three, have tried to replicate.

    However, none has come anywhere near the Brazilian's level of mastery. His magnificent ability of making the ball fly through the air, veering in a number of different directions before finding the net, quite simply is the best.

    Moreover, distance made little difference. Whether 20, 30 or 40 yards from goal, the hits were often so pure, of such quality and ferocity, that goalkeepers simply couldn't do anything about them.

    Such was his quality with a dead ball, Juninho netted 44 of his 100 goals for Lyon from free-kicks and has notched many, many more during his career.

    As such, Juninho Pernambucano gets our No. 1 spot.

     

    Twitter: @AA_Richards

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