Where Does Lionel Messi Rank Among the Greatest Free-Kick Takers of All Time?
Lionel Messi scored his 27th goal for Barcelona from a free-kick on Saturday, eclipsing Ronald Koeman's record for the club and providing further evidence as to his genius from dead-ball situations.
The Argentinian forward recently rescued Barca with accurate strikes from free-kicks against Villarreal and Athletic Bilbao, before repeating the trick against the Basque side—albeit in less dire circumstances this time and somewhat indebted to Gorka Iraizoz's poor reactions.
He's undoubtedly one of the best in the modern game with his all-around ability, and perhaps his free-kick taking has also eclipsed everyone else on the planet—so how does he rank against the greats of yesteryear in that regard?
The 2016 FIFA Puskas Award winner was Mohd Faiz Subri for his ridiculous, swerving, long-range free-kick. Do it another 30 or more times, and he might feature in these lists in years to come.
The list of excellent set-piece takers is long, but we've tried to pick out a selection who could warrant inclusion if the weighting of technique, repetition, longevity and style was altered for different people to appreciate varying factors. As such, these are our 11 honourable mentions in no particular order:
- Marcelinho Carioca—one of the best from Brazil.
- Rogerio Ceni—a goalkeeper who netted well over 50 times from dead balls? OK, then.
- Teo Cubillas—flamboyant and fantastic.
- Roberto Baggio—divine execution from just outside the box.
- Pierre van Hooijdonk—not always a team player but certainly an expert from set plays.
- Gheorghe Hagi—as amazing to watch from free-kicks as he was in full flight in open play.
- Shunsuke Nakamura—whip, curve, distance. Unstoppable.
- Jose Luis Chilavert—another goalkeeper bridging the divide to outfield.
- Steven Gerrard—power or placement, curled or arrowed; it didn't matter which.
- Keisuke Honda—if only the rest of his game was as consistent as his set pieces.
- Hakan Calhanoglu—our contemporary option. He could become one of the greats. For many, he already is.
15. Andrea Pirlo
If a list starts with Andrea Pirlo, you can probably assume it's going to be a fun one to read through, with plenty of expert takers coming later on.
Pirlo levelled the Serie A record for free-kick goals in 2015, shortly before departing Juventus and Italy. He has been playing in MLS since then for New York City FC. Full of grace as ever, Pirlo's typical free-kick is a curler from a yard or two outside the box, finding the corners unerringly.
14. Alvaro Recoba
A frustrating genius, Alvaro Recoba—El Chino, as he was nicknamed—was one of the most gifted players in Serie A during one of the league's strongest periods, the late 1990s and early 2000s.
He was gifted but also inconsistent and injury-prone. After intermittently starring for Inter Milan, he was loaned to Torino in 2007 before returning to his native Uruguay. There was nothing inconsistent about Recoba's free-kicks, though, and he could find the back of the net from any range and angle with his wonderful left foot.
13. Cristiano Ronaldo
Real Madrid's main man has slowed up considerably with his free-kick prowess in the past couple of seasons, but before criticising him, it's worth remembering just how difficult it is to beat a goalkeeper and a wall from 30 yards.
At Manchester United and Real alike, Cristiano Ronaldo has long been an exponent of beating the 'keeper from range with incredible power and swerve on his trademark strikes.
12. Diego Maradona
Think of Diego Maradona, and it's not his free-kicks that immediately come to mind; it's more likely his wondrous solo dribbles, his close control and a fair few moments of controversy.
Goalscoring was a big part of his game too, though, and plenty of those came from free-kicks. Maradona could clip a dipping ball over a wall if the effort came from the edge of the box, while precision and power were delivered in equal measures.
11. David Beckham
Incredibly consistent with his free-kick taking, whether it was on delivering crosses or aiming at goal.
David Beckham seemed to be battling himself to come up with the best and most important goals from free-kicks, with his strike for England against Greece in October 2001 the crowning moment he is remembered for.
10. Alessandro Del Piero
Alessandro Del Piero was another of Serie A's finest who was blessed with tremendous set-piece accuracy. He delivered goal after goal for Juventus before departing for Australia in 2012.
Del Piero ranks just behind Andrea Pirlo in all-time free-kick goals in Serie A but above his compatriot for free-kick goals across all competitions.
9. Miralem Pjanic
The Bosnia and Herzegovina international was labelled the "best free-kick taker in the world" in 2015 by someone who was pretty handy at them himself—more on that player later—and while we're not going quite that far, he's certainly more than good enough to make our top 10.
8. Juan Arango
Bundesliga fans will be well-acquainted with the free-kick style (and ensuing celebrations) of Juan Arango, who dominated the German top flight for five years at Borussia Monchengladbach.
The much-travelled Venezuelan was still playing up to last year at age 36 in the U.S. with the New York Cosmos. There, he netted five free-kicks last season en route to winning the NASL Golden Ball award for the most valuable player in the league.
No introductions needed for Ronaldinho, who netted free-kicks aplenty for the likes of Paris Saint-Germain, Barcelona, AC Milan and Atletico Mineiro.
Although Ronaldinho tended to rely on curl and accuracy over reasonably short-distance efforts, he could also generate phenomenal power from time to time, and any goalkeeper facing him was pretty much playing a guessing game as to which side he'd go.
6. Michel Platini
One of the finest players of his generation, Michel Platini may be known to contemporary fans of the sport for his tenure as president of UEFA. But during the 1980s, he was one of the best in the world while playing for France, Saint-Etienne and Juventus.
His free-kicks were just one aspect of a well-rounded game as an attacking playmaker, which served to boost his goal tally considerably.
5. Ronald Koeman
Sometimes, you want finesse and accuracy from dead balls. Sometimes you want an unstoppable thunderbastard.
Koeman was the go-to man for the latter, serving up missiles from his right boot for the likes of Ajax and Barcelona in particular, making any free-kick within 35 yards a shooting opportunity. It's he who has just lost the Barcelona record to Messi.
4. Lionel Messi
Messi doesn't yet have the numbers of the likes of Del Piero and Arango, but he's also still got half-a-dozen years ahead of him to match their tallies. He also had to wait his turn for set-piece duty while the likes of Ronaldinho and Xavi took centre stage.
The Argentinian has seen a massive upsurge in his reliability, his accuracy and his timing in delivering free-kicks in recent years; when Barcelona need it most, he comes up with the goods. Case in point, the last-minute strike against Villarreal on January 8.
3. Sinisa Mihajlovic
Into the top three, and it's a podium place for former Lazio defender, current Torino manager and long-time free-kick legend Sinisa Mihajlovic.
Serie A was perhaps a breeding ground for set-piece experts in the 90s, and the former Yugoslavia international led the way in that regard, holding the record in Italy's top flight for many years before Pirlo equalled it.
Mihajlovic memorably netted a hat-trick during his Lazio days with all three goals coming from free-kicks.
One of the greatest players in football history, Zico was a Brazi star in the 70s and 80s, though he was never a World Cup winner.
His free-kick taking bordered on the ridiculous, with sublime top-corner efforts caressed in from any angle and distance.
1. Juninho Pernambucano
This is probably not a huge surprise, but Juninho Pernambucano deservedly takes top spot in our all-time greatest free-kick taker rankings.
A longtime Lyon favourite, he also represented Vasco da Gama, but it was with Les Gones—perhaps simply with the advent of more accessible viewing of his goals—when he came to prominence.
Juninho scored nearly 50 free-kicks for the Ligue 1 side, with several coming from more than 40 yards out; even if you knew what was coming, there wasn't much you could do to prevent the inevitable. When a player is that good, they simply have to be admired.