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Backward headers the new bicycle kick at World Cup

Skill is under appreciated

icon robbiekeane22 June ~ Each World Cup brings its own trends: no defending in 1954, bendy long-range goals in 1978, thinking a crowd wave was both fun and original at Mexico 86. This summer we're in the country with the image rights to the overhead kick. It's the kind of acrobatics beloved of commentators and pundits, easily commodifiable as the "toughest skill in the game". But try a backwards header. Atlético Madrid's last goal of 2013-14, in the Champions League final, was scored like this by Diego Godín. Arguably the best ever headed goal was a reverse effort at the 2002 finals.

Goals in the same genre across the globe this year indicate backward headers could be in vogue during Brazil 2014.

It won't console Scottish midfielder Paul McGowan, just released by St Mirren, but his tremendous backward-headed goal for the Buddies at Dundee United in March was vastly superior to Godín's. It was a beautifully judged effort on the run, past a perfectly positioned keeper. As was Nemanja Vidic's for Manchester United against Bayern Munich in April's Champions League quarter-final. He caught Wayne Rooney's corner just above and behind his right ear. Replays show Vidic's right eye focusing on the area into which he guides the ball past Manuel Neuer. Heading the ball against your body momentum is counter-intuitive and could risk some previously undiscovered tendon. But it leaves even world class keepers stranded on their misplaced weight.

Naturally, it was a Brazilian – Leônidas da Silva of São Paulo and Flamengo – who first brought the bicycle kick to global attention. At the 1938 World Cup in France he set a cultural template. Pelé was repeatedly pictured upside down in mid-air for Santos, New York Cosmos or the Seleção. When Zico, another Flamengo star, went airborne to boot one over his shoulder into New Zealand's net at Spain 82 the world acclaimed a quintessentially Brazilian skill. Yet, while the gymnastics look good, they also signify desperation to shoot with the feet. If your back's to goal, having a go with the head, a much less accurate body part, is spectacularly skilful.

The best reverse header in history was by Mexico's Jared Borgetti against Italy in the group stage of the 2002 finals in Oita, Japan. He's facing away from goal. To escape Paolo Maldini, he's run across the opposition area into the left corner of six-yard box, almost making for the corner flag. Borgetti then heads the ball towards Mexico's half, imparting exactly enough power to take it across goalkeeper Gigi Buffon before momentum sucks it into the net.

The Leonidas of the backward header is Raith Rovers' Grant Anderson. He bulleted home a winner against Hibs in the Scottish Cup this February, after setting-up Raith's previous goal in the game the same way. Godín's Atlético team-mate Raúl García is another exponent. At Valencia's Mestalla, with three games remaining in the tightest Liga race ever, he faced his own keeper while heading the winner against another European semi-finalist.

As with all art forms there are poor imitations. Ivan Perisic's third-minute opener for Wolfsburg in week 32 of this season's Bundesliga looked perfect. The free-kick arrived on a forehead squarely facing its own half. But the Freiburg defence allowed him to do this while embarrassingly stationary. Similarly, Franco Arizala's opener for León of Mexico in their decisive April win in the Copa Libertadores wasn't the most inspirational rendering. But it came against Flamengo, while eliminating them – at the Maracanã. The Leonidas legacy is under direct attack. Alex Anderson

On the subject...

Comment on 02-06-2014 12:07:11 by huwrichards #919215
It is also worth remembering Uwe Seeler's backheaded goal for West Germany against England in the 1970 World Cup quarter-final. It tends to be forgotten between Beckenbauer's opener and the winner from Muller, but it was the goal which took the match into extra time and a quite extraordinary piece of technique - he clearly had remarkable strength in his neck and shoulders as well as superb timing.
Comment on 02-06-2014 12:36:27 by Velvet Android #919223
It was the first thing I thought of when I saw the thread title — I remember reading about it in my World Cup '90 sticker album's section on past great games, and indeed I believe this was where I first came across the concept of a 'back header'. Still not sure I've ever actually seen the goal in question, mind.
Comment on 02-06-2014 16:26:37 by Jǡh Womble #919358
It is also worth remembering Uwe Seeler's backheaded goal for West Germany against England in the 1970 World Cup quarter-final. It tends to be forgotten between Beckenbauer's opener and the winner from Muller, but it was the goal which took the match into extra time and a quite extraordinary piece of technique - he clearly had remarkable strength in his neck and shoulders as well as superb timing.

To this day that goal is amusingly dismissed as a freak by 'stand in' goalkeeper Peter Bonetti. Well, I s'pose you would, wouldn't you?

Edit: I watched it (among other Mexico '70 goals) earlier today - from a variety of angles - and it's far from a fluke.
Comment on 02-06-2014 16:45:19 by Alex Anderson #919368
www.youtube.com/watch?v=qObl9wEIC6Y

Seeler's classic really doesn't suit my argument, though - coz YouTube brings up clips of him missing overhead kicks - one in the same tournament, another against bl**dy Brazil.

Ach, Uwe probably felt he was taking the easy way out as soon as he got himself upside down. The shame had ruined his concentration by the time his feet connected with the ball. That’s all.
Comment on 03-06-2014 16:17:48 by canarly #919915
Enjoyed that article Alex you should be in charge of marketing Scottish football! I must have seen Borgetti's goal before but never registered what a great build up. Just watched Seeler score this morning in a 1958 World Cup film, he had a great career and I remember that 3-2 Sunday night clearly
Comment on 03-06-2014 18:06:08 by Alex Anderson #919997
Cheers Canarly - it would certainly explain a few things if I'd been left in charge of anything at the SFA. Yup - beautiful build-up to the Mexico goal, even the tackle in their own box which wins possession is a peach - lovely to see a goal begin and end so gorgeously. And I wouldn't be surprised if big Jared factored in how the closed roof would affect the air density when he was judging his angles.

Yeah Seeler was some player, eh. Played in all four world cups between 54 and 74 ... Mind you, he only ended up with a silver and a bronze??? ... rubbish ... he'd never get a game for Scotland ;-)
Comment on 04-06-2014 20:54:38 by jameswba #920537
Great piece and thread.

'It's the kind of acrobatics beloved of commentators and pundits, easily commodifiable as the "toughest skill in the game". But try a backwards header.'

That reminded me of part of an essay in a Nick Hornby edited book, I think it was 'My Favourite Year'. The piece was about a golden season for St Albans in the 70s and part of its central theme was that, at any level of football anywhere, you can witness isolated bits of spellbinding skill from (relatively)unskillful players ; dipping 30-yard volleys into the top-corner by beer-bellied midfielders, astonishing reflex saves from usually immobile 'keepers etc.

And I'm with Alex's implication in the quoted lines - scissors kicks aren't the preserve of the very best. I had a video posted on here a year or so ago of one by a player in the Slovak 6th league. It was at a fenced-off park pitch and there was a cockerel crowing in the background, but it was one fantastic strike.

But I don't think that a player at such a lowly level could pull off any of the backheaded goals featured in the article, and especially not that Raith Rovers one. That would have been a damn fine goal - for the spring, timing etc - if he'd been facing the RIGHT way. Backwards, it's just stunning.

To simplify, a park player could bring off the scissors kick once out of a thousand attempts. He'd never EVER manage the sort of skill this article highlights.

(Agree too that the backheader can suffer from its poorer examples, which are often - like Atletico's goal in the CL final - mainly a result of simple 'keeper error.)
Comment on 06-06-2014 16:49:15 by Alex Anderson #921340
Agreed James. What got me going about Grant Anderson's goal was BBC pundit Billy Dodds, a great international striker in his day, insisting it was a fluke. Yet not only did Anderson use the same skill in the build-up to Raith's second goal at Hibs but I watched him make two defensive clearances in exactly the same manner, live on telly, when they played St Johnstone in the quarter-finals.

This time they were in less exciting areas of the pitch so went largely unnoticed but Grant clearly has his backward headers infinitely better calibrated than my forward version ever was during my own illustrious parks football career.

And, for every inferior execution of the reverse headed goal, I must cite the litany of fat, lazy centre-forwards who've hooked one over their shoulder from six yards out, standing foot firmly planted on terra firma, barely bending their neck forwards far less actually getting the body airborne, but who - upon seeing the ball hit the net - promptly plonk themselves on the deck and claim they've just executed a bicycle kick.

Again, I might be remembering my own Sunday league acrobatics there ...
Comment on 06-06-2014 23:18:23 by simpsont #921435
I enjoyed the article but at the risk of digressing, Billy Dodds could never be described as a great international striker, even in his day.
Comment on 07-06-2014 13:17:46 by Alex Anderson #921508
Fair enough, simpsont - He's not competing with the legacy of Gerd Muller or Marco van Basten. But he was a crackin wee player for clubs and country.

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