Backward headers the new bicycle kick at World Cup
Skill is under appreciated
2 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
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