David Beckham has done a lot for hairdressing but he’s also brought curlers into fashion. Philip Cornwall considers our changing approach to free-kicks

Free-kicks are about hope. Most chances in a football match arise too late for firm emotions to attach themselves before they are taken or lost. But the attacking free-kick is a transparent opportunity to score yet one which you, your neighbour and the players are given plenty of time to contemplate.

What you want has not changed: a goal. How you hope it will happen in part has. Where once was mainly power, now craft increasingly has the upper hand. Once upon a time the first image of a free-kick was four men in a row with their hands protecting their nether regions from the very real possibility of having a rather larger ball blasted straight at them. Now when I think of a free-kick, the first image is of an October afternoon at Old Trafford, the last minute, a ball neatly spinning past the wall and a stationary Greece goalkeeper.

The fundamental problem at a free-kick was, and partially still is, to get the ball up and then down. Say you are 20 yards out. Halfway between you and the goal is a wall, six feet high. If you get the ball over that and it carries on in a straight line it will go over the goalline at a height of 12 feet. The bar is eight feet off the ground.

Of course, the ball does not keep rising at a fixed angle. Gravity is on your side, dragging the ball back to earth in a curve which my hazy grip on O-level mathematics and general science suggests will be a parabola. Against that is the fact that the wall is not a stationary object, but one which will try to leap in a co-ordinated manner. The clearance you need is closer to eight feet, the height of the bar.

Walls can malfunction. Berti Vogts blamed Ger­many’s exit from the 1994 World Cup on the failure of one man in the wall to jump, allowing Hristo Stoichkov to equalise for Bulgaria. But they should form formidable obstacles and you cannot plan on such mistakes. Which was why as a fan I always hoped my team would be fouled either in the area or a good few yards outside it. The phrase “25-yard free-kick” seems stuck in my head rather than, say, “20-yard”. Persuading the ball to come down again from a kick on the edge of the box posed too great a physics challenge.

Even from greater distances there is of course a danger of clearing the bar, but there is more room to just belt it and hope gravity does the rest. Consider Paul Gascoigne’s most famous effort. Barry Davies was surprised that he was “going to have a go, you know”, but at that range – 30, 35 yards – Gazza could put more power behind his effort than he could from a shorter distance.

That basic problem, of getting the ball up and then down, has thrown up some novel solutions. Famously at Coventry City. In November 1970, then champions Everton were 2-1 up at Highfield Road when Coventry were awarded a free-kick. Adopting a manoeuvre from the training ground, Willie Carr stood over the ball, gripped it between his feet, flicked it up and, to the astonishment of above all Andy Rankin in the visitors’ goal, Ernie Hunt volleyed the ball over the wall and into the net. With less upwards momentum needed on the shot to clear the wall, the danger of shooting over had been greatly reduced.

There were flaws, though. Coventry tried it in a pre-season game, but the shot had gone closer to the corner flag than the goal. Secondly and more decisively, the Football Association decided that when the ball was flicked up it had been touched twice by the player doing the flicking, once by either foot, so breaking the rules on the taking of free-kicks. The goal had been given and so stands, but the manoeuvre was banned.

There was another way, seen on grainy footage on Football Focus and On The Ball. You could bend the shot around the wall. But this was a strange, South American way of doing things, not suited to northern climes where the machismo lay in having the guts to stand up to having the ball blasted at you from close range. Zico, one of the masters of the art of what was long known as the banana kick, was asked recently about a latter day star: “His judgment of distance and power is amazing. Beckham is one of the best in the world. But I scored a few in my day too. I don’t want to blow my own trumpet but I think I was at the same sort of level.”

And if he could do it then there was no reason why our best players could not do so too. They could curl the ball a bit, but not with the regularity and extreme deviation managed elsewhere. Until that began to change. Gascoigne, of course, played his part – that goal, in the 1991 3-1 FA Cup semi against Arsenal, moved too and on other occasions he could strike a per­fect curler. John Barnes was another pioneer.

The traditional British school of thought main­tained that if you couldn’t go over it or around it, you could try going through it. Stuart Pearce, the blaster’s blaster, showed that even if the wall was minded not to crumble you could still score that way in the 1991 FA Cup final, as a team-mate subtly pulled an opponent out of the way.

You can also combine the blast with the curl. Con­sider Roberto Carlos, who on the strength of one fam­ous success against France six years ago is still seen by pundits and team-mates alike as a free-kick specialist. His approach starts with a run-up to match that of a West Indies fast bowler, in part designed to intimidate the wall into giving way. And if his efforts do get past that obstacle then the speed and swerve of the ball makes the goalkeeper’s job very difficult indeed.

Yet today when you think of free-kicks, they are increasingly synonymous with one man, who can strike a ball powerfully but is doing something fundamentally different to most of his peers and to anyone in this country 20 years ago. A look at his contorted body shape as he exerts maximum spin on the ball shows the truth of this. As Paul Wilson wrote in the Observer recently, his overall success is based on doing a few simple things extraordinarily well, but he also does some of those things differently.

David Beckham is helped a great deal by technology. The boots he wears offer him more grip and con­trol. The football used today is more responsive. Pitch conditions, too, are far better than they were. But above all it has been his own talent and willingness to practise that have enabled him to succeed, that one suspects was lacking in Zico’s British contemporaries.

As with Gascoigne and Barnes, there is something theatrical about Beckham. There’s something illusory, too: the free-kick that took England to the World Cup was his seventh that afternoon, yet we instantly forgive the misses because of the perfection that came later.

Brilliant as Beckham is, there is surely every chance that thanks to his charisma he will not be the best for that long. Every kid starting out wants to Bend It Like Beckham. With any luck, this – rather than a series of pictures of schoolchildren suspended for mimicking his latest haircut – will be his lasting legacy. If every free-kick in England is in future sent spinning around players’ heads, then soon the nation’s testicles may be able to live in peace.

From WSC 198 August 2003. What was happening this month

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