Officially just another means for restarting play after an infringement, the direct free-kick has become one of the most potent methods for scoring in football. Facilitating the rise of the ‘free kick specialist’ in the modern game, players like David Beckham, Ronaldinho and Juninho Pernambucano are both revered by fans and feared by opposition goalkeepers for their abilities from this particular set piece.
First, a word or two on defining the term. While the ‘free-kick’ part is largely self-explanatory, the ‘direct’ part is a very important distinction. Simply put, the direct free-kick permits a direct shot on the goal. This is in contrast to an indirect free-kick, which necessitates a touch from another player before a shot can be taken.
Direct Free Kick
For a team to be awarded a direct free-kick, a foul must have been committed anywhere on the field of the play except for the respective penalty areas (N.B. A free-kick may be awarded in the penalty area for a pass-back offence). However, the type of foul is important; to receive a direct free-kick, there must be evidence of excessive or reckless force and clear intent in the foul.
If you are in fairly close proximity to the opponent’s goal – typically anywhere between 20 and 35 yards away – a shot may be the best option for the attacking side. As a result, most teams today have two or three players with the ability to trouble the goalkeeper from distance.
In reply, anything from two to four players on the defensive team usually form ‘a wall’ 10 yards away from the ball to block the shot on goal. This wall can be in line with the ball, but it is generally positioned by the goalkeeper to cover one side of the goal, while the goalkeeper deals with the other side and can, more importantly, watch the taker and better predict what he is going to do with the ball.
Considering such obstacles, the free-kick taker necessarily requires a great deal of skill to be successful. When attempting to score, they must lift the ball over the wall of players, position it far enough in the corner that the goalkeeper cannot recover and with such power and spin that the ball is able to dip back under the crossbar in time.
Alternatively, they can opt to curve the ball around the wall and the goalkeeper, placing the ball in the very top or bottom corner with immense accuracy, or attempt to pummel the ball past the goalkeeper at pace (a method utilised with great effectiveness by the Brazilian "great", Roberto Carlos). Even from these descriptions alone, you can imagine the job is not an easy one. Indeed, studies by physicists showed that for David Beckham to score from 25 yards necessitates a whole series of calculations beforehand!
However, we all know that David Beckham is no great physicist, so how do professional footballers manage to pull it off? The short answer is practice. Beckham himself has said that he spends anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half after training sessions practicing taking set-pieces and the rewards are clear.
By taking multiple attempts from all distances and angles, you can better judge just how hard you need to hit the ball, the sort of elevation required, and the different types of curve you can put on the ball. For more information on the skills from the master himself, check this link.
Alternatively, if you can’t manage to ‘bend it like Beckham’ as the saying goes, remember that football is a thinking man’s game. Teams over the years have used myriad methods to deceive the opposition in free-kick situations, from clustering players around the ball so as to disguise who will take the kick (an important thing to know with the different natural angle for left- and right-footed players) to France’s Thierry Henry sneakily taking the free-kick with the referee’s permission but before the wall has formed.
Just keep putting in the effort, practising and experimenting with the different parts of the free-kick like curve and lift, and keep your wits about you in a match situation and you’ll be able to give your team that extra dimension to their attack.