He inhales deeply. As his lungs fill with air, you watch his ribcage climb towards his chin with the delicacy of smoke spiralling out of a chimney. There’s a beat. A pause. A moment of tension. It’s dissipated as he purses his lips and exhales like a child blowing out the candles on a birthday cake. He’s ready. It’s time.
Each player’s preparations for taking a free kick are slightly different, but they generally include some variation on the above process. The deep breath to compose, to focus, is almost ritually observed. It gives the taker the chance to rid themselves of nervous energy, to block out distractions, to allow themselves to become the eye of the storm while they consider and calculate just exactly how they’re going to use this opportunity to inflict maximum damage.
There is no denying that goals scored from direct free kicks hold a special place in our collective consciousness. There are over 1.6 million results for a search of ‘free kick’ on YouTube. If you had a pound for every YouTube free kick compilation, you could buy Riyad Mahrez four times. If you put all of the YouTube free kick compilations on the island of Fiji, they would outnumber the inhabitants nearly two to one. We love free kicks.
Free kicks are, primarily, objects of aesthetic beauty. Whatever your tastes, there is something for you – whether you’re after voluptuous curves enough to make a grown man weep, vicious battering rams designed to demolish walls, or an intricate routine executed with clockwork precision, you can find what you’re looking for. You admire the brush strokes, or the brutalism. They are the imagination of the most creative players in the game made manifest.
They also stand out as moments of individual brilliance in a sport for collectives. True success in football is derived from cohesive units of players working in harmony, and watching this done properly brings its own sense of satisfaction. The free kick, though, is an opportunity to strip away the rest of it, to absolve the taker of his responsibilities to his team and give him the freedom to express himself creatively. In a game that has become increasingly stagnant, increasingly sterile, these glimpses of ingenuity shine like beacons.
In a similar vein, seeing someone step up and picking out the top corner, with little regard for the wall or the goalkeeper, talks to something quite selfish within us. It speaks to our innate desire to be centre stage. That’s not an option for most of us, so we seek that thrill vicariously, and revel in that selfishness when we see it.
There’s also something slightly decadent about them. This is largely confirmed by the sorts of players who tend to be ‘free kick specialists’. Juninho Pernambucano, José Luis Chilavert, Alvaro Recoba – largely unremarkable players, barring their facility with the dead ball. In reality, having someone who can reliably score free kicks isn’t a necessity; it’s a luxury. By extension, the act itself becomes a luxury. It’s all to easy to view players in purely utilitarian terms and these players are a healthy reminder that football is populated by artists, as well as artisans.
What is really most satisfying watching someone score a free kick, however, is the sense of justice being served. An opponent has had to circumvent the laws of the game to stop you. You are so dangerous, you pose such a threat, that your opposition has no option but to cheat to negate you. Because that’s fundamentally what a foul is: a restriction of your freedom and a limitation on your influence – an admission that there is no legal way to stop you.
In life, all too often, injustices go unresolved, iniquities unpunished. We rail and roil and rage against the unfairness and inequality of the world, frequently to no avail. But football offers us something else. It reminds us that sometimes justice is served. It reminds us that sometimes crime doesn’t pay. It offers us that juvenile hope that sometimes you actually do reap what you sow.
When it comes to dispensing this justice, the taker is judge, jury, and executioner. Even more sweet, is when the player who scores is the one who was originally fouled. It’s the ultimate act of vigilantism – someone taking the law into their own hands with the sole intent of retribution. They’re granted the opportunity to take an eye for an eye and it’s hugely satisfying, even if the whole world does go blind.
Ultimately, the joy we derive from the perfectly-taken set piece is no different to the joy people used to derive from seeing people locked in the stocks, or the way that people huddled around the gallows for public executions. We are the braying masses, thirsty to see someone punished. We’re all just looking for justice to be served.
We bloody love free kicks.