Continuing with our series on the greatest footballers of all time, here’s No. 12 on our list.
No. 12 – Zico
We’ve all had that phase early on in our football schooling when we’ve been completely taken over by the beauty of free kicks. For most of us, the fascination with free kicks probably started with David Beckham’s curlers. Then we would no doubt have progressed to Roberto Carlos’s famous banana-kick. We would go on and on in search of the perfect free kick – one that either floats into the top corner, or dips and swerves wickedly, flying into the back of the net. And like most other beautiful things associated with football, our search leads to South America, to one of the world’s first free kick experts: Zico. But that’s not Zico’s sole claim to fame. Most of you must have heard of him, but not in connection with any free kick; instead, you must have watched Zico’s fabled back-heeled “scorpion” overhead kick in numerous “Greatest Goals of All Time” compilations. If that doesn’t ring a bell, you can have a look here:
The Brazil team of the 80’s is widely regarded as one of the best international sides to have never won a World Cup, alongside, of course, Johan Cruyff’s Oranje team of the 70’s. At the forefront of Brazil’s scintillating play of that time was the man they called “the White Pelé”, Zico. One of the most sublime finishers the game has ever seen, he possessed a lethal armoury: fantastic finishing, two great feet, penetrative and insightful passing, that fabled free-kick taking ability, and a fabulous football brain to make use of all those attributes. He was football’s prodigal son of the early 80’s, picking up the World Player of the Year award in 1981 and 1983. Pelé has always had a partisan view when it comes to discussions over great players, consistently snubbing his Argentine rivals in favour of those who donned the Yellow and Gold of Brazil, but he singled out Zico for particular praise, saying: “Throughout the years, the one player that came closest to me was Zico”.
Zico spent the bulk of his career at Brazilian club Flamengo, taking in two spells between 1971-84 and 1985-1989, tallying up to 17 years of his 21-year long football career. Unsurprisingly, his peak years at the club coincided with the most successful period in the club’s history, as Flamengo picked up 4 Brazilian National Championships, as well as the Copa Libertadores and Intercontinental Cup trophies in 1981. To this day, the latter two victories represent Flamengo’s solitary success in those competitions.
It was on a wave of expectation that Brazil rode into the 1982 World Cup, with a squad based largely on players playing their club football in Brazil. They were the heavy favourites, and they cantered into the second group stage. Here, however, they were thwarted by Italy, with Paolo Rossi scoring a famous hat-trick in a 3-2 victory for the Azzuri. Zico finished the tournament with 4 goals.
After his fist spell at Flamengo, Zico made a move to Italy. Despite receiving offers from AC Milan and AS Roma, Zico plumped for Udinese. He finished his first full season one goal short of Michel Platini’s tally of 20 goals, having played 6 games less. His next season was punctuated by injuries and suspensions. After two seasons in Udine, he left Italy to return to Brazil and his beloved Flamengo in 1985.
The 1986 World Cup also ended in disappointment, with Brazil crashing out on penalties to France at the quarter-final stage. Zico returned to Flamengo, playing on till 1989, where he announced his retirement. His record for both club and country were outstanding: 52 goals in 72 appearances for Brazil, and 508 goals in 731 appearances for Flamengo. He then took up an interesting post – that of Brazil’s sports minister. He stayed on in this position for a year, before the allure of football captivated him again. He played for Japan’s Kashima Antlers between 1991-94, where he scored his legendary scorpion kick goal. Here, he earned the moniker “God of Soccer” from Japanese football fans.
Coming back to free kicks, it is widely known that most players have a set way of taking free kicks: they practise the same technique over and over again until they’ve perfected it. What that results in is a signature free kick style: David Beckham’s had his curlers, Cristiano Ronaldo‘s has his piledrivers through the ball which impart dip and swerve, Roberto Carlos had his banana kicks and Didier Drogba possesses a unique side-footed shot.
What is particularly interesting about Zico’s technique is that he was constantly tweaking, experimenting and overhauling it throughout his career. Initially, he was worshipped for his divine curlers from the in-step of his boot, caressing the ball into curling perfectly into the far corner.
As teams and goalkeepers learnt about his technique and the danger he posed with free kicks, they took measures to try and put him off. Zico tinkered with his strategy accordingly. When keepers started moving early to the far corner, he would dispatch the ball into the near corner just vacated by the keepers, wrong-footing them. When opposition teams started setting up the wall so that they could have a clearer view of which side he was going to target, he started smashing powerful, low strikes towards the keeper. These were difficult to hold on to, and his team-mates would then try to follow up and convert the rebound. Zico also experimented with shooting with the laces and with the outside of the foot, mixing it up and keeping the keeper guessing.
Leonardo, of AC Milan and Brazil, summed up the Zico threat nicely when he said, “For us, a free-kick near the edge of the area was almost like a penalty. For Zico, it was almost a goal already.”
If you haven’t watched Zico’s free-kicks, I strongly recommend watching these two videos:
Here are the other players who have made it so far:
No. 20 – David Beckham; No. 19 – Oliver Kahn; No. 18 – Jurgen Klinsmann; No. 17 – Luis Figo; No. 16 – Romario; No. 15 – Marco van Basten; No. 14 – Eusebio; No. 13 – Lionel Messi
Read the detailed write-ups on all the players in this list here: