The argument of who is the greatest free-kick taker ever in football pits many candidates. When it comes to the greatest free-kick of all time, there are few rivals to the one back in 1997. Yes, that one. Roberto Carlos’ legendary, unforgettable ‘banana’ free-kick against France that shook the world, inspiring studies and research for years after with one scientist calling it “a miracle.” Everything about that shot made it a once-in-a-lifetime moment and it remains one of the most iconic moments in world football.
In the leadup to the 1998 World Cup in France, the host nation invited Italy, Germany, England and defending champions Brazil to play in a warm-up tournament in June 1997. It was called Tournoi de France, with each team playing against one another in a round-robin format. The tournament was held across four grand stadiums in the country of Lyon, Montpellier, Nantes, and Paris. Having not qualified for the 1994 event, Les Bleus were desperate to have a good showing in front of their home fans.
Their first match in the tournament was set to be against Brazil, who had a bevy of superstars lining up for them including Cafu, Roberto Carlos, Ronaldo, Dunga, Romario and more. Stade de Gerland was to be the witness of one of the greatest sporting moments in history but the initial minutes of the match gave no indication of what was to come.
BUILDUP TO THE MOMENT
The French started off strongly, with Zinedine Zidane pulling the strings in midfield and utilizing the space out wide during attacks. The Selecao had their first real chance through Romario, but the striker failed to gather the ball inside the penalty box to have a shooting chance. However, it was still the hosts seeing a lot more of the ball in the opening exchanges without any real threat. The first shot-on-target came through Ronaldo, latching onto a lovely chipped pass from Romario to test the reflexes of Fabien Barthez at his near post.
Seconds later, it was France doing the same with Ibrahim Ba’s low strike directed straight at Claudio Taffarel who spilled it but the defence was able to clear. The game was crying out for a moment of inspiration from somewhere, but it was uncertain from where it would arrive. Brazil were gaining a slight foothold, winning some fouls and it was one of them that led to the start of the history. Romario was felled by Florian Maurice around 35 yards from goal and slightly to the right for the Brazilians. Roberto Carlos immediately started running over as the French started assembling a wall with bodies gathering inside the box.
TIME STANDING STILL
The 24-year-old Carlos had just joined Real Madrid the previous season, winning La Liga in his debut campaign. He was already a veteran on the international stage, having made his debut in 1992. In this match, he had been a bit sluggish to start with, being caught out of position a couple of times. Carlos’ poor positioning had allowed that chance for Ba earlier but when the free-kick was given, there was only ever one person who could take it from that distance.
Roberto Carlos has retired from football. 120 Brazil caps and who can forget this goal vs France. Wonderstrike. Legend. pic.twitter.com/1h5fOlwK
— Football Tweet ⚽ (@Football__Tweet) August 1, 2012
Captain Dunga had placed the ball on the spot but Carlos quickly came to pull rank over his captain. He got the ball in his hands, turning it over in his hands many times before placing it on the pitch and making absolutely sure of the position and the way it was being set. Even the commentators were praising how much attention Carlos was paying to the placing of the ball as Barthez screamed for his reinforcements to remain alert.
“I DON’T BELIEVE IT”
Carlos had an unusually long runup and hammered the ball with the outside of his left foot. It seemed to be heading well wide, until it wasn’t. The ball swerved back fast towards the goal, glancing at the left-hand post before hitting the net. Barthez stood motionless like a rock throughout the whole sequence and he was not alone. The fans behind the goal who had watched the ball heading straight towards them were suddenly in disbelief at the ball not hitting them. Even the ball boy behind the advertising board was already ducking to avoid the clearly off-target shot.
The Brazilians would concede past the hour mark as the match ended in a draw. They finished second behind England in the final rankings. This match would be the precursor to the final at the World Cup where it was Les Bleus who were victorious, winning 3-0 to hoist their first title. The free-kick would cement his place in folklore, with a 2010 study certifying it virtually “impossible” to recreate. The conditions that led to the goal included the free-kick being a long enough distance away from goal, Carlos hitting the ball hard enough with enough velocity so that it curves towards the net towards the final moments of its journey. All these factors need to come together seamlessly again for the world to witness another such free-kick. Till then, the world can only admire and applaud the brilliance of the magic moment.