Scoring a free kick in football is no mean feat. It takes time and effort to develop your striking technique, get your body positioning right, and beat the opposition defenders and goalkeeper. When fans watch top players step up to the ball and strike a successful free kick into the back of the net, they're seeing the final result of hours and hours of work.
This dedication has been crucial to all the stars that have become known across the world for their free kick taking ability. In England, Spain, Brazil, Argentina, and every other big footballing nation across the world, numerous players have developed a reputation for their dead ball striking ability, and in this article we'll be going through the very best of them.
We'll explain what a free kick is and the key differences between direct and indirect free kicks, before providing you with a list of the top 10 players with the most free kick goals of all time.
Whether it's at the highest peaks of the professional sport or at amateur and park level, free kicks play a crucial role in association football. The awarding of free kicks is a common sight within every single game, used to maintain order, punish fouls and help referees and officials keep control of the game.
Free kicks can be awarded anywhere on the pitch, for a wide variety of offences; badly-timed, reckless or dangerous tackles, handball offences, trips, kicks or pushes, and more. When a player commits a foul, a free kick will be awarded by the referee, to be taken from the spot where the offence occurred. When this is deep in your own half, it's a chance to regroup and maintain possession or boot the ball up the pitch. However, when a free kick is awarded closer to the opposition penalty area, it can create a dangerous goalscoring opportunity.
However, the rules surrounding free kicks can be complicated at times. A key example of that is the important distinction between direct and indirect free kicks. In the next section of this article, we'll explore this issue.
Serious offences committed on a soccer field (such as handballs and examples of foul play) will lead to a direct free kick being given, while less serious offences will cause an indirect free kick to be given instead.
The difference between these two types of free kick is simple: a direct free kick is a free kick from which an attacking goal can be scored directly, while with indirect free kicks, the ball must touch another player before it crosses the goal line. You can find out more about the difference between these two free kick types by checking out our article on direct vs indirect free kicks.
Over the years, some players have mastered the art of the direct free kick, gaining acclaim across the world for their ability in these situations. Next up, we'll be diving into a few of those star names.
Argentina captain Lionel Messi, a recently-crowned eight-time Ballon d'Or winner and the leading figure in his nation's successful charge to glory at the 2022 Qatar World Cup, is celebrated across the world for his ability to swing in delightful free kicks from a range of positions.
Across a career that has spanned two decades, he's used this skill to rack up a seriously impressive total of 65 goals from free kicks so far.
Throughout their glittering careers at the top of the global game, Messi and Ronaldo have regularly competed to be considered the greatest in the world, their tussles for the Ballon d'Or helping to shape a legendary rivalry. But which of the two attackers has scored the most free kicks in their career?
In total, Cristiano Ronaldo has scored 61 free kicks in his career, at a range of clubs including Sporting, Manchester United, Real Madrid, Juventus and most recently Al-Nassr. But where does that tally leave CR7 in the list of the top 10 free kick takers of all time?
While his conversion rate has dropped off since the Manchester United days, when defenders and goalies would be terrified by the sight of CR7 taking a deep breath after his classic four-step free kick run-up and knuckleball technique, Ronaldo's set piece tally of 61 means that he comes in at number 10 in our list of the players with the most free kick goals of all time. And as Al-Nassr's star player he's still building on that total, so don't be surprised to see him creep up the leaderboard.
A goalscoring goalkeeper is no common sight within the world of football. Amazingly, former Brazilian pro, a starring figure for Sao Paulo throughout the 1990s and 2000s, racked up an incredible 131 goals during his long career. The vast majority of these goals came from dead ball situations, many from penalties but a considerable amount (61) also from free kicks. This remarkable statistic means that the maverick Ceni is viewed as one of Brazil's all-time greatest goalkeepers.
Seen by many fans — particularly those in Argentina — as the greatest football player of all time, Diego Maradona's special status across the game endures long after his playing days. Part of his legacy comes down to his reputation from free kicks, where he was a true specialist. The Napoli icon thundered and curled some beautiful efforts into the back of the net during his career, notching a total of 62 goals in the process.
A classic Number 10 who pulled the strings between midfield and attack and scored 48 goals in 71 international appearances, Zico remains one of Brazil's greatest ever players, decades after his 1970s and 80s pomp. His excellent technical ability and creative vision seeped into his free kick taking, the set piece specialist tying with Maradona's career total of 62 goals.
David Beckham's celebrity status and vast popularity off the pitch can sometimes distract from just how good he was on it; over the course of his career, he won countless trophies with clubs such as Manchester United, Real Madrid, LA Galaxy and PSG, and repeatedly got his teams out of major scrapes with his extraordinary dead ball skills. He swung in the corner that gave United their legendary winning goal in the 1999 Champions League final, and scored a number of hugely important free kicks for club and country, including the England equaliser against Greece that ensured qualification for the 2002 World Cup.
World Cup winner Lionel Messi has had a profound impact on the MLS, sparking the league into life and causing many Americans to fall in love with soccer for the first time. Over in the States, he's continued adding to one of the most impressive statistics of his career — his free kick tally. The little Argentine magician has swept in some delightful set pieces during his career, and squeezes into the top 6 takers of all time, tied with Beckham.
An unconventional footballer who despite offers from elsewhere spent his entire career at local side Gimnasia y Esgrima, retired Argentine midfielder Victor Legrotaglie is beloved in his home city of Mendoza. His technical ability and free kick taking skills attracted attention from the likes of Real Madrid and Inter Milan, but he was never tempted.
You might not be surprised to see that Ronaldinho — a player known not for stats and relentless goalscoring but for flicks, tricks, jaw-dropping strikes and moments of pure magic — is toward the top of this list. The legendary Brazilian winger dazzled fans at clubs such as Barcelona, AC Milan, and Gremio, and his ability to smash in a range of free kicks from outside the box is a key part of that legacy.
Viewed by many as the greatest player of all time, Pele contributed a huge amount to the Brazilian game, winning a record three World Cups (1958, 1962 and 1970) and scoring a staggering 1,279 goals in 1,363 matches, according to the Guiness Book of World Records. This goal tally has been subject to some debate, but what can't be questioned is his unbelievable free kick taking; O Rei (aka "The King") racked up a hugely impressive 70 goals for Brazil, Santos and New York Cosmos.
One man is streets ahead of the rest when it comes to free kick taking. Juninho was a ball striking specialist like no other, capable of leathering in a wide array of different shots from all over the pitch. Another former Brazil international who was a cult hero for many football fans, Juninho was beloved across the planet for his insane free kick taking ability, and he shone for clubs such as Vasco de Gama and Lyon.
When it comes to taking inch-perfect free kicks, practice makes perfect. All of the players we've discussed in this article have spent hours and hours of extra time on the training ground, dedicating their afternoons following training to perfecting their technique and preparing themselves for free kick taking opportunities on matchdays.
However, there's a hugely important aspect of free kick taking that rarely gets the recognition it deserves. The targeted discipline of ball striking is something that many coaches and club staff have failed to take advantage of, with many top professional players incapable of consistently striking the ball perfectly using different techniques from both dead ball and open play situations.
One man within the world of football has dedicated his career to improving this aspect of the beautiful game. Bartek Sylwestrzak is a ball striking specialist who has spent two decades studying and researching this element of football, and using private tutoring sessions to train professional players in the art of ball striking, whether it's practising close-range free kick taking, developing excellent topspin or backspin shooting, or perfecting the famous knuckleball technique. Check out our exclusive interview with Bartek Sylwestrzak for more information about this fascinating aspect of elite level soccer coaching.