The immense storytelling power that football holds means that special goals have a knack of going down in history forever, gaining unforgettable status amongst soccer fanatics of all backgrounds. Whether it's Gareth Bale's extraordinary overhead kick in the Champions League final for Real Madrid or Diego Maradona's dizzyingly long, mazy dribble and finish against England at the World Cup in 1986, some goals stick long in the memory.
Roberto Carlos is one player who produced his fair share of unique moments during his long career at the top of the game. His wonderful ball striking ability and forceful attacking power made him a favourite of fans all over the world, and when it comes to picking his best ever goal, there are a number of incredible strikes to choose from. However, there's one that probably has a better claim than most.
It was in June 1997, during the opening match of Le Tournoi, a competition designed as a warm-up for the following year's FIFA World Cup in France. Brazil were taking on the hosts, and their left-back Roberto Carlos did something that bewildered football fans across the planet (and has continued to confuse many people ever since). In this article, we'll be diving deep into that moment, breaking down the impossible free kick that stunned the footballing world. But first — who was Roberto Carlos?
Roberto Carlos is an ex-Brazil international who retired from professional football in 2016 having played for a host of huge clubs including Inter Milan, Corinthians, Fenerbahce, and most famously, Real Madrid. At the Spanish giants (where he played between 1996 and 2007), he was one of the original Galacticos, a force of nature in a team packed with stars such as Luis Figo, David Beckham, and Zinedine Zidane.
Roberto Carlos — Number 3 for Real Madrid and 6 for Brazil — is widely known as one of the most attack-minded defenders of all time. He typically played as a left-back or left wing-back, and his offensive prowess helped to redefine the role of the full-back in modern soccer, placing greater emphasis on getting up the pitch and linking up with midfielders and forwards. He was also famous for his incredible set pieces; Carlos' ability from free kicks and corners allowed him to rack up 97 goals and 126 assists in 756 club appearances over the course of his career, a remarkable amount for a so-called "defender".
Despite his consistently brilliant performances at club level, it was perhaps at international level that Roberto Carlos shone the most. He was a crucial player for Brazil from the mid-1990s until 2006, winning the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, playing left back in Luiz Felipe Scolari's famed 5-3-2 formation. He also contributed heavily to the team's run to the final in 1998. In total, he scored 11 goals in 125 games for Le Selecao. And there's one in particular that we're going to be focusing on today.
Le Tournoi was hardly the most illustrious competition in the world, but it did give fans the opportunity to watch some incredibly talented footballers in the run-up to the 1998 World Cup, which saw France triumph in the tournament for the first time, led by stars such as Zinedine Zidane, Laurent Blanc and Patrick Vieira.
England eventually won this tournament by racking up wins against Italy and France to top the group, with Brazil finishing second by a single point. It's fair to say that none of the four teams involved were particularly bothered about this though, as it was only a warm-up for the main event. In hindsight, it's Roberto Carlos' goal in the match against France that remains the standout moment of the competition.
It was the 21st minute, and the match was scoreless. Brazil were awarded a free kick around 30 yards from goal, on the right hand side of the pitch but still fairly central. There was only one man who was going to line up the shot, and his technique was unique; Roberto Carlos placed the ball down methodically, before taking an enormous run-up, striding backward at least 15 metres or more before building up toward a rapid sprint at the ball.
When he made contact with it, the connection was sublime. Incredibly, Carlos' ball striking technique allowed him to curve the ball to the right of the defensive wall and back around again on target using his left boot. The shot swerved way wide of the goal, but due to the precise type of connection the Brazil left-back made with it, he was able to guide it back inward to clip the inside of the post and smash into the back of the net. This shot has been described as a "counter-clockwise lateral spin kick", or more simply, a "banana shot".
"That's way, way, way wide of the goal, that's two or three yards wide!" reacted the stunned co-commentator Andy Gray at the time. "That is quite a magnificent free kick. I'm not sure we'll see one better than that for many, many a year. Quite exquisite."
Part of what made Roberto Carlos' free kick so special was the way that it married power and precision, speed and accuracy. The curve the Brazilian managed to achieve on the ball has led to the free kick being described by many in the years since as a "banana shot", comparing the arc of the ball to the curve of the fruit.
But not only was the strike targeted superbly, it was also hit with such venom that goalkeeper Fabian Barthez had absolutely no chance of getting near it. "He was as much of a spectator as I was!" quipped lead commentator Alan Parry in the aftermath of the goal.
So how much speed was generated from this famous Roberto Carlos free kick? According to the data, the free kick shot reached a top speed of around 100km/h, a remarkable level of power that underlines why it was so difficult for Barthez to even move, let alone try and make a save.
This strike seemed to defy the laws of physics, prompting scientists to investigate exactly how Roberto Carlos was able to score that goal. "We are confronted with an unexpected law of physics, but it's possible to see this again," said researcher David Quere. The physicist and his team used a small pistol to fire bullets into water at the speed of 100km/h, thereby discovering that the path of a sphere when it spins is actually a spiral.
This is labelled the "Magnus effect", and in the case of Carlos' shot, the spiral of a moving sphere becomes "more and more pronounced" as the ball slows down. According to Quere, "the crucial thing is that while the ball is slowing down, the rotation is the same. Hence the trajectory of the ball is going to be more and more bent, that is what creates the spiral." Fascinating.
Carlos' shot may have been travelling at serious speed, but it at least had some distance in which to slow down and spin on target. To be precise, the ball was struck from 33.13 metres away from goal. This is an impressive range, and it's rare to see a free kick being scored from this kind of distance, even from set piece specialists such as James Ward-Prowse or David Beckham.
It's not the only long-range free kick Roberto Carlos scored in his life, though. In total, the Brazilian scored 49 direct free kicks in his career, with a conversion rate in La Liga of 4.5%, and not many other players have reached Roberto Carlos numbers when it comes to set piece taking. He remains one of the most celebrated free kick takers in the history of football.
Mimicking this legendary Roberto Carlos free kick is no easy task, and many footballers have attempted to take this kind of strike over the years. A huge amount of work must go into perfecting a shot like this, but we want to help you do it. Here's a quick step-by-step guide to replicating Roberto Carlos' iconic banana shot.
First, you must place the ball in a precise position on the ground, lining it up so that you can make contact low and right of centre in order to lift the ball upward and achieve counter-clockwise spin on the strike.
The run-up is all about developing plenty of momentum and power; the famous banana shot is all about a sharp, strong contact with the ball, and coming at the dead ball with speed can help achieve this.
What's so remarkable about Carlos' shot is that he doesn't actually use the outside of his boot, which is surprising for many people because of the amount of inward spin he creates. Instead, you must make a sharp jolt with the laces of your boot, minimising contact time with the ball to generate lots of reverse top spin on the ball.
While it's crucial that you generate enough power when striking the ball (particularly when shooting from long-distance), it's also important to control the velocity of the free kick so that it isn't just smashed out to the corner flag — the curve you're trying to achieve here means that if the balance between spin and speed isn't perfect, the shot could easily go way off target.
To help get this technique right, a strong, balanced standing leg is needed to help the striking leg achieve the apt swing speed. Once the shot has been taken, you'll want to immediately lift this standing leg off the ground so that you're temporarily suspended in mid-air; this helps the follow-through of the shot.
Roberto Carlos' free kick goal was an absolute masterpiece of ball striking, the like of which we may never see again in football. However, the discipline of ball striking remains an under-explored area of the game, which is surprising given the increased rise of specialist coaching. For more guidance on this subject, check out our interview with ball striking expert coach Bartek Sylwestrzak.