Is the overhead kick the most beautiful sight in football?
For lesser mortals, the overhead kick is a volley executed with the back to the ground, feet twirling in the air and face turned either to the sky or the chin locked on the chest.
There is a grainy video on YouTube of what Zico says is the best goal of his career. Playing for Kashima Antlers in an Emperor’s Cup match in 1993, Zico sells a dummy and moves goalwards to receive a chip from the top of the penalty box. Realising that he had run ahead, Zico says in that short video, “I didn’t know what to do.” What he does is fling himself forward, arch back slightly and connect with the heel of his bent right leg. The ball loops over the advancing goalie. “It was an overhead kick with a difference,” says Zico. One that the blind plead to be told about, according to Uruguayan novelist Eduardo Galeano in “Football In Sun And Shadow”.
For lesser mortals, the overhead kick is a volley executed with the back to the ground, feet twirling in the air and face turned either to the sky or the chin locked on the chest. It is the opposite of that Zico goal and is variously called “chilena” -- because it was believed to have originated from Chile -- the scissors-kick and the bicycle back-volley. It is also such a gravity-defying thing of beauty that in 2016, Fifa regarded it as “football’s most spectacular sight.”
It is why John Huston got Pele to pull off one in the prisoners of war film “Escape To Victory”. It is why we remember Cristiano Ronaldo, then with Real Madrid, leaving Juventus goalie Gianluigi Buffon looking stunned; Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s 30-yard effort against England; Wayne Rooney’s goal in a Manchester derby; Gareth Bale’s volley against Liverpool that had Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane putting a hand to his head in disbelief and Patrick Mboma’s scoring against France and Cameroon and going hippy hippy shake after. If the world knows who goalkeeper Oscarine Masuluke is it is because his last-minute overhead kick fetched Baroka a 1-1 draw against Orlando Pirates in the South African league in 2016. And it is why Shyam Thapa became an icon.
On successive nights in European round-of 16 ties this week, we got to see two such goals. That they were scored by players often reviled, said to be out of favour with coaches and rumoured to be sold in the January window made them more special. Take a bow Olivier Giroud and Delle Alli.
Giroud’s goal came in the Champions League with a left-footer when the Chelsea frontman found a pocket of space in the Atletico Madrid penalty area after a strong run. With Felipe and Stefan Savic closing in, the 34-year-old, 193cm tall striker flung his frame in the air and connected so well that goalie Jan Oblak had no chance. It was an away goal VAR took a long time to decide. Thanks to technology, it was found that the ball had touched Atletico’s Mario Hermoso and not Chelsea’s Mason Mount meaning Giroud could not have been off-side. New coach Thomas Tuchel was effusive in his praise of Giroud 11th club goal of the season. “He trains like a 20-year-old,” said Tuchel.
Praise also came easily from Jose Mourinho after Alli opened the scoring in a Europa League night in London on Wednesday. “He played very well, in every aspect of the game he played very well,” said the Tottenham Hotspur coach.
“He had a difficult period. He had an injury, and at the same time he had an injury, it was the same period of talk, talk, talk about staying, leaving, leaving, staying. The market closed, the injury is gone, he started working with lots of motivation, and it's coming. That's what we need.”
Alli’s first outfield goal of the competition stemmed from a move he started near the centre. He then ran down the middle to meet Steven Bergwijn’s ball from the left and switched play to Matt Doherty. Alli continued his run into the penalty box to meet Doherty’s pass. His back to the Wolfsberg goal, Alli received the ball, let it bounce before scoring with a right-foot scissors-kick with defender Dominik Baumgartner on his shoulder.
According to Thapa, what adds to the aura of such a goal is that if you don’t land properly you can seriously injure yourself. “I would try them while training alone but only during the monsoon as the ground would be soft. Just as important as connecting is how you land,” Thapa, head of the technical committee of the All India Football Federation, said.
Thapa, a Kolkata Maidan legend and member of the 1970 Asian Games bronze medal winning team, knows what he is talking about. He had scored a few in his time but the one that stands out is the goal for Mohun Bagan against East Bengal at a packed Eden Gardens in 1978. The photograph of him mid-air, legs splayed and the black-and-white checked ball flying towards the East Bengal goal was front-paged in next day’s newspapers. Even now, Thapa is used to people talking about that goal when he is around.
But there is a thin line between a spectacular goal and it being disallowed. Former India captain Bhaichung Bhutia, who too has scored a few including one against Punjab in the 1994-95 Santosh Trophy final for Bengal, had one ruled out for a high boot in a 1994 Scissors Cup leading to East Bengal’s elimination.
But for those who can, the risk of self-harm or a booking for dangerous play has never been a deterrent to trying an overhead kick. Because one perfectly executed can provoke anger, if you are the goalkeeper, and admiration in equal measure. And it is often the footballer’s passport to immortality.