The Greatest Free Kick Ever Scored Wasn’t A Fluke
Ever since Roberto Carlos scored the greatest free kick ever taken it’s always been assumed to be nothing more than a fluke. A French team of scientists led by Dr Christophe Clanet discovered the trajectory of the goal scored in a 1997 friendly tournament game between Brazil and France and developed an equation to describe it, which follows the free kick itself (watch the replay in particular).
They say it could be repeated if a ball was kicked hard enough, with the appropriate spin and if the kick was taken sufficiently far from goal. Dr Clanet described this path as a “snail-shell shaped trajectory”, with the curvature increasing as the ball travels and because Roberto Carlos was 35m (115ft) from the goal when he kicked the ball more of this spiral trajectory was visible. So the apparently physics-defying sharp turn of the ball was actually following a naturally tightening curve.
Dr Clanet and his colleague David Quere were studying the trajectory of bullets when they made their sporting discovery, using water and plastic balls with the same density as water to “simplify the problem”. This approach eliminated the effects of air turbulence and of gravity and revealed the pure physical path of a spinning sphere.
“On a real soccer pitch, we will see something close to this ideal spiral, but gravity will modify it,” explained Dr Clanet. “But if you shoot strongly enough, like Carlos did, you can minimise the effect of gravity.” The crucial aspect of the wonder strike, according to the scientists, was the distance the ball had to travel to beat Fabian Barthez. “If this distance is small,” said Dr Clanet, “you only see the first part of the curve. But if that distance is large – like with Carlos’s kick – you see the curve increase. So you see the whole of the trajectory.”
So there you have it, despite the impossible nature of the shot it probably wasn’t a fluke, although the only man who knows for sure is Roberto Carlos himself. Take a look at some other goals he’s scored and decide for yourself. They’re all impressive whether he meant them or not, and this is a guy who plays at left-back which is all the more incredible.