Juninho Pernambucano: The Free-Kick Specialist That Pirlo Copied

Andrea Pirlo’s 2014 autobiography, ‘I Think Therefore I play’ is a fascinating insight into one of modern football’s sharpest minds. In a short overview of his career, ‘The Architect’ devotes an entire chapter towards his mastery of the free-kick. Within this extract, Pirlo tells of his relentless attempts to replicate the technique of one particular player; this player was Juninho Pernambucano.

Juninho’s career began in his native Brazil as he played for Sport before making his name during a six-year spell at Vasco De Gama. However, it would be in France where Juninho would spend his best years. Part of a Lyon side who utterly dominated Ligue 1 during the 2000s, winning seven consecutive League titles. His deadly free-kicks and frequent assists were a vital component of their success.

The attacking-midfielder scored 100 goals for Lyon, of which 44 were free-kicks. In his entire career, Juninho scored 76 times from dead-ball situations, currently a record. However, it was not just this sheer frequency of these goals that was staggering, but the manner of them, too. Juninho wreaked havoc from set-pieces, scoring from almost anywhere and creating his own personal highlight reel in the process.

As the first player to utilise the ‘knuckle-ball’ technique, Juninho mastered the art of hitting a static football; being able to manipulate the ball in such a way that it would move dramatically in the air and dip ferociously just before reaching the goal. 

Even the best goalkeepers rarely caught a Juninho strike and often scrambled to make minimal contact on the ball. Many of his famous scalps came in the Champions League, as Juninho beat the likes of Oliver Khan, Victor Valdes and Iker Casillas from distance. The master even scored four free-kicks from in excess of 40-yards out during his career.

One man whom Juninho’s talents clearly made a strong impression upon was Andrea Pirlo. Prior to studying the ‘knuckle-ball’ technique, Pirlo had specialised in close-range, curling free-kicks, inspired by Roberto Baggio. However, he rarely scored from long-range. But Pirlo was in awe of Juninho’s mastery, as he explains:

“During his time at Lyon, that man made the ball do some quite extraordinary things. He’d lay it on the ground, twist his body into a few strange shapes, take his run-up and score. He never got it wrong. Never. I checked out his stats and realised it couldn’t just be chance.”

Subsequently, Pirlo began a regime of studying and trying to replicate Juninho’s technique:

“I studied him intently, collecting DVDs, even old photographs of games he’d played. And eventually I understood. It wasn’t an immediate discovery; it took patience and perseverance. From the start, I could tell he struck the ball in an unusual way. I could see the “what” but not the “how”.”

Eventually, and somewhat predictably, Pirlo uncovered the secret. In his description of this moment, the Maestro recounts how his experiments had become a “ball-ache” for the kit-store man at AC Milan as Andrea had lost so many footballs whilst practising.

Pirlo’s persistence was rewarded and his ‘Eureka’ moment came, rather unromantically, whilst he was on the toilet:

“The search for Juninho’s secret had become an obsession for me, to the extent that it occupied my every waking thought. It was at the point of maximum exertion that the dam burst, in every sense of the term. The magic formula was all about how the ball was struck, not where: only three of Juninho’s toes came into contact with the leather, not his whole foot as you might expect.”

Much to the Italian’s pleasure, he attended training especially early the next morning and unleashed a barrage of perfectly identical free-kicks. Following this, Pirlo outlines how a player must strike the ball in order to emulate Juninho’s technique:

“Up I stepped and unleashed a carbon copy of the previous free kick. It was a thing of absolute beauty, stylistically impeccable. I lined up another five strikes and it was the same story every time. By now it was official: I’d cracked it. The secret was no more.

In essence, the ball needs to be struck from underneath using your first three toes. You have to keep your foot as straight as possible and then relax it in one fell swoop. That way, the ball doesn’t spin in the air, but does drop rapidly towards the goal. That’s when it starts to rotate.”

Over the following years, Andrea Pirlo would torment goalkeepers in Serie A and at international level as his free-kicks would swerve and dip inexplicably. The Maestro now shares the equal record for free-kick goals in Serie A history (28) with the Serbian Siniša Mihajlović.

However, Pirlo is not the only footballer to replicate Juninho’s artistry. In fact, the ‘knuckle-ball’ has become a frequently utilised technique in the modern game. Today, it is closely associated with Cristiano Ronaldo, whilst the likes of Gareth Bale, Didier Drogba and David Luiz have also adopted similar styles. But it is Juninho Pernambucano who should be remembered as the innovator and mastermind behind the most feared free-kicks ever seen. Has any player struck a dead-ball better?