Why players lie down to defend free kicks

DOHA, Qatar — When Brazil star Neymar ordered a dangerous free-kick in his team’s 2022 World Cup opener on Thursday, one of his Serbian opponents, Andrija Zivković, did something that struck the untrained eye as odd. He sank onto the grass, turned his back on the ball, and just lay there, as if about to fall asleep.

But he wasn’t the first and won’t be the last player to save a free-kick. The ploy has spread across European football in recent years to counter the sport’s dead-ball wizards. After decades of free kicks Above Walls, some shots started to sneak under a jumping wall. So the defending teams began to cleverly wall off this low route as well.

The evolution of free kicks and walls

This evolutionary back and forth cycle began decades ago. Since 1913, defending players must stand at least 10 yards from the spot of a free kick. For nearly a century, football teams of all types have deployed multiple players in a ‘wall’ 10 meters away – often to cover the near side of the goal while the goalkeeper covers the other side.

Around the 1980s, free-kick takers started jumping over the wall—so defenders started jumping to get the wall a few feet higher. As jumping became commonplace, some of the sport’s legends hatched a new plan. Rivaldo went under the wall of AC Milan in 2000 for his first hat-trick goal in the Champions League. Ronaldinho made it against Wolfsburg in 2006. Lionel Messi has done it three times. Cristiano Ronaldo did it for Manchester United in the Premier League and again for Real Madrid en route to the Champions League title.

The simple solution would be to leave the wall grounded. But up and over the wall remained the preferred route. Countless curlers and dippers were blocked by a bouncing wall – or could have been blocked by a wall that stayed put. For years, their defense became a guessing game that boiled down to one flawed decision: either jump or not.

Origin and history of lying

But in the past decade, the seeds of a solution have been sown in Brazil. Ronaldinho brought underwall free-kicks to his home country. A few years later, Ricardinho, a journeyman midfielder on loan to Figuerense, went semi-viral while standing behind the wall and then fell to the ground when Palmeiras playmaker Jorge Valdivia aimed from 20 metres. Valdivia tried to go over the wall but teammates and TV viewers noticed and recognized Ricardinho’s genius.

The tactic slowly caught on in South America and was refined by the natural forces of innovation. By 2014, some defenders had gone fully prone.

By 2017, it had immigrated to Europe – albeit sparingly and in different forms. Some players kneel (and still do) instead of lying down. (Walking horizontally allows for more complete coverage, but might leave a player a little more prone to injury or a little slower to respond to a set play.)

In 2019, Inter Milan’s Marcelo Brozovic famously slipped into position behind the wall when Luis Suarez tried to pass under it:

By the last season, the tactic had become almost universal. Some defenders even put teammates in position by the neck:

However, Qatar 2022 is the first World Cup where it is ubiquitous.

The spread has largely relegated under-the-wall free-kick goals to the past. Right now, there’s no downside to being behind the wall — until a savvy coach or player develops a set play to take advantage of.

Brazil's No.10 striker Neymar (L) takes a free kick during the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group G soccer match between Brazil and Serbia at Lusail Stadium in Lusail, north of Doha, November 24, 2022.  (Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP) (Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images)

Brazil’s No. 10 striker Neymar (L) takes a free kick during the Group G of the Qatar 2022 World Cup soccer match between Brazil and Serbia November 24, 2022 at Lusail Stadium in Lusail, north of Doha. (Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP) (Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images)


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