The backheel. Sleight of foot. The footballer’s equivalent of a conjurer’s vanishing trick and invariably eulogised as being “sumptuous” or “exquisite”. Performed well, it prompts confusion: now you see the ball, now you don’t. A deceptive form of football improvisation, a successfully executed backheel can render opponents spellbound and feeling foolish. Audiences too: “What the hell just happened and how the hell did he do it?”
Take Jérémy Ménez’s recent goal for Milan against Parma, for example. You can view it on countless occasions and still remain none the wiser. In fact, the more you watch it, the more the question refuses to go away: how did he manage to not only score, but roof the ball? How did he get it so high? The stand-out moment in a nine-goal thriller at Parma’s Stadio Ennio Tardini, Ménez’s was the goal that finally put the game beyond the hosts and it’s difficult to imagine him having dispatched it any more clinically had he been facing goal and rifled it with his instep.
Having taken advantage of a shoddy back-pass from one of two dithering defenders to prod the ball past Antonio Mirante, Ménez sprinted the other side of the goalkeeper courtesy of a momentum-induced scenic route that took him off the pitch and almost sent him clattering into a goal post. With the ball rolling at a fair old clip parallel to the goal-line, Ménez continues sprinting after it, evidently aware that with two defenders and a goalkeeper scrambling into position behind him, he won’t have any time, or indeed need, to stop and turn before shooting. Sprinting at top speed and without so much glancing over his shoulder or breaking stride, the Frenchman quite deliberately angles his right foot so that his subsequent jab down the face of the trundling football rifles it high into the net past goalkeeper and covering defender from a tight angle all of two yards out. It was sumptuous. It was exquisite. It appeared to defy the laws of physics. BG
With a little more research, this feature could feasibly have been named The Joy of Six: backheels against Parma. Quite what it is that appears to leave the men from the Stadio Ennio Tardini so helpless in the face of balls sent in the opposite direction to which their opponents are facing is unknown, but this entry makes them two for two in a Joy of Six feature that can only find a cameo role for this quite sensational Roberto Mancini near post backheel volley against – you’ve guessed it – Parma.
Unlike Mancini, Francesco Totti didn’t score with his ridiculous bit of backheel wizardry against Parma (although he has scored one from the penalty spot in training), but his clever flick did take out three defenders, leaving his team-mate Marquinho in a vast expanse of open turf on the left flank, from where he had all the time in the world to pick out the stumbling Simone Perotta. Alone in the penalty area and aware that Totti would almost certainly be displeased if his good work was undone by a clumsy midfielder who’d tripped over his own feet, Perotta managed to scramble up in time to receive the pass from Marquinho, only to smash it off the crossbar from six yards out. Oh dear. BG
Whatever you think about Paolo Di Canio as a man and as a manager, there can be no argument that few players in England could rival him for sheer audacity and skill when he was in his pomp. When Di Canio arrived at West Ham in January 1999, he was a pariah and Harry Redknapp was widely mocked after spending £1.5m on a combustible Italian forward who had just served an 11-match ban for his push on the referee Paul Alcock. The overall consensus was that Redknapp was pushing his luck and asking for trouble.
Yet it became clear that his gamble was going to pay off once Di Canio hit his stride in a West Ham shirt and it was not long before the player had everyone inside Upton Park dancing to his tune. He could do no wrong in the eyes of supporters who sang his name to La donna è mobile from Verdi’s Rigoletto and during his early days in east London, it was often the case that West Ham were essentially a team made up of Di Canio and 10 others. He was that good in the 1999-2000 season, the year he scored that volley against Wimbledon, and if he was in the zone, he could beat teams on his own. “Di Canio sees things that other players don’t,” Redknapp said. “Ask the fans, the people who pay the money and really matter, ask them about Di Canio. They think he’s fantastic.”
Di Canio was in his element by the time newly-promoted Watford visited Upton Park in September 1999. West Ham, whose season had started in July because of the Intertoto Cup, were unbeaten and missed a host of chances in the first half, but they took the lead shortly after half-time thanks to a brilliantly imaginative free-kick from Di Canio, whose decision to shoot from an absurd angle on the right caught out Watford’s goalkeeper, Alec Chamberlain, at his near post. “Probably no one in the ground thought he was going to shoot but that is the unpredictability West Ham have now,” Watford’s manager, Graham Taylor, said.
Then came a moment that was even better than the goal. Shielding the ball on the right touchline and seemingly penned in by two Watford defenders, Di Canio rolled the ball under his right foot and then confiscated everyone’s breath by scooping an outrageous backheel in between the pair of them to release Trevor Sinclair, who nutmegged another defender, reached the byline and cut the ball back to an 18-year-old Michael Carrick, who promptly ruined it for everyone by blazing over from close range. Still, what a backheel. JS
Middlesbrough seemed to bring the best and the worst out of Nwankwo Kanu. They were the opponents when he came up with an all-time classic in November 2004, a miss from a yard out as West Bromwich Albion slumped to a 2-1 defeat at the Hawthorns. West Brom’s manager, Bryan Robson, said that Kanu contriving to put the ball over the bar from that distance was “almost impossible” – but not quite – and the Nigerian could probably do without being reminded about it.
Instead, let’s remember the positives and turn our thoughts to a thumping 6-1 victory for title-chasing Arsenal at the Riverside in April 1999. Kanu had been in England for two months after joining Arsenal from Internazionale and, until that point, his main achievement had been to trample all over good old-fashioned English tradition and sportsmanship in an FA Cup tie against Sheffield United, obliviously collecting the ball from a throw-in after the ball had been put out so an injured player could receive treatment, and crossing for Marc Overmars to score the winner. The Blades were livid and the game had to be replayed.
Arsenal won the replay anyway and Kanu soon adapted to English football. He was settling in nicely by the time they visited Middlesbrough and with Nicolas Anelka and Overmars running riot, a goal from Kanu meant Arsenal led 3-0 at half-time.
Two minutes after Patrick Vieira had added a fourth, Lee Dixon clipped a low cross into the Middlesbrough area from the right. It did not look particularly threatening but there was Kanu, with a little hop, to stun everyone by flicking the ball into the far corner with an astonishing backheeled effort, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since, well, Lee Sharpe did it against Barcelona for Manchester United in 1994. JS
Quite what Bastia have ever done to upset Zlatan Ibrahimovic remains unclear, but over two Ligue 1 encounters last season, the Paris Saint-Germain striker employed his fabled taekwondo skills to heap humiliation on the Corsican side on two separate occasions in fairly identical circumstances.
The first aerial backheel came during a routine 4-0 win at Parc des Princes, when PSG went on the attack courtesy of a Lucas gallop up the right flank. Doing well to stay on his feet after riding a tackle, the Brazilian attempted to cut inside, but found his path blocked. With Ibra prowling in the penalty area, either by accident or design, Lucas stabbed the ball at thigh height to a nearby team-mate, Hervin Ongenda, who was facing the touchline near the right-hand side of the penalty area. Tightly marked and unable to turn, the Frenchman used his first touch to send the ball looping over his own head and into the air, where Ibrahimovic locked it in his cross-hairs.
Having previously run into a yard of space, but now back-pedalling into the tight, warm embrace of his marker, the Bastia defender François Modesto, Ibrahimovic realised the ball was going behind him, slightly to his right. What happened next beggars belief: anchoring his body with his left foot, Ibrahimovic stretches his right leg, cocking it much like a dog about to relieve himself against a lamp-post. With Modesto still up close and breathing down his neck, he waits for the ball to reach optimum height before leaning forward, flexing his right knee and volleying the ball almost insouciantly behind his own back and that of his hapless marker, inside the left upright and well beyond the reach of goalkeeper Mickael Landreau.
As a piece of improvisation, it was pure genius … or pure Zlatan, if you will – if the average punter on the street even attempted it he’d almost certainly do his groin and a hamstring a serious mischief. Indeed, in the aftermath of the goal it was obvious even Zlatan himself knew he’d done something special; despite his best attempts to remain aloof and cool while being swarmed by genuinely thrilled team-mates, his goofy grin spoke volumes. Five months later it was rendered even more special by the fact that, against the same opposition, he only went and did pretty much the exact same thing again, this time using his martial arts skills to turn provider for a team-mate.
Standing in the centre-circle, just inside the opposition half, Zlatan steals a yard on his marker Romaric to leap and send Ezequiel Lavezzi on his way with another defence-splitting through ball, kung-fu kicked into the Argentinian striker’s path with an identical backheel to that with which he’d scored a few months previously. Once again, the unfortunate Modesto plays an important cameo – the defender can be seen galloping through treacle as the striker sprints clear before despatching the ball past Jean-Louis Leca and into the bottom right-hand corner. Wheeling away in celebration, Lavezzi extends an arm and points up the field, his gaze one of total admiration and sheer gratitude. We’re not shown at whom he is pointing, but it’s not difficult to guess. BG
Considering the quality of the goal, the stage could scarcely have been less glamorous. On a cold, dark Tuesday night in October, it’s two minutes into injury-time and a midweek Northern Ireland Premiership fixture between Glentoran and Portadown seems to be petering out into a scoreless draw. Bored witless by the preceding 46 minutes of thoroughly unremarkable second-half fare, the small crowd at Belfast’s largely empty Oval has been reduced to the kind of football ground torpor that renders individual on-field player exchanges and occasional rallying cries from the stands distinctly audible.
With time running out and the ball rolling his way on the left flank, Glentoran defender Johnny Black opts to swing it into the mixer, but his cross is a poor one. Rather than find the head of striker Matt Burrows, the ball drops slightly in front of the striker, who has his back to goal. A final half-chance wasted, or so you’d think. Burrows thought differently. Stealing two yards on his marker, he advanced towards the ball and still with his back to goal, leapt in the air and from 16 yards out sent a right-footed back-heel volley looping over Portadown goalkeeper David Miskelly, who was standing no more than a yard or two off his line. Scarcely able to believe they’d just witnessed the most extraordinary of strikes in circumstances that couldn’t have been more ordinary, the incredulous reaction of the overjoyed crowd said it all.
While Burrows might have been disappointed there weren’t more people present to witness his unbelievable career-defining strike, he quickly became a YouTube sensation as millions around the globe tuned in to view his wonderful goal.
“I could maybe try to do that 100 times and it would only come off once – I caught it perfectly,” he said of a strike that was shortlisted for the 2010 Fifa Puskás Award, which goes to the player judged to have scored the most aesthetically pleasing goal of the year. Suited, booted and summoned to that year’s Ballon D’Or awards, Burrows came third in the poll behind Turkey’s Hamit Altintop and Sweden’s Linus Hallenius from a shortlist which featured Arjen Robben, Neymar and Lionel Messi. Only one opinion in football matters, mind, so Burrows can at least take some consolation from the fact that Cristiano Ronaldo deemed his strike the pick of the bunch. BG