Watchers of football speculated. They were enthused and curious. It was as if we had travelled a century back in time and were talking about encountering a motorcar for the first time, all “Have you seen one yet?” and “What was it like?” In the first summer of the back-pass rule, under whose direction goalkeepers could no longer pick up a ball conveyed to them by a teammate, the indirect free-kick in the box was a sought-after, illusive phenomenon. The very idea of witnessing one was tantalising.
How we prayed for an absent-minded goalkeeper to scoop up a ball from his centre-half and unleash this fresh mayhem. Attacking free-kicks in the box had been possible at other junctures in the sport’s history, but never were they so tangibly close. We contemplated what might happen and how an indirect free-kick in the box could be scored, as if plotting a convoluted prison escape.
In the street, we prepared for this extreme event, rolling or tapping the ball to a friend who would then blast it towards garage-door goals, alternating between placing their shot high and low. It was to be the last time a rule change provoked such animation. When an indirect free-kick in the box finally happened it did not disappoint. It remains a juicy occurrence.
This chaotic event sprinkles giddiness inside football grounds. It unleashes an outbreak of unruly excitement, as if so many thousands of adults are suddenly back in school, giggling when something goes wrong during a religious service. There are shared looks of wonder and awe. Even the most hardened old fan may throw off his tartan blanket and rise in anticipation, a Grandpa Bucket leaping from bed and dancing.
This is a rare treat, a sparky novelty in a jaded sport. On the pitch, players’ often berserk actions add to the spectacle. Both sides are, for a few moments, liberated from the tyranny of the tactics board and set-piece drills; no manager prepares for the indirect free-kick in the box.
This penalty-area knees-up begins when the ball is fondled by the goalkeeper. Shrieks of “back-pass!” pierce the air like passing fighter jets. There is a disbelieving pause before it becomes clear that the referee has actually given it, granting, for once, unbridled fun. It is as if a disciplinarian father has suddenly allowed his children to eat their evening meals in front of the television. Keeper and defender rage against the official, pleading thigh use or lack of intention. The referee, though, is busy securing the crime scene.
Back trot the cavalry. All players retreat to the box as if they are supermarket workers summoned to the till area. Calculations are made by captain and keeper: How many footballers can be wedged on to a goal line? How many should charge and how many stay put? Such fretting and posturing is pointless – as soon as the whistle goes, every player will be sucked towards the ball. They are like mosquitoes set free in a Give Blood wagon.
Standing over the ball are two or three attacking players, and possibly a full-back with thighs the circumference of Pluto. They are tangled in discussion, conspiratorial hands covering their mouths in the manner of furtive University Challenge contestants. Decisions must be made whether to roll or tap, place or blast. The referee raises one conducting arm above his head and peeps on the whistle.
Often, attacking players shape to dab the ball and then stop their foot when just millimetres away. Defenders of the goal hurtle forward. Their opponents appeal to the referee, palms outstretched: “See! Look at these felons!” They are goading them, just as a big sister provokes a punch from a little brother. This charade is all part of the charm.
Again they try. Studs caress the ball deftly and a forward, or that cumbersome full-back, winds back a leg. In this minuscule amount of time, opponents have already raided and are almost upon takers. They flee forward, unleashing a sense of mayhem and resembling panicked evacuees bounding towards the last boat out of some warring hellhole. From the stands, their manoeuvrings look like a dishevelled haka. Striking foot pummels ball towards the dancers. It travels its tiny journey, a firework thrown at dangerously short distance.
Most often, the ball now strikes a charger on their knee or thigh. Any contact with stomach or chest incites penalty appeals from pitch and terrace. Another short, sharp shot is cast on the rebound, only to be met by the goalkeeper and turned away for a corner. Cue fist bumps, high fives and head pats. The invasion has been repelled. There is a roar in the away end; this barbaric torture has been escaped.
Every now and then there is a golden outcome. Boot smashes ball, ball rises with enough velocity to leap over defending heads and thunderbolt into the net. That net seems to quiver then wretch, as if punched. It has been clobbered. The goalscorer runs away, rabid with joy, free from constriction and confines. Celebrating supporters make a noise that is visceral and primal, more like the hollers that signal a boxing match ended by knock-out.
This is a raw goal, a wild hammer-and-tongs strike. It is brute and brawn, yet comedic. It is built on the nifty physics of moving one small object beyond several larger objects, but even so sheer luck plays a tandem part. The indirect free-kick in the box delights because it is a reminder that football has rarities and is an unscripted drama in which no twist is too ridiculous.