Within the art of football, direct free-kicks are a discipline of their own and the Bundesliga has seen some of the true masters of the craft display their genius on the field down through the years .
In reverse order, bundesliga.com ranks the marksmen that no goalkeeper would ever want to face.
5) Hakan Calhanoglu
Turkey international Hakan Calhanoglu has a GPS guidance system in his brain and a fully-armed silo in his right foot. During his spells at Hamburg and Bayer Leverkusen, rival goalkeepers had to be wary of incoming free-kicks regardless of their position on the field as Calhanoglu’s blend of precision and power when striking the ball allowed him to score from unusual places. Awkward shooting angles and long distances were no obstacle for him to score 11 times in 106 attempts for a conversion rate of 10.3%, making him the most effective kicker in our list.
Watch: Enjoy some of Hakan Calhanoglu's best set-piece finishes!
4) Mehmet Scholl
Borussia Dortmund’s legendary stopper Roman Weidenfeller knows this all too well after being rendered powerless by an absolute scorcher from Calhanoglu in early 2014. With Hamburg leading 2-0 in injury time, the midfielder made the most out of a seemingly harmless free-kick just short of the half-way circle. From a whopping 45 yards, he made the ball fly and curve in mid-air in such a way that Weidenfeller could not figure out the best course of action in time.
The keeper stretched as much as he could, but the ball slipped past his fingers by an inch. Calhanoglu’s precision strike made it 3-0 for Hamburg that night and turned him into a certain inclusion in any free-kick compilation video for the remainder of human history. “It was the best goal of my career”, said the marksman after the match. “I looked at the clock, saw that we were past the 90-minute mark and just took the shot. I gave it my all, just like in training.”
In this elite list of free-kick takers, one man stands out from the crowd not for his sheer scoring numbers or the power in his foot, but for his ability to mess with the minds of the opposition.
Mehmet Scholl is often hailed as one of the most technically gifted players in Bayern Munich history, a claim that is further strengthened by his wide repertoire of tricks when tasked with set piece duty. He may have only scored 9 free-kick goals since joining Bayern in 1993, but considering he wasn’t always the first-choice kicker, his conversion rate of 6.5% in 139 attempts is impressive on its own.
In situations when most would’ve looked to curl the ball over the wall and into the upper corner, he went for low driven shots that curved outside the wall. When the keeper’s far post seemed to be the likeliest target, he figured out a way to sneak a scorcher past the near post. Even his more conventional attempts were surprising, as demonstrated by a moment of brilliance and luck in the Champions League against Arsenal in 2000.
3) Thomas Häßler
Looking to get his foot underneath the ball as much as possible for maximum spin, his back leg slipped, but he still managed to follow through on his shot to score a beautiful equaliser in a 2-2 draw at the old Highbury. Later that same season, Scholl worked his magic once again against Freiburg. With the score level at 0-0, he put the ball out of reach of the keeper by masterfully dipping it into the lower corner, the least expected place possible. This 1-0 victory on Matchday 31 proved vital in the end, as Bayern would go on to claim the Bundesliga title over Schalke in the dying seconds of the season by just one point.
Although German football in the 90s might today be more readily associated with Bundesliga legend Lothar Matthäus or recent USMNT coach Jürgen Klinsmann, Thomas “Icke” Häßler is probably the best player from this period you’ve never heard of. He scored the goal that sealed Germany’s ticket to the 1990 World Cup in Italy and earned the admiration of the local crowd throughout the title-winning campaign so much that Juventus signed him from Cologne after the tournament.
He later moved on to Roma for a successful spell between 1991 and 1994 at a time when the Italian league reigned supreme. During this period, and especially during the 1992 Euro in Denmark, he established his reputation as a dead ball specialist, but didn’t manage to translate that into the club game until his 1994 shock move to underdog outfit Karlsruhe. With the number 10 at his back and the captain’s armband wrapped firmly around his arm, Häßler was their undisputed leader and made their rivals tremble every time he stepped up to the ball.
2) Juan Arango
While English fans were just learning of a young man by the name of David Beckham, Häßler was lifting the 1996 Euro trophy at Wembley and had already established himself as European football’s marksman extraordinaire. In 1997, for example, he single-handedly eliminated FC Metz from the UEFA Cup by scoring three free-kicks across two legs for an aggregate 3-1 score. He remained a mainstay of football highlight clips across the world after joining 1860 Munich in 1999 before leaving the Bundesliga in 2003. Since his return from Italy, he scored 15 free-kick goals from 275 attempts for a 5.5% conversion rate in the German top flight.
While scientists need complex equations and state-of-the-art computers to make their rockets fly as intended, Juan Arango only needed his left foot to put the ball wherever he pleased. The Venezuelan was the heart and soul of Borussia Mönchengladbach’s exciting project under Lucien Favre in the early years of this decade. It was under his stewardship that Marco Reus bloomed into the world class star we all know and love and it was thanks to his playmaking magic that Gladbach were able to regain their long-lost status as a force in the Bundesliga.
Watch: Gladbach sharp-shooter Juan Arango's top Bundesliga goals!
1) Mario Basler
Arango combined the strategic vision of a chess grandmaster with the accuracy of an Olympic archer both in open play as well as in dead ball situations. He had a knack for placing the ball out of reach for the keeper on all corners of the goal. Not even the near post provided sanctuary on Arango’s 111 free-kick attempts, which resulted in 9 goals for an 8.61% conversion rate. Impressive as these numbers are, they alone don’t tell the full story behind what the Venezuelan genius truly meant to the club’s history.
Once upon a time, Gladbach were pretty much what Borussia Dortmund represent nowadays: the main opposition to a dominant Bayern Munich side. In the 70s, the Bavarian giants won three European Cups on the bounce and were only rivalled on the local scene by the Foals, who won all of their five titles during this decade. After this glorious period, the team slowly faded into obscurity until its more recent renaissance, which coincided with Arango’s arrival at Borussia Park.
Having a player who could put even the most neutral fans on their toes every time he stepped up for a shot was the kind of magic that Gladbach fans had to wait almost three decades for.
Only one man could ever top this list. Since data collection began in the 1993/94 season, nobody has scored more free-kick goals in the Bundesliga than Mario Basler with 19 conversions in 375 attempts for a 5.1% success rate. He first rose to prominence with Werder Bremen in the early half of the 90s, leading the Green-Whites to a second place finish in the 1994/95 season, when he was also the league’s joint top scorer alongside Gladbach’s Heiko Herrlich with 20 goals.
However, it wasn’t until the following season that Basler’s accuracy entered Bundesliga mythology. His seven free-kick goals during the 1995/96 campaign for Bremen still stand as the highest single-season record for dead ball conversions in the league to this day. Hakan Calhanoglu came close to matching this feat in 2014/15, but came up short with 'only' six free-kick goals to his name. After achieving this feat, Bayern Munich lured the midfielder to Bavaria in 1996, where he continued to impress with his masterful strikes.
He won at least one trophy in each of his three seasons at the club until 1999, conquering the Bundesliga twice, the DFB Cup once and the now-defunct League Cup three times. Nevertheless, the Champions League title proved elusive despite Basler’s best efforts.
He opened the score of the 1999 final against Manchester United with an early free-kick only to see the Red Devils turn the score around in injury time. He returned to boyhood club Kaiserslautern the following season before leaving the Bundesliga in 2003 with his legacy as German football’s top shot intact.
Jaime Duque Cevallos