Few innovators have wowed the football world like Roberto Carlos. In a single moment, the Brazil defender changed the game and became synonymous with a piece of skill from the Tournoi de France friendly tournament in 1997. Carlos hit his inexplicable banana shot from a free-kick that bamboozled everyone – most notably France goalkeeper Fabien Barthez - and rocketed into the net.
“How did I do it? I don't know,” Carlos said in 2005, recalling that unforgettable night in Lyon.
“The ball was too light, one of those ones that floats all over the place like a kid's ball, and I hit it really hard… it surprised me when it went in: I thought it was going wide and when it swung so far back and went in off the post I couldn't believe it. It was an impossible goal.”
Except it wasn't. Carlos went close to repeating the feat a year later in a match for Real Madrid against Tenerife, striking another banana shot from the touchline that initially looked like a cross before swerving back towards goal and flying inside the far post.
And just in case any doubts lingered, it was proved possible in 2010 when a study conducted by a team of French scientists was published in the New Journal of Physics that concluded that it was no fluke. The investigation found that, if the ball is struck hard enough, a player can minimise the effects of gravity.
Carlos struck across the ball with the outside of his boot, causing it to spin at great speed. "We have shown that the path of a sphere when it spins is a spiral," lead researcher Christophe Clanet told the BBC. The greater the distance of the strike, the more visible the curvature, the study found. Carlos was 35 metres from goal when he struck the ball, allowing enough time for the “snail-shell shaped trajectory” of its flight.
In an interview last year, Carlos claimed he knew exactly what he was trying to do. “The first thing I did was put the ball down with the valve, the heaviest part, facing towards me… And I thought, let’s see what happens. That goal made history.”
It certainly did. Stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale would adopt the approach to maximise the movement of their own free kicks, though the modern balls are even more like the “kids’ balls” that Carlos referenced, so the technique is now easier.
While compatriots such as Nelinho, Rivelino and Geraldao may have previously scored banana shots, Carlos executed his strike in front of a worldwide television audience, inspiring a generation, from the kid in his back garden to the kid that now routinely takes his place on the Fifa Ballon d’Or podium.