Because players lay down to defend free kicks

DOHA, Qatar — As Brazilian star Neymar fielded a dangerous free kick in Thursday’s opener of his side’s 2022 World Cup, one of his Serbian opponents, Andrija Zivković, did something that, to the untrained eye, is seemed curious. He dropped to the grass, turned away from the ball, and lay there, as if to fall asleep.

But he wasn’t the first, nor will he be the last player to go to ground defending 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 Over walls, some started shooting stealthily under a jumping wall. Then the defending teams began to skillfully block that low street as well.

The evolution of free kicks and blocks

This back-and-forth evolutionary cycle began decades ago. Since 1913, defending players have been required to stand at least 10 meters away from the place of any free kick. For most of the century, soccer teams of all types have lined up multiple players in a “wall” 10 yards apart, often to cover the near side of the goal, while the goalkeeper covers the opposite side.

In the 1980s or thereabouts, free kick takers started going up and down the wall, then defenders started jumping to add a couple of feet to the height of the wall. Once jumping became commonplace, some legends of the sport came up with a new plan. Rivaldo went under the Milan wall for his first goal of a hat-trick in the Champions League in 2000. Ronaldinho did it in 2006 against Wolfsburg. Lionel Messi did 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 for the wall to stay on the ground. But the ascent and beyond the wall remained the preferred route. Countless curlers and ladles have been blocked by a wall that jumped or could have been blocked by a wall that remained stationary. For years, defending them has become a guessing game, reduced to an imperfect choice: to jump or not to.

The origins and history of lying down

But in the past decade, the seeds for a solution have been planted in Brazil. Ronaldinho brought free kicks under the wall at home. A couple of years later, Ricardinho, a journeyman midfielder on loan at Figuerense, went semi-viral when he stalled behind the wall, then fell to the ground when Palmeiras playmaker Jorge Valdivia took aim from 20 yards. Valdivia tries to climb over the wall, but teammates and viewers notice it and recognize Ricardinho’s genius.

The tactic slowly caught on in South America and the natural forces of innovation perfected it. By 2014, some defenders had gone completely prone.

By 2017 he had migrated to Europe, albeit sparingly and in various forms. Some players would (and still do) kneel rather than lie down. (Going horizontal allows for fuller coverage, but might leave a player slightly more vulnerable to injury or slightly slower to react to a set play.)

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

Last season, the tactic had become almost universal. Some defenders even dragged teammates into position by the neck:

Qatar 2022, however, is the first World Cup where he is ubiquitous.

The spread has largely banished free-kick goals under the wall to the past. There is, as yet, no downside to staying behind the wall, until a coach or experienced player devises a fixed game to take advantage of.

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

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

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