The Spot

Who Invented the Bicycle Kick?

Diego Costa
Spain’s Diego Costa connects on a bicycle kick during Spain’s World Cup match against Chile on June 18, 2014.

Photo by Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty Images

This article is excerpted from Who Invented the Bicycle Kick?: Soccer’s Greatest Legends and Lore by Paul Simpson and Uli Hesse, out now from William Morrow Paperbacks.

If you believe Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow, this question has a straightforward answer. To quote Galeano: “Ramon Unzaga invented the move on the field of the Chilean port Talcahuano: Body in the air, back to the ground, he shot the ball backwards with a sudden snap of his legs, like the blades of scissors.”

Galeano does not date this historic moment, but popular tradition has it that Unzaga invented this move in 1914 in Talcahuano. A naturalized Chilean—he had emigrated from Bilbao with his parents in 1906—Unzaga loved launching bicycle kicks both in attack and defense. After he showed off his trademark move in two Copa Americas (1916 and 1920), the Argentinian press dubbed the bicycle kick la chileña.

As comprehensive as that narrative might sound it finds no favor in Callao (Peru’s largest port), nor with Argentine journalist Jorge Barraza, whose investigations suggest the move was invented by a chalaco (as Callao locals are known) of African descent who tried out the acrobatic maneuver in a game with British sailors. Peruvian historian Jorge Bazadre suggests this could have happened as early as 1892. The Chileans could, Barraza speculated, have copied the bicycle kick from regular matches between teams from Callao and the Chilean port of Valparaiso. If you believe this theory, the bicycle kick is truly la chalaca (Chalacan strike).

In his 1963 novel The Time of the Hero, Mario Vargas Llosa suggests that people in Callao must have invented the bicycle kick because they use their feet as efficiently as their hands. However, neither Chile nor Peru will ever relinquish their claim to have invented this spectacular move. Which, when you think about it, is strange, because a bicycle kick presupposes that somebody else has not done their job properly. German scientist Hermann Schwameder, an expert on motion technique, says what you need is “instinct, a lot of courage—and a bad cross.” Klaus Fischer, who scored with the most famous bicycle kick in World Cup history (it tied the 1982 semifinal between France and West Germany at 3–3 in extra time) agrees: “By and large, you have to say that every cross that leads to a bicycle kick goal is not a good cross.”

Yet, on one famous occasion, a not very good penalty led to a bicycle kick goal. In May 2010, in the Hungarian top flight, Honved were 1–0 up against their great rivals Ferencvaros, when they won a penalty. Italian striker Angelo Vaccaro stepped up to seal the victory. He struck the ball at a perfect height for the keeper who punched it into the air. Vaccaro waited for the ball to come down and, with half an eye on the on-rushing defenders, flicked it over his head (and the keeper) and into the net.

Even if you don’t miss a penalty first, a good bicycle kick is a shortcut to glory—though sometimes that glory is short-lived. Zlatan Ibrahimović’s overhead wonder goal against England in November 2012 was fêted as one of the greatest ever.

That same month, trying to replicate his effort in a French Cup tie for Paris Saint-Germain against Saint-Etienne, he missed the ball completely.

Wayne Rooney’s spectacular overhead kick in the Manchester derby in February 2011 was voted the best goal in the history of the Premier League. The player didn’t romanticize his achievement, saying: “I saw it come into the box and thought, why not?”

Therein, perhaps, lies the secret of the move’s enduring appeal: It is rare in life that we see human error (a bad cross) so swiftly redeemed by human genius.

Even a missed bicycle kick can have unforeseen consequences. At the 1994 World Cup in the United States, with the hosts minutes away from a 2–1 victory against Colombia, Marcelo Balboa startled the Rose Bowl crowd with an inspired bicycle kick that flashed just over the left-hand corner. If it had gone in, it would have become one of football’s most famous YouTube clips.

It didn’t, but it still inspired Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz, who vowed: “That’s the guy I want to play for my team.” Balboa was signed by Anschutz’s Colorado Rapids and the billionaire became such an enthusiast he invested in the Chicago Fire, New York/New Jersey Metrostars, the LA Galaxy, DC United and the San Jose Earthquakes—six out of 10 Major League Soccer franchises. So you could say Balboa’s bicycle kick launched MLS.

There are other, less convincing, claimants for the honor of inventing the bicycle kick. Legendary Brazilian striker Leonidas, whose elasticity earned him the nickname Rubber Man, claimed the move was his creation. But he first used it, records suggest, for his club Bonsucesso in 1932—more than a decade after Unzaga. Chronology counts even more decisively against Carlo Parola, the Juventus center back who used the trick so often he was known in Italy as Signor Rovesciata (Mr. Reverse Kick) and Doug Ellis, the “deadly” Aston Villa chairman who claimed to have invented this move while playing for Southport during World War II.

By then, though, the bicycle kick had achieved international notoriety. In 1927, Chilean club Colo Colo toured Europe and their 24-year-old striker, captain, and founder David Arellano performed the trick so often he was the toast of Spain—until he was killed, struck down by peritonitis after colliding with another player during a match in Valladolid. The black line above Colo Colo’s club emblem is a memorial to a flamboyant striker whose memorably premature death is a grim warning about the perils of showboating.

This article is excerpted from Who Invented the Bicycle Kick?: Soccer’s Greatest Legends and Lore by Paul Simpson and Uli Hesse, out now from William Morrow Paperbacks.