By Philip O'Connor
RECIFE Brazil (Reuters) - With stunning goals and some amazing attacking play, the World Cup is exceeding expectations - but it sorely lacks goals from the kind of bending, swerving free kick that made so many Brazilians famous.
The names trip off the tongue - Didi, Rivelino and Zico from the older generations, Roberto Carlos and Ronaldinho for the younger fans.
There are even a few modern European pretenders to the free kick taker's throne in the shape of sharpshooters like David Beckham, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Italy's sublime Andrea Pirlo, but in northeastern Brazil, there is only one name that matters - Juninho Pernambucano.
"From distance you could add Roberto Carlos because of the strength and change of direction," said former team mate Wendel Geraldo, "but for the overall perfection, at the height of his career I would say Juninho. Without question."
Speaking to Reuters at the training ground of Sport Club do Recife, where Juninho honed his technique as a young professional before moving to Europe, Wendel explained why the former Lyon and Brazil midfielder was the best in the business.
"I was able to follow him as a rival in France, when I played in Bordeaux and he was at Lyon, and as a team mate here at Vasco da Gama," he explained. "The most complete taker of free kicks was Juninho, both from close up and from far away.
"From close up, he was able to lift the ball over the wall, and from long distances he could make the ball's trajectory change completely," he said. "If you analyze Juninho you'd have the most complete free kick taker. I'd call it perfection, really."
Juninho scored dozens of goals from free kicks in a career that saw him win seven league titles in France with Lyon and 40 caps for Brazil before retiring from the game in 2013 at the age of 38.
Now among the ranks of Juninho's successors as one of the players who takes free kicks at Sport, Wendel says a lot of hard work goes into becoming an expert like his predecessor or Roberto Carlos.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
"The best characteristic you can have is the training, day after day, perfecting it," the 32-year-old said. "A free kick taker is already born with that gift, and during training he perfects it. It's a gift that you don't achieve overnight."
Watching Sport's youth team players carefully as he speaks, Wendel says Brazilian players practice many different kinds of free kicks in order to master the dead ball.
"From distance, you need to hit more with the top of your foot and with more power. From up close to the goalie, you’d need to hit more with the inside of the foot," he added, pointing to his instep."
He blames the lack of goals from free kicks at the World Cup on the retirement of some of the foremost Brazilian exponents of the art.
"If Juninho was at the World Cup and we had him to hit every free kick, we’d have five or six goals from them," Wendel said with a smile.
"There have been some close calls, like Pirlo's against England that hit the crossbar. That was a perfect example of a well-executed free kick, since the ball changed direction.
"These are the most dangerous - the goalie will go one way and at the last second the ball changes direction."
Despite the presence of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi at the tournament, precious few free kicks have actually troubled the goalkeepers, and pressed to come up with one player who could yet bend it like a Brazilian, Wendel plumps for Pirlo.
"Pirlo would be along the same lines as Juninho, but there's not so many specialists nowadays, I think that’s why there aren’t as many goals (from free kicks) in the World Cup.
"There aren’t many specialists like the Brazilians I've mentioned in world football."
(Editing by Rex Gowar)