Words: Martin Mork
“When I was little, I didn’t like to play football, only kicking the ball. Every day I would travel two kilometres by foot to arrive at a pitch with a big goal, but with no net,” Sinisa Mihajlovic told Il Giornale. “I’d kick it, have to run back to get the ball and start all over again. After that, I practiced on the garage door and put so many dents in it.”
On the cold December afternoon in 1998, the ball left Mihajlovic’s foot, just like he had pictured when he honed his talent in old Yugoslavia.
He leaned back out of his fascinating body shape; it was stunningly equal every time he performed his art of free-kick execution. He brought the outstretched arm back to his body, leaned back and watched the ball sway perfectly above the wall.
“For four to five hours I would continuously keep kicking, non-stop.”
The curl brought the ball back from the outside of the post, dragged it towards the top corner above the wall and didn’t stop until it had flown past Sampdoria goalkeeper Fabrizio Ferron’s fingertips.
Mihajlovic was jumped by his teammates, smiling from ear to ear as he ran towards Sven-Goran Eriksson in the dugout, high-fiving him for the third time in the match against their former club.
The Swedish coach had brought Mihajlovic to the Olimpico in the summer of 1998 and in his first game against the Blucerchiati, wearing the Biancoceleste colours against his former faithful, he retreated to his centre-back position in the Lazio formation.
In the humblest of attempts to be a little bit snooty, he held up three fingers. Not in the air, not to the stands. Only at chest height, only for the current and former teammates to see. Three times of perfect precision, three times of repeating the same stance as he executed his signature move. A hat-trick of direct free-kicks, matching the feat of Beppe Signori, who had scored a similar hat-trick, incredibly also for Lazio, against Atalanta on April 10, 1994.
One wonders what could have been if Dejan Stankovic had left him the first free-kick awarded on the Sunday, December 13.
When Pierluigi Collina blew his whistle after four minutes, awarding the Aquile an attempt from quite far out, everyone expected specialist Mihajlovic to have the first go.
However, Stankovic grabbed the opportunity to smash it from distance. The former Serbia international tested Ferron, but the Sampdoria ‘keeper managed to awkwardly push it wide.
But when the match approached the half-hour mark, Roberto Mancini went down and match official Collina awarded them another opportunity, maybe a soft foul, but this time from a lethal 20-25 yards out.
Mihajlovic stepped up on his own, as if it was a penalty, and his teammates knew full well they should leave him to it. It was obvious that Stankovic was not needed this time.
The former Yugoslavia international put his right foot down to the right of the dead ball and followed through with his left, stretching out his left arm in the air for balance, pushing over it just enough to keep it from flying away.
Mihajlovic created the most perfect of curls on the ball every time he had the chance. It was heading for the top corner, but Francesco Palmieri in the Blucerchiati jumped and touched it with his arm.
The deviation tricked Ferron on the line. The goalkeeper stopped his movement for a beat, perplexed, waiting to understand the direction of the deflected effort. It was just long enough to arrive too late. It swirled past him and was the result of a poor wall, followed by poor goalkeeping.
Palmieri equalised eight minutes later, to make amends for his contribution to Mihajlovic’s opener, but right before half-time, the new Lazio hero was awarded another try from the same position.
His stance was repeated flawlessly, but this time he lifted the ball enough to escape the Sampdoria wall, it soared and fell down in the top left corner, as if he wanted to prove where the ball was supposed to go the first time. The centre-back had made it 2-1 before half-time with what drove him to play football.
In the 52nd minute he completed the hat-trick and made it 3-1, before Palmieri pulled another one back for the visitors four minutes later.
But Samp were not to recover from the free-kick mayhem by their ex-player, as Stankovic and Marcelo Salas put the nails in the coffin with their two goals in the dying minutes with a thumping 5-2 defeat as the final outcome.
Mihajlovic scored 28 goals from free-kicks in Serie A and his former teammate Ferron concluded by claiming he had a good average record against his old friend: “Only three goals conceded to Sinisa, if you think about it, it’s a great stat.”