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One of the greatest trick plays in soccer was nearly pulled off by a U-17 team

Tajikistan’s trick play free kick was almost perfect.

Tajikistan v Cameroon - FIFA U-17 World Cup Brazil 2019 Photo by Maddie Meyer - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

Tajikistan pulled out a genius free-kick routine during their U17s World Cup match last Monday.

The routine didn’t result in a goal, but it was still a very fun reconfiguration of what is normally a standard process of clipping the ball into the box and hoping a teammate heads it over a mass of bodies.

The best part is that, though the whole point was to surprise the Cameroonians, there’s no reason the routine should have worked. Cameroon, even with three players in the wall, outnumbered their opponents four to three in the box. They matched up with the attackers and still had an extra man to take care of any surprises. All the Cameroonian defenders had to do was to stay with the attackers who they were assigned to, regardless of what was happening over the ball.

The Cameroonian defender who was supposed to pick up the Tajik running down the left initially makes the right move and steps out to follow the attacker. But then everything goes to hell. The Cameroonian players focus on the ball rather than their defensive assignments. It’s almost eerie how the defenders are pulled and pushed by Tajikistan’s passing.

The key moment in the trick play is the return pass, after Tajikistan’s movement has drawn the attention of the defense. Nothing really happens when the first player runs over the ball, but the first pass pushes all the defenders backwards, and then the return pass draws them into taking a hard step forward. That step forward allows the runner down the left to receive ball beyond the defensive line. At that point, the defenders could not recover once the runner was driving into the box.

The genius of the play is in making defenders doubt their own knowledge. Tajikistan made Cameroon shift its focus from what it knows to be dangerous — the players in the box and the one running down the left — to subjects who don’t really matter: the two players passing the ball between them. The routine is a wonderful display of how a slight deviation from what is expected can open up new possibilities.

And for the attacker who missed the goal, a lesson in the importance of heading the ball down.