La chilena, as the bicycle kick is most commonly known in the Spanish-speaking world, is one of those goal-scoring moves that marvels every fan when it’s performed. We can all remember a moment when the move was used as a last resort in order to look for a goal. Some great players like Hugo Sánchez perfected it, leaving us with legendary memories, photos, and videos. Other great players, such as Cristiano Ronaldo, have been unable to get the gist of it and have failed miserably trying to execute it. Legendary Brazilian player Pelé, who is considered the best soccer player in history, has stated that the bicycle kick “is very hard to do.”
Where did this marvel of acrobatics and grace come from?
We’ll probably never able know with 100% certainty who invented the move, but whoever it was, he did it in South America. Because the exact origins of La Chilena are difficult to pin down, even the name is the subject of controversy.
According to famed Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano, Basque-Chilean Ramón Unzaga was the first to do the move during an official match in 1914, which would make it more than 100 years old. In his book Soccer in Sun and Shadow, he asserts that “Ramon Unzaga invented the move on the field of the Chilean port Talcahuano: Body in the air, back towards the ground, he shot the ball backwards with a sudden snap of his legs, like scissor blades.”
Unzaga is said to have loved performing bicycle kicks both as 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.
But Peruvians beg to differ. There, the move is known as La Chalaca, and it is credited to the Afro-Peruvian players of the port city of Callao, who are said to have invented the move playing with English sailors in the late 19th century. According to historian Jorge Bazadre, this happened in 1892. Although it’s all speculation, he claims the Chileans copied the move from Callao footballers, who often played Chileans during friendlies in Valparaiso.
Peruvian Nobel Prize writer Mario Vargas Llosa also makes a mention of this in his book The Time of the Hero (La Ciudad y los perros), where he highlights that the citizens of Callao use their feet as easily as their hands.
Brazilian player Leonidas is another one of the several possible players to have developed the bicicleta. He performed the move several times while playing for Bonsucesso, Flamengo, Sao Paolo, and the Brazilian national team. According to lore, the referee who first saw the move was so startled, he was unsure whether it was legal. Despite scoring a few of goals with the bicycle kick, Leonidas’ goal against Juventus (Brazil) is probably the most famous one because it was immortalized in an epic photo. To add to the controversy, Leonidas himself attributes the move to another Brazilian Player, Petronilho de Brito, brother of Waldemar, who discovered Pelé.
Because – or despite – all the claims, FIFA does not hold a registry of ownership. The history is so contested that there is even an entire book dedicated to exploring the lore and legends around the originator of the bicycle kick.
But whoever invented the bicycle kick becomes unimportant when we see them performed. Some of these great works of art have occurred in recent times.
How can one forget Ibra’s 4th goal in the 4-2 Sweden game against England?
Or Raúl Jiménez crucial Chilena for Mexico in the World Cup Qualifiers.
And Wayne Rooney.
Let’s also remember Barcelona’s forgotten striker Pedrito’s amazing Chalaca in one of the last games of this season.
Or Rivaldo against Valencia.
These of course are all just in a very recent past, if we look a little further back we’ll find many more by players such as Van Basten or Ronaldo.