FC Barcelona is one of the greatest clubs in the world, and it has seen some of the best players in the history of football pass through its ranks.
Players like Migueli, Carles Puyol, Xavi and Ladislao Kubala are renowned for the unwavering commitment towards the club that they showed throughout their careers. Most of these men are considered demigods by Barcelona fans; their names are spoken with a quaver of respect.
We have, however, seen some—for want of a better word—colourful characters in the Barcelona ranks as well. Some players have managed to etch their names into notoriety with their actions on and off the pitch.
Here are 10 of the most controversial players to ever wear the blue and claret.
In 1996-97, a 20-year-old Brazilian played 49 matches for Barcelona and scored 47 goals. He was then shipped off to Inter Milan.
Considering his brilliant performances, it is obvious that there were some serious off-field issues that plagued Ronaldo's short but very fruitful time at Barcelona and forced his unfortunate exit.
Ronaldo's arrival at Barcelona was due to the insistence of then-Barcelona manager Sir Bobby Robson. Robson insisted that president Josep Lluis Nunez should pay PSV Eindhoven's asking price of almost $20 million.
For half a season, Ronaldo held the city of Barcelona to his tune with stellar performances. However, he decided to make a big show of him being chased by various Italian and English clubs, saying:
The offers are real and we are talking about incredible amounts of money. We've got to sort out this situation as soon as possible so I can settle down and concentrate on my game.
A few months later, in the middle of the season, Ronaldo was photographed in a carnival party in Brazil, at first dancing in a shiny golden jumpsuit, and then crashed out in the back of a limousine with his girlfriend. The Barcelona media considered this frivolity an affront on the club because of the spate of poor results it was going through.
Ronaldo found himself facing a barrage of criticism from the media after that incident. He was also accused of being dispassionate and unconcerned during the Cup Winners' Cup final win over PSG.
While this seemed to hasten Ronaldo's exit from the club, Ronaldo himself has claimed in an interview in 2006 that the directors lied to him during contract negotiations:
I left Barcelona because the club's directors tried to lie to me during the conversations to renew my contract. I think that if they were not there, then perhaps I would still be playing in Barcelona.
Source for quote without hyperlink: Barca: A People's Passion, Jimmy Burns
Laudrup (left) celebrates with Ronald Koeman
It must be noted that while Michael Laudrup made the same move to Real Madrid as Luis Figo, he has not continued to receive quite the same level of hate from Barcelona fans. This was due to the circumstances of his exit, which was almost forced by Johan Cruyff, then-Barcelona manager.
However, it is fair to say that his move was still very controversial when it happened.
Laudrup claims that his decision to move to Real Madrid was a purely footballing one. That is still a slap on the face for the 20,000 Cules who petitioned him to stay on.
When he returned to the Camp Nou the season after his move, the level of animosity that was directed towards him staggered the usually relaxed Dane:
It turned out to be a horrible experience for me. Nearly 100,000 people whistled every time I got the ball and it was the only time in my career when things outside football influenced me. I played very badly as a result.
I will always remember the words of [Jorge] Valdano on the plane back to Madrid. He said: "Well Michael, tonight I realised how much they loved you." I was a little sad, of course, but I guess he was right.
Laudrup has, however, been mostly forgiven by Barcelona fans. Most now consider him a club legend for the years of beautiful football that he played under Cruyff's dream team. It probably isn't easy to remain furious with such a magical player.
Oleguer Presas was probably the most colourful and entertaining character to ever put on a Barcelona shirt. Notorious for his ineptitude on the pitch, he was still considered a fan favourite because of his controversial, outspoken statements in support of Catalan nationalism.
An economics student, he became notorious for his writings and his poor play on the pitch.
He was the author of a book called Road to Ithaca in which he likened Barcelona winning the Spanish Championship in 2005 to the Catalonian freedom fighters and anti-fascists who defended Barcelona against Franco’s troops in 1939.
While playing for Barcelona, he shunned the expensive sports cars that his teammates drove, coming to the club by public transport. He later bought a van, which was still a far cry from the sort of machines that usually litter the Camp Nou parking lot.
He wrote a very controversial article questioning the autonomy of the Spanish judiciary and the hypocrisy of the Spanish State of the Law. On publication, this article caused a nationwide furore which led to Oleguer being booed in almost every stadium he played in.
Despite his pro-Catalan leanings and his work for Catalan nationalism, Oleguer said:
I don’t like to be adored. Of course it is nice when a 50 year old man congratulates me on the street. But I always feel like he has done so much more than I have.
One of the most outstanding strikers to wear the Blaugrana was also the most nonchalant. Romario had all the on-field talent to make scoring goals week in and week out look like a picnic.
Off the pitch, however, his behaviour was more than a little ridiculous.
Romario's problems can be summed up rather succinctly in this quote from Sir Bobby Robson:
The Brazilian was an exciting player, who was capable of turning a game in an instant with his skill around the penalty area, but he could also be frustrating, disappearing for long periods of the game, rarely shouldering any responsibility and sometimes socializing and dancing late into the night before important games.
Romario himself blamed his birthplace for his attitude, saying, "I'm the face of Rio. I'm the type who likes samba and carnival. I love life, I want to enjoy it. I love the sun and the beach."
In the season leading up to the 1994 World Cup in the USA, Romario was notoriously inconsistent and noncommittal in his performances, purportedly conserving his body for the rigors of the World Cup that was around the corner.
Romario was always a fantastic player, but he was never able to commit himself to Barcelona. The Legends section of the FC Barcelona website also lists him as more than a little controversial for taking too many holidays than was justified.
Source for quotes: Barca: A People's Passion, Jimmy Burns
Ricardo Zamora is probably one of the only players in history to have played for both of Barcelona's most hated rivals—Espanyol and Real Madrid.
He was one of the best goalkeepers in Spanish history, and the annual La Liga goalkeeping award is named in his honour. However, his time at Barcelona divides most Cules—some feel that he was the "Divine One," while others fervently question his loyalty to the team.
Zamora came to Barcelona from Espanyol in 1919 and, unforgivably, went back to Espanyol just three years later. More importantly, he never identified with the Catalan ideologies that the club was working so hard to promote during the time, affirming himself as a Spaniard first and foremost.
After leaving Barcelona for Espanyol, and later for Madrid, Zamora was treated as a poster child by the fascist government—a man who had turned his back on Catalan nationalism by moving to Espanyol. When he was considered missing after fascist troops took the town of Seville, he was hailed as a martyr by the Franco regime.
Later, he was awarded the Order of the Republic and the Great Cross of the Order of the Cisneros by the Franco regime.
Despite his brilliance on the pitch, Zamora will always be eyed with suspicion, and even dislike, by most Cules. His rejection of the Catalan ideologies and his decision to play for both of Barcelona's biggest rivals make him an enigmatic figure among Blaugrana faithful.
Before we start, a disclaimer: Stoitchkov was, is and always will be a Barcelona legend. The only reason he makes this list is because of his famous temperament that made him officials' and referees' biggest nightmare.
He is not called "The Mad Bulgarian" or "The Dagger" for no reason, after all.
Add to that this statement about Real Madrid, and we have the picture of a particularly fiery player:
I will always hate Real Madrid. There is just something about them that gets up my nose. I would rather the ground opened up and swallowed me than accept a job with them.
In fact, I do not like speaking about them because it makes me want to vomit.
Stoitchkov started his first season by stamping on a referee's foot during a match against Real Madrid. After Stoitchkov was brought down in brutal fashion by Madrid's Chendo, Barcelona manager Johan Cruyff protested vociferously from the bench. Referee Urizar Azpiarte ended up sending off Cruyff, and Stoitchkov retaliated by stamping Azpiarte's foot.
He was subsequently banned for two months.
Stoitchkov was also famous for his vehement arguments with referees and opponents throughout matches. Even after leaving Barcelona, he never quite improved his temperament.
In 2003, he was actually sued by an American University student whose leg he broke through a vicious tackle while he was playing for DC United. The case was settled in court in 2007.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic enters this list despite having spent only one season at the club. In hindsight, it should have been evident that a man with as fiery a temperament as Ibrahimovic was always going to have trouble at Barcelona.
He is, after all, never a man to have minced words throughout his career.
Ibra's Barcelona tenure started very well. He scored five goals in his first five matches, and also scored the winning goal in the first Clasico of the season. Around January, he began to fall out of favour with Pep Guardiola's management and began to see less game time.
This coincided with a severe loss of form, including a shocking game against Arsenal where he missed a bucketload of first-half chances.
Ibrahimovic continued to lose form, and in the summer after his Barcelona move, he was shipped off to AC Milan with David Villa coming in as his replacement.
While this seems to be the tale of a typical footballer losing form, the reason Ibra was controversial was the inflammatory speeches that he and his agent, Mino Raiola, made during his time at the club, and continued to make long after he had left.
Ibrahimovic even wrote inflammatory statements about Guardiola and Lionel Messi in his autobiography.
A collection of some of the more insulting quotes made by agent and player:
Why didn’t Cruyff tell Barca that Zlatan wouldn’t fit in before they bought him?
I think that Cruyff and Guardiola should go to a mental hospital and sit quietly while they play cards. They’d be doing a huge favor for Barca. There is a game called Memory that is for kids. It’s a card game where you have to find four cards of the same kind. Guardiola and Cruyff can sit there and play that.
Mino Raiola: “In Barcelona Ibra was going to turn into a zombie. Pep Guardiola did not count on him in anything and so he was back against the wall."
(Pep) was staring at me and I lost it. I thought, "there is my enemy, scratching his bald head." I yelled to him: "You have no balls!" And probably worse things than that.
You are s****ing yourself because of (then Inter manager Jose Mourinho, whose side beat Barca in the Champions League). You can go to hell!
A confession—Alfredo di Stefano enters this list on a mere technicality. While he never played an official game for Barcelona, he did sign a contract with the club. That is enough to put him in the dock.
Di Stefano's transfer muddle was an embarrassment for the entire Barcelona board at the time. They lost out on securing one of the best players of the generation due to multiple goof-ups by the powers responsible.
Di Stefano was involved in deals with River Plate and Colombian club Millonarios. While Barcelona's direct negotiations with River Plate were successful, the Argentine club had stated that Barcelona would also have to reach a deal with Millonarios to let the player go.
Through a bumbling mistake of epic proportions, Di Stefano was smuggled out of Colombia when the deal with Millonarios did not go through.
This confusion was all Real Madrid needed to swoop in. The Spanish Federation declared Di Stefano's current contract with Barcelona as null and void and asked both Barcelona and Real Madrid to share the player, with Barcelona keeping him in 1954-55 and 1957-58, while Real Madrid kept him in 1953-54 and 1955-56.
The Barcelona board resigned and this sharing deal was called off, leaving Madrid with complete ownership of the man, who would then go on to be a thorn in Barcelona's side for five consecutive years.
He was truly the man that got away. Even now, Barcelona fans are faced with perennial "what-ifs" regarding this particular chapter in the history of both clubs.
Diego Maradona's time at Barcelona had lots of highs and lows. On the pitch, he was magical.
In the words of his teammate Lobo Carrasco, "I remember our early training sessions with him: the rest of the team were so amazed that they just stood and watched him."
Unfortunately, his off-the-pitch shenanigans mired his time at the club and pitted him in a direct confrontation with then club president Josep Lluis Nunez. Maradona first missed 15 matches in his first season at the club due to hepatitis. The disease was rumored to be the result of an uncontrolled private life.
Maradona then persuaded the Barcelona team to party all night long in the night clubs of Paris after beating PSG 4-1 in a friendly. Nunez publicly rebuked him, and received a sharp reply from the Argentine. Maradona later called up Nunez and insulted him.
Despite being at daggers with his best player, Nunez did not want to rescind his contract due to the volumes of money at stake. Maradona stayed, and got embroiled in an astonishing war of words with then-Athletic Bilbao manager Javier Clemente regarding the style of football Bilbao played.
During a match against Bilbao, Maradona was scythed down by Andoni Goikoetxea and was sidelined for three months. He did not endear himself to the club by shunning the club's own doctors in favour of his own.
Things came to a head in another match against Bilbao at the end of that season. After the match, Maradona was provoked by Miguel Angel Sola. He attacked the Bilbao man and this disintegrated into a terrible brawl with players of both teams entering the fray. This was the cue Nunez was waiting for, and the club shipped Maradona off to Napoli.
Source for quote: Barca: A People's Passion, Jimmy Burns
Luis Figo, aka "Judas," is the player Cules love to hate. Even now, more than a decade after his extremely controversial move to Real Madrid, the very mention of Figo would unleash an outpouring of hate from any Barcelona fan worth his salt.
For Figo had done the unthinkable. After being considered a fan favourite at Barcelona and being loved and respected by all Cules, he had unceremoniously turned his back on the whole institution by signing with Florentino Perez's Real Madrid.
The fact that the move was hardwired with the Real Madrid presidential elections in 2000 seems to be of little concern. Perez had made unreasonable promises to the Madridismo, which he would have to keep. He had said that if he fails to bring in Figo, he would refund all 70,000 season tickets that year.
Cules refused to see reason in Figo's case. During his first away Clasico in a Real Madrid shirt, Figo was mercifully spared corner-taking duty to shield him from the hailstorm of missiles that engulfed him the moment he stepped within range of the Camp Nou stands.
In 2002, Figo was told to take a corner against Barcelona, and all hell broke loose. The moment Figo stepped near the touchline, he was bombarded by flying objects thrown from the stands. One of these was the iconic piglet's head which has since become synonymous with the Figo saga.
The match had to be stopped for 12 minutes and the Cules refused to listen even to Carles Puyol, the iconic club captain, when he called for calm.
Perhaps the best encapsulation of Cules' emotion towards Figo can be seen in an unfurled banner which said, "We hate you so much, because we loved you so much."