Ranking the 15 Most Controversial Footballers of All Time
There are some players who simply cannot stay away from the headlines, whether it be at the front or back of the newspaper. They seem to simply attract attention, whether they intend it or not.
They are the controversial figures who play such an important role in the narrative of football. There must always be a story and many of these bad boy characters fill those roles with alarming ease.
If they are on your team they are adored by all, for their desire to win is unquestionable and often the cause of their overstepping of the mark. Come up against them and they are the natural hate figure that your side must rally against.
Sport places elite athletes in an almost 24-hour media spotlight and, for some, that light seems to have a habit of picking up every wrong move they may make.
In the modern, technologically advanced era especially, these errors of judgement are picked up and analysed in more detail than ever before. It is no surprise, then, that our selection has a very modern feel to it.
Let's then have a look at 15 of the most controversial footballers of all-time.
No. 15: El-Hadji Diouf
Matthew Lewis/Getty Images
Senegal international's El-Hadji Diouf is comfortably one of the most disliked players in the English game. From spitting at fans to abusing an injured player, his back catalogue does not make pleasant reading.
After the incident with Jamie Mackie, in which the QPR player was receiving treatment for a broken leg, opposition manager Neil Warnock famously labelled Diouf as being "lower than a sewer rat." (Daily Mail)
It is worth noting that Warnock would subsequently go on to sign the winger for his Leeds United side—an odd change of heart.
As far as spitting is concerned, Diouf has been involved in several incidents involving both fans and opposition players. Famously, as reported here on the Guardian in 2004, he was accused of spitting at an 11-year-old Middlesbrough fan.
It doesn't end there as far as Diouf and children are concerned either, with the Senegalese also accused of racism to an Everton ball boy in 2009. (Daily Mail) It must be said, though, that there was deemed insufficient evidence to press any charges over the incident.
Diouf's career may not have lived up to initial expectations, but he has certainly left his mark on the English game.
No. 14: Romario
Tom Shaw/Getty Images
Romario's playing days may now be consigned to the past, but he is still able to flex his muscles as far as controversy is concerned.
Now a politician, he is famously one of the few players in Brazil to risk taking on Pele in public. In 2005, he described O Rei as: "a poet, when silent." (ESPN) It was followed by similar thoughts, delivered in a less-publishable manner.
As a player, no one was safe from Romario's wrath and it was ultimately indiscipline that cost him a place at the 2002 World Cup. Opposition players, fans, coaches and, of course, former idols were all the target of his wrath at some point in time or other.
In his current capacity, though, he is able to use his outspoken ways for good and has taken it upon himself to tackle corruption in the country, in particular at the CBF—Brazil's football federation.
An indication of his attitude toward's the country's ruling figures can be seen from his reaction to the resignation of notorious CBF president Ricardo Teixeira in 2012.
Romario tweeted: "Today we can celebrate. We have exterminated a cancer from Brazilian football." (Daily Mail) Most agreed with his sentiments.
No. 13: Marco Materazzi
Paolo Bruno/Getty Images
Italian defender Marco Materazzi always had a reputation as a wind-up merchant, but is best remembered for one particular incident in which he was actually the victim.
It was deep into extra-time during the final of the 2006 World Cup and Materazzi was, unsurprisingly, being his typical brash self.
Having got entangled in a war of words with French superstar Zinedine Zidane, Materazzi famously uttered an insult about the Frenchman's sister, causing Zidane to headbutt him in the chest and see a red card. (ESPN)
It was to be the final glimpse of Zidane on a football pitch.
Despite not being the perpetrator of the violence, it is Materazzi who is unsurprisingly often labeled as the villain of the piece.
Zidane's cult status and the Italian's own terrible disciplinary record, though, do tend to count against him.
No. 12: Mario Balotelli
Michael Regan/Getty Images
Italian striker Mario Balotelli is a headline writer's dream and, in particular, his recent three-year spell in England with Manchester City was more notable for controversy than for performances on the pitch.
Balotelli is a wonderful footballer, but he has a habit of seeking out unwanted attention. Whether it be for his frequent disciplinary indiscretions, confrontations with his manager or some of the mythical stories regarding his off-field behaviour, he was always good value for money.
Former manager Jose Mourinho once described him as "unmanageable" (Daily Mail), following a combustible period together at Inter Milan, while Roberto Mancini came to blows with the youngster on the training ground. (Daily Mail)
The vast majority of his career is ahead of him, with the potential for much more headline grabbing. If it is for his performances as a footballer or his behaviour, only he can decide.
No. 11: Carlos Tevez
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Argentine forward Carlos Tevez has never shied away from publicity and, indeed, throughout the majority of his career he has never been too far from fresh controversy to throw him back into the limelight.
From his famous move from Manchester United to rivals City, to the famous RIP Fergie banner that he held at his new club's title victory parade, it is clear that he is not afraid of upsetting a few people along the way. (Guardian)
Then there was his initial arrival in English football with West Ham United that turned out to be in direct convention of rules on third party ownership.
Tevez played a major role in keeping the club in the Premier League, but ultimately cost West Ham £20 million in compensation to relegated Sheffield United. (Independent) It may not have been his doing but he is still remembered over the controversial incident.
His most famous incident, though, came during a Champions League game in late-2011 when he reportedly refused to enter the pitch against Bayern Munich, much to the annoyance of manager Roberto Mancini.
With Tevez effectively going on strike after the incident in returning to Argentina, it would be six months before he would make a return to the Manchester City first team. (Daily Mail)
No. 10: Rene Higuita
Mark Thompson/Getty Images
Colombian goalkeeper Rene Higuita is regarded as a comical figure by many abroad, having produced a famous "scorpion kick" save against England in 1995.
That was, of course, after attempting to dribble past Cameroon forward Roger Milla at the 1990 World Cup only to lose possession and allow the opposition to score.
Nicknamed "El Loco," Higuita missed the 1994 World Cup in the United States having spent time in prison after profiting from a kidnapping. (Channel 4)
The goalkeeper had become well acquainted with drug boss Pablo Escobar and used his influence to free a young girl who had been kidnapped.
However, having accepted money for his part in the incident and failed to inform police, Higuita was jailed upon discovery.
In 2004, while playing in Ecuador during the final years of his career, Higuita tested positive for cocaine use. It was the last notable incident of a career that was a veritable dream for the headline writers of South America.
No. 9: Joey Barton
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
Another player amassing quite some back catalogue when it comes to controversial incidents in Marseille midfielder Joey Barton.
From stubbing a cigar out in a youth player's eye, to coming to blows with a fan, to earning a 12-match ban for a random spate of attacks on opposition players, Barton has done the lot.
The most serious of his misdemeanours, though, came in December 2007 when he was involved in a fight in Liverpool city centre. He was charged with assault for his part in the incident and sentenced to six months imprisonment. (BBC)
While serving his prison term, he was handed a further four-month suspended sentence following a training ground fight with former teammate Ousmane Dabo.
With Twitter becoming an ever more popular tool for footballers to communicate with supporters, Barton has attempted to change his public image.
Sadly, the controversies he provokes with such regularity have merely continued on a new platform.
No. 8: Sinisa Mihajlovic
Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images
Now-manager of the Serbia national side, former rugged defender Sinisa Mihajlovic is remembered by most for two main reasons—wonderful free-kick taking and frequent acts of indiscipline.
With his country tearing itself apart during the early years of his career, some of Mihajlovic's most notable early incidents came as a direct consequence, notably in fixtures with Croatian opposition.
It was one player, Igor Stimac, who tangled with Mihajlovic on a number of occasions and the pair's animosity has been widely revisited over the past week following their clash as managers of their respective countries. (Guardian)
Another player on our list to have been accused of racism, following a tangle with Arsenal's Patrick Vieira (Sky Sports), Mihajlovic would also encounter two lengthy bans for spitting in his career.
As manager, also, he has not shied away from making headlines, banning young midfielder Adem Ljajic from the national side for not singing the national anthem. (ESPN)
No. 7: Harald Schumacher
Despite 76 caps for his country, Harald Schumacher is pretty much exclusively remembered for one incident in the 1982 World Cup semifinal.
With French defender Patrick Battiston running through toward the goal onto a through ball, Schumacher appeared to deliberately take out his opposite number in mid-air after he had taken his shot.
The incident left Battiston unconscious, with damage to vertebrae, with three cracked ribs and without two teeth. Quite some damage. (Guardian)
Although an apology was later accepted by the Frenchman, Schumacher's challenge is remembered to this day as one of the worst in football history.
No. 6: Luis Suarez
Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Uruguay forward Luis Suarez was back in the headlines this week after throwing a punch at Chilean defender Gonzalo Jara during his side's World Cup qualification fixture in Santiago. (Daily Mail)
For all his talent and wonderful performances for club and country, it seems that it is impossible for Suarez to play for any concerted period of time without becoming embroiled in controversy.
Suarez is in his mid-20s and yet has been at the centre of more noteworthy incidents than most would fit into a career.
From his World Cup handball to biting an opponent in his time in Holland, the range of incidents that he becomes entangled in is quite phenomenal.
The most serious, of course, brought an eight-match ban for racially abusing Manchester United defender Patrice Evra. (Telegraph)
Even that, is an incident that Suarez has revisited to much outrage in the media over the past year. Sometimes it is best just to leave such incidents in the past. (ESPN)
No. 5: Edmundo
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Once named the "most hated player in Brazil" by Placar magazine, "O Animal" Edmundo was a one-man wrecking ball at times in his career with his temper often coming to the fore.
Besides a dire disciplinary record on the pitch, due to his propensity to retaliate to provocation, Edmundo never quite managed to control his passion for the benefit of a team.
Thus, after short spells of excellence, he would generally move on from a club under a cloud. Even Vasco da Gama, where he is seen as a club legend, would see his time at the club divided into five separate spells.
A car crash in 1995 while drunk saw him cause the deaths of three people in Rio de Janeiro and, despite attempts to revive the case in 2011, he has never served a sentence over the incident. (Fox Sports)
His relationship with Romario was memorably hit-and-miss with the players memorably combining successfully in the Club World Cup of 2000, only to fall out once more shortly after.
A total of 39-caps for Brazil in an era that the country was blessed with attacking talent says much for Edmundo's abilities as a player. He was, though, an almost impossible figure to handle.
No. 4: John Terry
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Chelsea and England defender John Terry has a list of controversial incidents so long it would take pages just to list list them. However, he has shown an incredible ability to bounce back.
Conveniently, there is a list of just a mere 10 incidents here on Bleacher Report published last year.
From mocking Americans in a Heathrow hotel post-September 11, to an affair with his teammate's partner and attempting to sell tours to his club's training ground, the Chelsea captain has never made life easy for himself. (Independent)
To many, though, he remains—to quote the famous banner at Stamford Bridge—a "captain, leader, legend."
However, supporters are famed for their ability to look past character deficiencies and offer unconditional affection to players. Terry, more than most, proves this fact.
That affection was never clearer than in the aftermath of the lowest point of Terry's career—when he was accused of racially abusing QPR defender Anton Ferdinand.
It was deemed in court that there was not enough evidence to convict Terry of the offence, but the FA later ruled that the player had been guilty of breaking their own rules over the incident. (BBC)
Despite all that, the support of his home fans remains unwavering. An incredible achievement, really.
No. 3: Eric Cantona
Chris Brunskill/Getty Images
There is a fine line between genius and insanity, as several on our list will testify. Cantona, perhaps, trod closer to the line than most.
While those who saw him play on a regular basis will no doubt remember his genius, it remains his kung-fu kick attack on a Crystal Palace supporter in 1995 that is his most famous moment of a tumultuous career.
It was an incident that earned the Frenchman an eight-month ban from football, but he has shown anything but remorse over the incident he describes as "a dream" to some fans. (Telegraph)
The Red Devils had been under no illusions, though, as to what they were getting from Cantona. After all, the mercurial forward had left French football under a cloud after throwing a ball at a referee in his time at Nimes. He then prematurely announced his retirement at the age of 25.
Other previous incidents had involved kicking a ball into the crowd and tearing his shirt off having been substituted, as well as insulting his national team coach Henri Michel live on television.
Despite all the controversy, though, his signing remains possibly the best of Sir Alex Ferguson's 25-year tenure at Manchester United.
No. 2: Paolo Di Canio
Jamie McDonald/Getty Images
Paolo Di Canio has proved as controversial a manager as he was a player, meaning that newspapers are still getting their fair share of the Italian to this day.
Di Canio's entire playing career was littered with headline grabbing moments, both on and off the pitch. Sadly, though, his brilliance as a player is too often forgotten amongst the fuss that surrounds Di Canio the individual.
An argument with manager Fabio Capello brought an end to his Milan career in 1996, having already left Juventus due to differences of opinion with manager Giovanni Trapattoni.
After a year at Celtic, Di Canio found his way to English football with Sheffield Wednesday. It would be in his time at Hillsborough that the Italian produced his most controversial moment.
Having been sent off against Arsenal in September 1998, Di Canio shoved referee Paul Alcock to the ground. It was a moment that saw the Italian hit with an 11-match ban.
After spells at West Ham and Charlton, complete with the prerequisite moments of genius and idiocy that he supplies in abundance, Di Canio returned to Italian football with Lazio.
At the Roman side, he developed a close relationship with the club's ultras and provoked controversy with a fascist salute given to the club's supporters. His political views have been well-known for some time and are a further cause of much controversy. (Telegraph)
As if to prove he has not changed as a manager, Di Canio famously substituted his goalkeeper during a spell at Swindon Town. He went on to describe young keeper Wesley Foderingham as "the worst professional [he] had ever seen". (BBC)
No. 1: Diego Maradona
Stuart Franklin/Getty Images
Rated by some as the best player of all time, there can also be little doubt that he is the most controversial of them all.
Of course, the extent of controversy you can create varies wildly depending on fame and, in this case, Maradona offered the perfect combination of global repute and regular misbehaviour.
His most famous incident, which is now an indelible part of the history of the FIFA World Cup, came in Mexico '86.
With his Argentina side coming up against rivals England in the quarterfinal of the tournament, the No. 10 magician scored two of the most famous goals of all-time—his infamous "Hand of God" goal and a mazy effort from his own half later known as the "Goal of the century."
It was not to be his last World Cup-based controversy with the 1994 World Cup ultimately bringing an end to his international career in controversial circumstances.
After two games of the tournament, he was sent home in disgrace as it was announced that he had failed a drugs test. Traces of the stimulant ephedrine were found in his blood sample and, although the circumstances were contested, it was enough to end a stellar international career.
It was not Maradona's only brush with drugs, though, with his spell at Napoli blighted by lengthy suspension for cocaine use. (Telegraph) It was an addiction that would later threaten his life.
All this and we are yet to even discuss the "challenge" against Brazil in the 1982 World Cup that first brought the aggressive side of his game to global attention. (Youtube)