This article profiles 25 of the Biggest Personalities in the history of World Football.
One of the reasons many of us love this sport is because of the characters within it; indeed, the personalities and the charismatic figures that populate the game are football’s life blood, they are the names we seek on a team sheet and the figures we expect to spot in the headlines.
Football has had its fair share of icons and legends, but not all of them have touched the public and forged an interaction with the broader populace as the 25 men listed here.
The ‘personalities’ in my list are the big characters who inject colour and meaning into the predominant rhythm of figures and statistics that is becoming increasingly prevalent. These men have qualities and characteristics which make them popular or interesting in a way that sets them apart, and all of whom have a distinctive identity.
In compiling the list, I sought footballing figures who, in many cases, had an influence that extended beyond the sport; many of these men combined controversy with charm, and almost all of them left an enduring legacy on the clubs and players they touched.
Possibly the biggest ego sport has ever known, Brian Clough was a one-man phenomenon. His admirable playing career is often overlooked, but only because of the extraordinary achievements of his time as a manager. Famously, at Derby Country and Nottingham Forest, and infamously, during his 44 days at Leeds United.
His greatest triumph was surely his pair of back-to-back European Cup victories with Forest in 1979 and 1980. Before he arrived, the side had never even won England’s top flight, and yet under Clough they not only conquered Europe—twice, but also picked up league, UEFA Super Cup and League Cup honours.
Another on this list who endured a torrid, if compulsive, relationship with alcohol, Clough’s troubles, his demons, have often served to increase the mystery and the intrigue that surrounds this enormously divisive and controversial figure.
Despite knowing how to praise himself profusely, and despite an arrogance which often spilled over into blinkered single-mindedness, Clough endeared himself to the British public with his quick wit, bullish charm and brusque forthrightness. Few could match the outspoken Clough for charisma.
‘The Special One’.
As nicknames go, it’s not too shabby—the definite article gives it authority, the adjective gives it quality and the singularity gives it a uniqueness.
I suppose it’s no less than Mourinho deserves.
The Portuguese, like Clough—has qualities that, at once, make him thoroughly unlikeable but at the same time, unfailingly beloved.
Arrogance is unbecoming, and this pair have such unswerving belief in their own superiority, their own qualities and their own seemingly divine right to conquer all before them, that they exude egotism from every pore. Simultaneously, however, there is such charm and such a measured frankness that both escape—although not universally—as media darlings.
The parallels don’t end there; while Clough had his own personal nemeses—Don Revie and Leeds United, Jose Mourinho has his. And while the film, the Damned United, depicted the intense jealousy that burned within Cloughie, Mourinho’s place as the pantomime villain is augmented seemingly every time he interacts with a Messi, a Guardiola, or a Barcelona.
The potentially deep-rooted nature of this bitterness is a compelling suspicion, and one which only adds to the mystique and intrigue that surrounds him.
Despite the many controversies; the spats and the petulance, Mourinho has a quality that—current company excluded—has seen him adored by players and fans of former clubs.
Following the Munich Air Disaster of 1958, the question was whether Manchester United would be able to continue as a club; there were times when the disaster appeared to be terminal. Busby, in his hospital bed, having been read the Last Rites, told his wife Jean that he felt like leaving his post at Old Trafford.
A decade later, the club were Champions of Europe, Busby feted as the mastermind behind the first European Club victory for an English side.
It must be taken into account that Busby didn’t just rebuild a side following that disaster, he built a side which had previously been an all-consuming project for him, sculpting a youthful team of bright British players. The Busby Babes were gone, but Busby pushed on, and build a giant from the embers of disaster.
For strength of character and tenacity, for commitment and courage, Busby is one of British football’s enduring figures. The founding father of Manchester United, the Scot is honoured at the club with the ‘Matt Busby Way,’ which follows down to a statue of the great man.
What more can one say about Paul Gascoigne? The beautiful, the clownish, the tragedy, the glory—these are stories, images and ideas that are ingrained upon the minds of many football fans. Few sportsman provoke as much sentiment and emotion as ‘Gazza’.
England had seen almost nothing like it when this plucky young Geordie joker emerged on the scene in the early-to-mid 80s. With sublime playmaking skills, a prodigiously low centre of gravity and a delicious dribbling technique, the parallels with Maradona were not long in appearing.
At the World Cup in 1990, Gascoigne entered the footballing psyche as well as stealing the hearts of a nation; some incredible performances climaxing with those famous tears in Turin.
Sadly, despite his boyish charm and prodigal abilities, Gascoigne never quite realised the immense potential he demonstrated as a youngster. A combination of injury and poor off-field decision making meant that the name ‘Gazza’ has become synonymous with alcoholism and a kind of perverse buffoonery that has accompanied the former Spurs icon endlessly.
Like many of Shakespeare’s finest characters, Gascoigne’s fateful tragedy is offset by his incredibly engaging personality, making him one of the sport’s genuine characters.
There is very little I can write to begin to explain the complex, multi-faceted, plural-dimensioned mind of Ian Holloway, one of football’s true philosophers, and one of the deepest thinkers the sport has ever produced.
It’s perhaps best that he explains himself, through his series of award-winning lectures on various diverse and challenging subjects:
A modern day, football league prophet...enjoy.
Ah Mario…English football feels like a tranquil orchard since your return to Italy, and to Milan. While your sojourn in the Premier League may not have been a resounding success, and may have ended with you being seemingly smuggled out of the backdoor, the memories you gave us are unlikely to be lost any time soon.
Who could forget the Italy international throwing darts at a youth team player because he was ‘bored’? Who could forget the evening, pre-derby fireworks…and the subsequent ‘Why always me?’ T-shirt that spawned a thousand imitations? What about the young Manchester student who was personally saved from the ravages of bullying by a Balotelli intervention?
Mario’s stay was certainly colourful stuff.
He remains a difficult man to decipher, although early signs in Milan suggest that Balo is revelling in a return to the motherland. If he does ever realise the immense potential that he has shown every since his early days in the Internazionale youth academy, it will be to the ultimate frustration of Manchester City.
Despite the occasional moments of magic, or a handful of delightful goals—the best of which possibly came in that unforgettable 6-1 demolition of United, it is certainly the case that things didn’t work out for Mario in the Sky Blue half of the city.
Verging from the farcical to the supreme, the benevolent to the absurd didn’t really seem to work out for Balotelli in England, but perhaps now this complex and confounding personality will settle down and begin to bear fruit in Milan.
I would argue that despite having a smaller international reputation than almost anyone on this list, Aboutrika is a character who—for force of personality—could match the majority.
Aboutrika is a truly remarkable character; a cult hero in Egypt, where he has been the jewel in the crown of both the all-conquering Egyptian national side and the dominant Cairene team Al-Ahly, loyalty to the Red Devils has meant that the wider world has not seen as much of him as deserved.
In 2009, Gabriele Marcotti summed up the phenomenon of Aboutrika: He is possibly the greatest footballer in the history of the world with a bachelor's diploma in philosophy hanging on the wall of his sitting room. He is arguably the best footballer on Earth not plying his trade in Europe or South America.
Since then however, as North Africa has been gripped by the Arab Spring, Aboutrika has emerged as an even more important character, and his influence has slipped even further into the political sphere.
Following the Port Said massacre, where 74 Ahly fans were killed with the complicit knowledge, if not the active cooperation, of the nation’s security forces, Aboutrika has emerged as a beacon for all that is good, or all that could be good, about the modern Egyptian nation.
His outspoken interviews and public defiance were reminiscent of the 2008 Cup of Nations where he celebrated a goal by revealing a shirt with ‘Sympathize with Gaza’ written across it.
The gesture made the compassionate midfielder a hero in Palestine, and still, at the twilight of his career, he commands enormous respect across the Arab world.
Few men on this list are more miraculous than Egypt’s golden son.
While almost all of the other figures on this list will be remembered as great players or managers who also had larger-than-life personalities, Barton may be the only one for whom the character swamps the footballing reputation.
Indeed, despite being a decent player, a competent midfielder and a one-time England star, it is now Barton’s character, his controversial comments and decision-making which steal the headlines. I can’t remember the last time I read anything about Joey that was purely football related, who knows if his abilities with a ball will ever be noteworthy again.
This latest controversy, where Barton is facing a potential charge from the French Football Federation concerning comments he made about PSG centreback Thiago Silva resembling an overweight ladyboy, is simply the next episode in the soap opera of his existence.
Twitter has been one of the key tools employed by Barton to increase his reputation and his profile. With over two million followers at the time of writing, it is clear that people are interested in whatever may spew from his mouth; he generates fascination, provokes comment and cultivates his public profile like few of his predecessors.
Surely another of football’s most divisive personalities.
“A genius” was how Bob Bishop, the Belfast scout, described George Best when he first called up Matt Busby to describe the young boy he had just witnessed. Over the years, the scout’s first impression would prove to be correct, as the young Northern Irishman entranced Old Trafford and proved himself to be one of the finest players of all time.
Beyond his stunning ability, his incredible ball control, poise and technique, Best’s personality played a major part in his celebrity, indeed, making him arguably football’s first superstar. With the good looks of a Hollywood star married to a tempestuous character, Best had a genuine appeal that transcended the sport.
Dubbed ‘El Beatle’ by the Portuguese press, Best emerged as an international playboy, and became almost emblematic of many of the qualities, or characteristics, of the sixties. He also afforded to Manchester United, the stardust that had previously been the preserve of Tottenham Hotspur.
Upon his death, in 2005, following a long battle with alcoholism, the world mourned one of the game’s genuine greats.
As cults of personality go, they don’t get much bigger than Paraguay’s own inspirational captain, Jose Luis Chilavert.
Goalkeeper Chilavert was the latest in a long line of stoppers that veered on the eccentric, but beyond being just a mad and flamboyant character, he was also a personality that left an indelible mark on anyone he touched.
Coming from a modest rural background, Chilavert went on to become his country’s finest ever player, and one of the world’s top stoppers—the player himself was well aware of his status, and frequently declared that he was the No. 1 keeper in the game.
Something that certainly set him apart was his prolific goalscoring ability, El Chila was not your typical ‘send the keeper up for a late, late equaliser’ stopper, he was in fact incredibly prolific and had a glorious technique when it came to striking a ball. Eight goals for Paraguay, and thirty six over a decade for Velez Sarsfield are evidence of his prowess.
Beyond the goals, Chilavert was an excellent keeper, and even some unflattering disciplinary records don’t take the gloss away from his expert custodianship—in 1997 he became the only keeper to win the South American footballer of the year award, while he is a three-time IFFHS Best Goalkeeper in the World winner.
Personally, I will never forget the 1998 World Cup, when, after a demoralising Golden Goal defeat to France, Chilavert personally went to each of his fallen teammates and attempted to pick them up from the ground. It was a mark of genuine class, and an indicator of Chilavert’s enduring personality and leadership.
Before leaving France, midway through the 1991-92 campaign, one could have been forgiven for thinking that Cantona was well on the pathway to becoming merely a talented, but controversial, journeyman striker. In just eight years he had played for six different clubs, prospering at some, labouring at others, but making enemies and critics wherever we travelled with comportment that earned him numerous misconduct charges.
However, despite these ignominious beginnings, few players have emerged as synonymous with one club as Cantona. After arriving in England, with Leeds United, he moved across the Pennines to Manchester, where Sir Alex Ferguson decided to take a punt on the flamboyantly talented forward.
It was one of Sir Alex’s many managerial masterstrokes, as Cantona’s influence and sheer force of personality transformed United, and left an indelible mark on the ‘Fergie Fledglings’.
An assault on Crystal Palace fan Matthew Simmons was evidence that Cantona was not totally tamed under Ferguson, but indeed, who would have wanted him to have been, and the way King Eric returned from that ban to guide United to their third Premier League trophy in four years was testament to his personality.
Bringing almost unparalleled flair and charisma to the EPL, Cantona is classed as one of the league’s genuine stars, and among the finest-ever imports to the top flight. Since departing football in the late nineties, he has embarked on a career on the screen, to some success. There remains a special penchant for the commercial, and my personal favourites have been The King’s endorsements of both Nike and Kronenbourg.
Certainly a Taste Suprême.
On his death last summer, from septicaemia, a flood of fondness paid homage to football’s ‘King of Cool’. There are so many facets to Socrates’s character that I would struggled to do them all justice here.
There is Socrates the athlete—the supreme soccer player, the bold, courageous, midfield technical, all composure and class, flair and subtlety; a lethargic pass-master, capable also of catching a keeper unawares with a long-range rasping shot.
There is Socrates the academic; the learned man, ‘The Doctor’, who had a medical degree that was often belied by his incessant smoking habit. One of three brothers all named after philosophers, it was perhaps inevitable that Socrates would grow to be a deep thinker.
There is also Socrates the politician. Indeed, few men have used football so flagrantly as a vehicle to promote or display their beliefs as the Brazilian did on occasion. He was a prolific social campaigner, and his quest for democracy stretched beyond the confines of his club-level changes at Corinthians to touch many corners of a Brazilian nation ravaged by 21-year military dictatorship.
Finally, there is Socrates the aesthete—the man who, after being eliminated by Italy in a World Cup thriller, declared, “Beauty comes first, victory is secondary”.
One of the finest personalities ever to have graced the game, and an enduring character that still commands intrigue even today.
Few players created as many controversial headlines in the nineties as Dutch maestro Edgar Davids. Yet beneath the channelled aggression, gnashing frustration and public dissatisfactions, Edgar Davids has a charm and a warmth that sets him apart from many of the game’s other ‘hardmen’.
A product of the Ajax youth system, Davids was a Champions League winner in 1995 as a team composed of the cream of the academy stunned Milan in Vienna. The Pitbull left Holland on a Bosman in 1996 to find his fortune in Milan, thus beginning a tour of some of Europe’s major club sides, including Juventus, Internazionale, Barcelona and Spurs.
It was either feast or famine for Davids in the orange of the national side however, a match-winning long-range effort against Yugoslavia in France ’98 sent the Dutch on their way to the semi-final, but it had been a long-time coming for the midfielder, who had missed out on the World Cup 94 and then Euro 96, having been sent home midway through the competition, following a bitter row with national boss Guus Hiddink.
Few managers are as synonymous with one club as Bill Shankly and Liverpool.
When he arrived at the club in the late fifties, they were struggling in the Second Division, with a stadium in disrepair, a ‘shambolic’ training ground and little or no promising prospects.
Upon his retirement, in 1974, they had won three championships, two FA Cups and a UEFA Cup.
More importantly, he handed over a legacy, a machine, a way of life, to assistant Bob Paisley. After installing the famous Boot Room methods and approach, beginning the dynasty that would last until the late nineties, Shankly build the club to the global brand and the international name it is today.
The philosophy of self-awareness and self-confidence, the continuity of management, style and approach, were all due to Shankly’s guiding hand.
Like others on this list, he also took a keen interest in politics—although preferring not to label it as such—and the people who populated the terraces. He was a staunch Socialist, and imparted these convictions on the club he loved.
Known for his personality, his wit and his obsessive nature, Shankly was revered for the close relationship he held with the fans, and the adoration they bestowed upon him—their honest, determined and beloved leader.
Those Bleacher readers not so familiar with French football may not be aware of the name of Louis Nicollin, but the Montpellier owner is one of the most eccentric men involved in the sport today.
The larger-than-life entrepreneur made his name (and his money) with a family waste-disposal business, and has been a long-term investor in the country’s sport. Despite suggesting that he enjoyed the quiet life of MHSC’s regular mid-table finishes, he was overjoyed when the side overcame the plethora of moneyed talent acquired by PSG to win last year’s Ligue 1 title.
To celebrate, Nicollin stayed true to a bet he had made and got himself a Mohican dyed in the club’s colours—blue and orange. I struggle to imagine Sheikh Mansour, Roman Abramovich or Delia Smith doing something similar.
Despite not being the most endearing of characters (Nicollin once called Benoit Pedretti “a little gay boy” on TV in 2009), many have seen Nicollin’s success as a stance for the rest of France against the perceived wealth and superiority of Paris.
He is France’s everyman, and few outside Paris begrudged he and Montpellier their maiden championship last summer.
Love him or hate him, there is no denying that Neil Warnock draws an opinion from fans. One of the most outspoken managers still in the game today (although after his recent departure from Leeds United, maybe not for much longer), there are times when the Sheffield-born boss comes across as a hark-back to the ‘good old days’ of football, before the Sky’s money and foreign owners came to sanitise the place!
In over 30 years as a manager, Warnock has become famous for his rants, post-match responses and pitch-side frustrations than for the successes of his teams. Indeed, despite earning promotion on seven different occasions, his personal haul of honours is pretty slim, particularly at the top level of the game.
Warnock, another who is always primed with a quotable one-liner, is one of English football’s most engaging characters; a chiselled old Yorkshireman who, you suspect, is more comfortable with the Clint Hills and the Shaun Derrys of this world than with the Graneros and the Faurlins his eventual departure from the dugout will be a loss to the English game.
A superstar perhaps not as familiar to Bleacher Report’s readership as some of the others on this list, ‘Slim’ Jim Baxter is an iconic footballing personality. A ball-playing, ball-winning midfield general, Baxter was a cornerstone for Rangers, Sunderland and Raith Rovers among others, during the sixties.
Indeed, despite being the architect of the Glaswegian side’s dominance in the sixties, and winning over 30 Scotland caps, it was often Baxter’s character and personality that enchanted newspaper readers.
A famous womaniser, Baxter’s off-field exploits and heavy drinking earned him notoriety, but also placed him firmly in the hearts of Scottish fans, many of whom were enthralled by both his aura and his stylish play.
His incredible technique and ability has drawn plaudits from all manner of footballing luminaries, including Alex Ferguson, who once decreed that Baxter was “arguably the best player to play in Scottish football.”
The fact that his death, and subsequent funeral at Glasgow Cathedral, drew such a public demonstration of mourning and reverence from Rangers fans, is testament to the enduring relationship Baxter and his larger-than-life personality had with the Scottish public.
When Paul Ince left Manchester United for Internazionale in 1995 there were concerns that his absence would leave the midfield lacking the drive, desire and bite that had become customary under the ‘Guv’nor’. Little did Red Devils fans need to worry. Roy Keane was waiting in the wings.
A previous favourite of Brian Clough down at Forest, the fiery Irishman stepped up to the plate at Old Trafford, and, during the second half of the nineties, cemented his place among the finest midfielders in Europe.
With a prodigal engine—allowing him to cover enormous amounts of turf—as well as unparalleled determination, Keane emerged as the linchpin of Manchester United. He also had the footballing ability to enjoy synergy with the likes of Paul Scholes, David Beckham and Ryan Giggs, and was a key component in their development.
The fire has often led Roy into trouble, however, and perhaps it will be to his eternal regret that his pre-World Cup 2002 dispute with Mick McCarthy in Saigon led to him missing out on an international swansong with the Republic of Ireland. It was particularly poignant when one of Roy’s finest ever performances, displaying the grit of a warrior and the inspiration of a captain, saw Eire overcome Holland in the play-offs.
Keane’s post-playing career has provided a platform for his eccentricities and his often bitter opinions. His frequent dead-pan grimaces and death stares whenever Adrian Chiles produces another pithy one-liner are one of the key selling points of ITV’s sports broadcasting these days, and allow us to continue experiencing one of football’s biggest personalities.
I don’t think many footballer’s personalities can be summed up by a few brief seconds of footage, but that is certainly the case for ‘El Loco’ himself, Rene Higuita. The eccentric Colombian stopper, who somewhat resembles the cowardly lion from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Wizard of Oz, decided that, when faced with a speculative shot from Jamie Redknapp, he wouldn’t simply stand and catch the ball, as you might expect from a keeper…instead, he would do this.
The keeper might have gone down in football folklore for attempting (and pulling off) such an audacious piece of goalkeeping flair, but in truth, there was more to his game than merely the acrobatics.
Higuita always saw himself as a bit of a daredevil among stoppers. Not content with merely blocking shots, he was constantly looking for ways to show off his feints and shimmies against opposing forwards.
Surely one of the most remarkable keepers in footballing history, it didn’t always go to plan, as this embarrassing clip demonstrates all too pertinently.
Since leaving the game, Higuita has tried his hand in various, varied pathways. A stint in a Survivor-esque reality TV show brought him back into the public mindset, and like others on this list, he has expressed a desire to get into politics.
Could we be about to see another change of direction for the ‘Madman’?
I think it’s clear that as far as character and personality are concerned, I consider vintage British managers to corner the market. Now I am almost certainly biased, due to my proclivity for the English game, but it is hard to argue that the likes of Busby, Warnock, Shankly and Clough haven’t contributed to make British football such a lively tapestry of intrigue and charisma.
Each of these men bring something different to the table, be it refined dignity, Glaswegian pertinacious-ness or Yorkshire grit.
Harry Redknapp is a different kettle of fish altogether, but he too belongs in this pantheon of the game’s biggest personalities.
A distinguished player with West Ham among others, Redknapp’s storied managerial career has taken in similar locations to his time as a player, with London and the south coast the key beneficiaries.
Perception is a strange one in football, and while ‘arry has often been perceived as some sort of Cockney wide-boy wheeler-dealer, leading to him not being taken as seriously as he might, this image has only served to mask a shrewd footballing mind.
Despite the controversies—not least of all the corruption allegations of the late noughties—Redknapp has managed to retain a connection with the British public, and he, like Warnock, remains as a throwback to the coaches of old, a multi-faceted manager perhaps as astute in his understanding of men as of football.
Thank God that Di Canio began to tire of sitting on the sidelines on Italy and ended up moving to Celtic to find some regular playing time. The thought of missing the myriad of narratives that have surrounded him since his arrival in Britain is too devastating to contemplate.
And as narratives go, few produce them more ferociously than Di Canio.
In Scotland, he was a cult hero—Celtic’s very own Brian Laudrup—whose twinkled toes, white boots, and intense desire to win getting him in the headlines for both the right and the wrong reasons.
It was a similar story south of the border as well, as English fans appreciated Di Canio much more than had been the case in Italy. Perhaps, as with other figures on this list, there is evidence of a British taste for the maverick coming through; see Cantona, Eric.
In the Premier League, with Sheffield Wednesday and most notably, West Ham United, the volatility and the indiscipline remained, but they were often overlooked due to the resounding quality of the Italian’s contributions.
For every shove on a referee, there was a glorious moment of sportsmanship; for every ill-advised tirade, there was a stunning glimpse of a supreme technique. It all combined to make Di Canio a cult hero almost everywhere he has played.
The early promise of his managerial career, at Swindon Town, has been encouraging, and even though the controversies, passion and temper as still as prevalent as ever, Sunderland fans may well be quietly optimistic about the injection of fire that has arrived at their club.
He may not have had a career as illustrious as some of the other stars on this list, but for sheer force of personality, and for his influence on the African continent, Song stands out for me.
Indeed, to measure Song’s character based on records and performances struggles to do the player justice. His stints in the Bundesliga and in Serie A were unimpressive, while he failed to settle and adapt at Liverpool and was soon shown the door.
Since his international debut in 1993, Song has come to be emblematic of the nation’s indomitable spirit, indeed, in the eyes of some, he is the ultimate embodiment of Cameroon’s values and identity.
Among his long and storied history with the national side come some records—some flattering, some unflattering—which begin to demonstrate the passion and determination which consumes him when he slips into the famous green of the national side.
Along with Zinedine Zidane, he is the only player to be sent off at a World Cup finals, and the first of these sendings off, in 1994, was when he was only 17—making him the youngest player to ever be dismissed at the international centrepiece.
The fact he was in the squad at such a young age is testament to his prodigal ability and force of will. Inspired by the veteran Roger Milla, it was clear that Song would one day take up the mantle as national captain.
The centreback, nicknamed ‘Big Chief’ has played at a record eight Afcon tournaments, captaining Cameroon for five of those. Despite the glory he has found with Cameroon, perhaps the most formative experience came in the 2003 Confederations Cup, when Song witnessed the death, from an on-field heart attack, of his close friend Marc-Vivien Foe.
Lesser men might have changed their approach following such a situation, but Song appeared no less committed to the cause and has gone on to become his nation’s most capped player.
‘Tonton’ Rigobert: A genuine giant of African football.
Zlatan is one of the most colourful characters, and one of the most complex personas playing the game today.
Considering just the on-field character gives us a number of key qualities to comment on; with a background in martial arts—in taekwondo, his agility, and indeed, overall physical prowess, is exceptional, and his technical ability is among the finest in world football. Despite having an ego to match the most gorged in soccer, he has recently begun to demonstrate a greater awareness of the importance of teamwork and work rate.
The fact he has scored for six different clubs in the Champions League is testament to the enduring appeal he has in the eyes of top European managers.
Away from the sport, Zlatan is a multi-faceted individual, he has expressed a commitment to Catholicism, and is fluent in five languages.
In an era where players are sometimes criticised for lacking personality and character, the maverick Ibrahimovic has more than enough of both.
Has any personality ever had as much of an impact on the sport as that of Diego Maradona? It is certainly a character that divides opinion; half the world considers El Diez to be the most naturally gifted player ever to kick a ball, while the rest considers him as a cheat, leaning on either drugs or under-handed tactics to secure an advantage over the opposition.
Diego’s personal flaws have certainly put people off the iconic player, but they have also acted as a beacon of contention, generating even more debate and comment. Perhaps it is Maradona’s character; his weaknesses, his volatility, as well as his humble upbringing, that make him such an engaging figure, and one to whom so many column inches has been dedicated.
Perhaps Pele was the finer player, but it is about Maradona—football’s crown prince—that people will argue deep into the night; some of those spitting abuse, others getting teary eyed at the thought of another mazy run or eye-popping spectacle.
His is not a personality that all will like or approve of, but few can argue about his significant contribution to the collection of characters that make up this game we love.
Few figures in the sport are treated with as much reverence as Sir Bobby Robson, and despite being a long-term admirer, I am, even today, still struck by the man’s influence across football.
Having retired after 17 years as a player, in the midfields of Fulham and West Bromwich Albion, Robson embarked on a managerial career that would contain some awesome highs and some taxing lows.
The World Cup in 1990 was the emotional whirlpool of his career, following unprecedented success at Ipswich. Despite sustained tabloid abuse, Robson rode the criticism, retaining confidence in his side, and eventually guiding England all of the way to the semifinals. Even though the Three Lions put on a brave display, they were eventually thwarted by long-time nemeses Germany.
Despite all of this, despite the anguish and the heartache, in all of the fuss, Robson never lost his dignity nor his poise. His gentle demeanour, forgiving personality and refined conduct won him many admirers.
The sight of Durham cathedral, packed out with the game’s luminaries, following a procession through the city’s cobbled streets, was evidence of the man’s enduring legacy and the way his warmth touched and resonated with so many, even beyond his native North East.