This article celebrates 10 of the Dirtiest Players in World Football. While much of the work on this site explores the artists and the magicians of the global game, this piece looks at 10 men famed for their appreciation of the dark arts, and their exploitation of the rules of the sport.
I have limited my article to players still currently playing, and have chosen those who have particularly bad disciplinary records, especially negative reputations or overly cynical or reckless approaches to the "beautiful game."
They are certainly not a collection of characters that you’d like to meet in a dark alley.
Performing Surgery Against Spain
Part proficient technician, part raging animal, it’s perhaps best to present Gary Medel through some of the monikers that have surrounded him.
If someone has the nickname "The Pitbull," you know you are in for a battle. Edgar Davids, one of my favourite players of all time, was the proud bearer of this title, and Medel is an exemplary successor to it.
He, like Davids, will give you 100 percent intensity and will not rest until his opposition is beaten, or tormented, into submission. The gnarling and gnashing is also indicated by a title that associated him as a younger player: The Chilean Gattuso. Terrifying.
Recently, The Guardian’s Spanish Correspondent Sid Lowe described the “fundamental player/liability balance” that appears to be eternal baggage for the player. Right up until the red card, he’s mighty handy, but it’s often a case of "when," not "if."
He may be a cult hero in La Liga, but his recent red card in Sevilla’s local derby with Real Betis was his seventh in only 89 games. Being dismissed approximately every 12 games is clearly no way to effectively contribute to the success of your team, and something may well need to change for The Chilean Madman.
Unlike the other players on this list, Paul Scholes is one of the game’s genuine magicians; an artist to rival the best, and a midfield playmaker who will rightly be heralded among the finest of his generation.
The only problem is that, apparently, no one ever taught him to tackle (NSFW).
All those hours on the training pitch dedicated to passing the ball with pinhole precision clearly paid off, but perhaps the reddest of Red Devils could have spent a little more time working on his tackling.
The former England international’s inability to regain possession fairly has often drawn some feint laughter and amusement from onlookers. The reality is that there have been occasions when Scholes’s rashness has let his team down, and other times when the tackling has looked little short of malicious.
Currently injured and out of Sunderland’s relegation dogfight, Cattermole is just the kind of feisty individual who could make a major difference in the heart of a midfield struggling to get a grip on their impending fate.
Then again, he’s probably just as likely to go around collecting yellow cards like a philatelist would stamps.
Cattermole’s brief Premier League career—encompassing stints at Middlesbrough, Wigan and Sunderland—has seen him emerge as one of the league’s most foul-prone players.
Steve Bruce, who appointed him captain back in 2010, was quick to insist that Cattermole’s disciplinary record had improved. Martin O’Neill, who replaced Bruce, praised Cattermole's desire, endeavour and leadership qualities.
Unfortunately, Cattermole has poor form off the pitch as well, including his role in a pub brawl in Stockton and being arrested—along with Nicklas Bendtner—for walking on cars in Newcastle City Centre.
If the Black Cats do beat the drop this season, the midfielder will surely need to improve on his record of five red cards and 34 yellows in four Premier League seasons in the North East. I suspect that if he does this, he could be an integral part of Paolo Di Canio’s plans going forward.
Gattuso: Knows the Feeling
Gattuso may be coming towards the end of his career, but the Italian midfielder still has a presence fearsome enough to make a few of the other players on this list shudder in fear, and perhaps wish they’d worn their brown trousers.
Nicknamed "The Rhino" for his bullish, often brutish, brand of defensive play, he is certainly a committed and passionate individual who, in the midst of the last decade, found his place at the pinnacle of world football.
Currently player/manager of Swiss side Sion, World Cup winner Gattuso has earned his hardman reputation by picking fights with some of the toughest in the business.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic received a firm slap back in 2003 during a Champions League clash, while Cristian Poulsen was the recipient of some fierce retributive justice two years later.
A particularly brutal sparring match occurred in 2011, when Gattuso went toe-to-toe (or rather head-to-head) with then-Tottenham coach and famous Scottish tough nut Joe Jordan.
Not a battle for the feint-hearted!
Try as he might to reinvent himself as football’s Philosopher King, Joey Barton just can’t seem to shake the reputation he has acquired over a decade or so of misdemeanours. Whilst his carefully cultivated media personae—honed on Twitter and in the TV studios of Western Europe—occasionally lapses into the petty, the offensive and the ignorant, Joey’s performances on the pitch have earned him a place on this list.
An extremely ugly challenge on Sunderland midfielder Dickson Etuhu, whilst representing Newcastle in the Tyne-Wear derby, was a particular low point; while Liverpool fans will find it hard to forget Joey’s not-too-pretty demolition of Xabi Alonso.
In many ways, it’s a shame that this competent midfield talent, a decent all-rounder, has been so over-looked due to his many infractions…but if you do THIS to Morten Gamst Pedersen, then what do you expect?
Nigel de Jong may well have gone from the Premier League, but he and his filthy contributions have certainly not been forgotten.
It is perhaps no coincidence that de Jong set back the careers of two budding EPL midfielders with leg-breaking tackles. Hatem Ben Arfa has drifted in and out of fitness since his encounter with de Jong, while Stuart Holden was also on the receiving end of some heavy-handed defensive play.
While not all of the players on this list would ever realistically have the possibility of making a World Cup final, I imagine only a few would have demonstrated their penchant for the dark arts so flagrantly on the grandest stage of all.
Dutch football regressed decades in the eyes of many watching the 2010 final, and de Jong’s martial art kick on Xabi Alonso was the worst moment of a collection of nasty challenges.
Despite his reputation, the Dutchman was clearly a handy midfield operator. Would Manchester City have relinquished their EPL throne so submissively this season had de Jong still been around? When I consider Yaya Toure’s Africa Cup of Nations absence, and the pale contributions of Javi Garcia and Jack Rodwell, I am inclined to say that the Citizens could have benefited from the imposing presence of their resident rottweiler.
I’m all for a bit of muscular defending, but Pepe surely takes things a bit too far.
His physical approach has often infuriated opposing fans and players. His aggression and temper have got him into trouble, not least when taking his frustrations out on Getafe’s poor central midfielder Javier Casquero; but major problems have arisen when Pepe’s approach has become nasty and cynical.
His torrid stamping on Leo Messi’s hand during Real Madrid’s defeat to Barcelona in January 2012 was beamed to an international audience. While he could usually count on the support of boss Jose Mourinho, on this occasion, the Portuguese international was forced to issue a full apology.
Such intentional violence might have been tolerated in the past, but as Pepe’s talents have begun to wane, he has watched on as the thoroughly elegant and thoroughly polished 19-year-old Raphael Varane has taken his place in Madrid’s defence.
Brown tackles...just in case someone is there...
Not many men have managed to offend so many due to a few mistimed tackles. Well, Mr. Michael Brown would doubtless protest and excuse his actions away by suggesting he was occasionally a little late, a little slow, or a little high; but ask the likes of Messrs Giggs, Davis and Cole, and they’d all have a different take.
Traipsing around various clubs—including Tottenham, Manchester City, Sheffield United and Fulham—Brown has earned a reputation as a tough tackler, a footballing hardman and a reckless idiot, depending on who you ask.
He was a key protagonist in one of the most infamous games in English history, The Battle of Bramall Lane, when a contest between The Blades and West Bromwich Albion was abandoned after 82 minutes when Sheffield was left with only six players on the pitch.
It will come as no surprise that his career has dovetailed so frequently with gritty Yorkshire manager Neil Warnock. It is said that dogs are like their owners, but these two demonstrate that perhaps we could extend the notion elsewhere.
Mark Van Bommel might look like Michael Brown’s identical twin, but he also shares the Leeds man’s appreciation of the dark arts of football.
Nigel de Jong may have stolen the headlines during Holland’s run to the World Cup final, but the battler alongside him did just as much of the dirty work.
A physical defensive midfielder, Van Bommel was great at recovering the ball and breaking a few opponents in the process. While he is often branded as a niggling trouble-maker, he is highly effective in his position and has been the anchor man in several successful teams over the last decade.
With Van Bommel back in Holland with PSV, his former club, Milan, didn’t need to look far to find the ideal replacement, signing de Jong from Manchester City to take over the bone-breaking duties in the middle of the park.
While the other players on this list may be known for their tough tackling or abrasive aggression, Luis Suarez can be considered among world football’s dirtiest characters.
There are few ways to make yourself more universally unpopular than by underhandedly (pun intended) denying Ghana the honour of being the first African nation to make a World Cup semifinal. The fact that Suarez’s goalmouth handball happened in the first World Cup on African soil only made the situation all the worse.
The “Smiling Assassin” didn’t seem to care, however, and celebrated fervently when Asamoah Gyan missed the resulting penalty.
Despite being a wonderfully talented player, Suarez knows how to court controversy like none other. He became public enemy No. 1 during his racism episode with Patrice Evra. His diving exploits are well-publicised, as is his penchant for biting opponents—as both Otman Bakkal and Branislav Ivanovic can testify—which has all but undermined his reputation.
His bark may well be worse than his bite, but unfortunately, that bite is pretty ferocious too!