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Ranking the World Cup's 25 Biggest Villains of All Time

Tom SunderlandFeatured ColumnistJune 25, 2014

Ranking the World Cup's 25 Biggest Villains of All Time

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    Remy de la Mauviniere/Associated Press

    Over the course of 20 tournaments, the World Cup has seen a wide and sometimes befuddling array of storylines unfold; some good, some bad and certainly some downright ugly.

    For as many heroes as we have witnessed in the history of football's premier event, there have stood an equal measure of villains.

    These are the figures who garner more disdain than your average participant, whether it be due to crimes committed in a particular competition, their actions preceding a tournament or just because they're a generally disliked figure of the game who happened to get in the World Cup's bad books.

    Fouls, simulation, other acts of cheating and generally dislikeable personas are just some of the reasons that some make their way into our countdown of the World Cup's greatest-ever villains.

25. Mario Balotelli, Italy

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    Hassan Ammar/Associated Press

    Mario Balotelli showed as recently as this week why he's a figure majorly disliked by some, receiving his second yellow card of the 2014 tournament in Italy's final group stage fixture against Uruguay—for a flying knee, no less.

    The Milan striker will have left his first World Cup finals feeling slightly dejected, no doubt, exiting the competition at the first hurdle after failing to make it through Group D but managing to maintain his bad boy reputation in the short amount of time he had.

    Despite his past with Manchester City, England's fans will have turned on the forward after he netted the winner in their 2-1 defeat to the Azzurri, but his standards just weren't up to task after that.

    So severe have Balotelli's controversies been throughout his playing days that it will be a long, long time before he's looked upon as anything other than a villain, which is one area in which he certainly did live up to expectations this summer.

24. Marcelo, Brazil

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    Christophe Ena/Associated Press

    Marcelo brings something of a poisoned chalice to the football forum; a player of tremendous ability whose personality and mannerisms are sometimes enough to make you ignore any and all of his more amicable traits.

    The Real Madrid man's main issue lies in diving, and while we may be just three games into the 2014 World Cup, it's been ample enough time to see just why the left-back can be such a frustrating figure to survey.

    The Daily Mail's Ian Ladyman noted the Brazil international as "one of the game's worst" when it comes to the emerging art form that is play-acting.

    Like with so many others, Marcelo draws so much more annoyance purely because of the fact that he is so talented and shouldn't need to go down such channels in order to find the desired product.

23. Nigel De Jong, Netherlands

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    Far from the most technically gifted of players, Nigel de Jong is a master of his trade, and what would football be without its more varied array of craftsmen?

    For the Dutchman, this involves the breaking up of play through aggressive and often physically-based means, but these can easily spill into the illegal.

    Such was the case at the 2010 World Cup final between the Netherlands and Spain, where De Jong was extremely fortunate not to have seen red for a studs-up, chest-high challenge on Xabi Alonso.

    The referee saw fit to only hand out a yellow for the barbaric challenge, but the onlooking world will certainly feel the punishment didn't fit the crime as De Jong displayed one of the most prevalent examples in his career as to just what a liability he has the potential to be.

22. The Song Family, Cameroon

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    Themba Hadebe/Associated Press

    Separately, Rigobert and Alex Song may not have done enough to be counted among the World Cup's most memorable villains, but combined, the cousins are more than justifiable inclusions.

    The former was sent off in both the 1994 and 1998 World Cups while representing Cameroon, while the latter, Alex, recently followed suit with his dismissal against Croatia.

    It was also the malicious manner of Alex's sending off that pushes him further into the reckoning here, with a vicious, downward elbow swipe on Mario Mandzukic certainly not improving the Barcelona anchor's image in the slightest.

    Three red cards between two relatives is an efficient work rate from both Rigobert and Alex, but it's a family attribute that they may wish to cease.

21. Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal

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    Wayne Rooney was a force to be reckoned with at the 2006 World Cup, and despite being just 20 years of age at the time, he's never managed to perform to that same standard in two more tries at the tournament.

    It was then that the Manchester United youngster was also at his most adored, one would say, but Red Devils teammate Cristiano Ronaldo dared to tread where others might not in helping the Englishman get sent off.

    Ronaldo was loved by the masses himself, but a less amicable side of the Portuguese gleamed through in Gelsenkirchen.

    Portugal nipped away at Rooney for a great deal of the fixture until he finally bit back against Ricardo Carvalho in the 62nd minute, and the intervention of a gesticulating Ronaldo helped the referee make up his mind in showing Rooney the exit.

    Putting all club allegiances aside in pursuit of glory is one thing, but to twist an official's standpoint against a man with whom you've shared so many a glorious moment at club level with was just downright despicable.

20. Slaven Bilic, Croatia

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    Wherever one falls in their disposition toward Laurent Blanc, you can't help but feel sorry for the Frenchman after Slaven Bilic used a more devious side of his character to ensure his opponent wouldn't see the final whistle.

    This was down to the fact that Croatia's best ever performance at a World Cup was tinged by Bilic's simulation-based slant on proceedings.

    With France leading 2-1, the Croat defender, largely regarded as a gentile persona of the sport, reacted to a Blanc brush on the shoulder as though World War III had just hit the Stade de France.

    Referee Jose-Maria Garcia-Aranda fell for the ploy hook, line and sinker as Bilic rolled about with his face clutched tightly—presumably to hide his shame—but justice was ultimately served as Les Bleus rode out to win that semi-final, eventually triumphing on home soil.

19. Diego Simeone, Argentina

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    The modern fan may be more familiar with Diego Simeone—Atletico Madrid manager, but it wasn't so long ago that he was Diego Simeone—Argentinian enforcer.

    And at no time will the English masses have felt Simeone's presence more than when he played his role in the 1998 World Cup round of 16 tie against the Three Lions, playing a key part in their ousting from the tournament.

    Simeone was paying particularly close attention to golden boy David Beckham that game, and by "paying close attention," we of course mean hitting him with just about everything he had within the laws of the game.

    It all got too much for the England midfielder two minutes into the second period, however, and having suffered a little too much from the barrage of tackles that preceded, Beckham kicked out at his aggressor, giving precisely the response that Simeone will have wanted.

    The South American hard man proceeded to shed his usual image by falling to the floor in an unwarranted heap, watching on through gleeful eyes as Beckham was sent for an early shower and paving the way for an Argentina penalty shootout triumph.

18. Dobromir Zhechev, Bulgaria

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    Dobromir Zhechev is one of several 1966 figures who finds himself on this list due to crimes committed against one Brazilian in particular.

    During this period, Pele was nearing the height of his powers but still unfortunate enough to star in a time when men were men and regulation balls still resembled something close to leather.

    It was at Goodison Park that Bulgaria met the Selecao in their Group 3 opener, and defender Zhechev proceeded to perform the most legal form of assault on one of football's most esteemed icons.

    As a result of that battering, Pele was forced to miss the second group fixture through injury and the South Americans failed to qualify for the tournament's next round in what remains their worst-ever World Cup campaign.

17. Jurgen Klinsmann, West Germany

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    It wasn't the only instance of a Jurgen Klinsmann dive during his illustrious career, but it was the most lamentable.

    We're, of course, referring to the ex-German international's apparent seizure during the final of the 1990 World Cup, where Klinsmann appeared to have temporarily been inhabited by a spirit or demon of some sort, thrust upon him by the boot of Pedro Monzon.

    In fairness, Monzon had appeared to hack down the onrushing European—although one can debate the validity of the resulting red card—but it's the tactics used by West Germany's forward that beggared belief at the time.

    For a moment, Klinsmann resembled a breakdancer as he went into a mini-convulsion, and the stakes couldn't have been higher, with West Germany playing the last third of the match with a one-man advantage.

    It was during this time that Andreas Brehme scored the game's only goal, and if there were a reason for some to dislike the always powerful West Germany prior to that fixture, Klinsmann certainly didn't help their case for the future.

16. Antonio Rattin, Argentina

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    Were such a physical presence seen in the modern game, Antonio Rattin may not see a lot of involvement on the pitch, but in 1966, the Argentina captain's no-nonsense approach was approved, even encouraged by some.

    However, even he took things too far at Wembley, where a desire to lead La Albiceleste to quarter-final victory over hosts England bubbled into downright petulance.

    After just 35 minutes, containing plenty of physicality on Rattin's part, the midfielder was shown his marching orders by referee Rudolph Kreitlein in controversial circumstances still debated to this day.

    The Guardian explained that Kreitlein later described the red card being shown for "violence of the tongue," suggesting that Rattin had a few too many words in the official's ear, but that wasn't the South American's villainous tinge.

    Rattin was clearly incensed by the decision, but his refusal to leave the pitch wasn't indicative of a captain's response, throwing his proverbial toy so far out of the pram that the game was delayed for some time until he retrieved it.

    He was eventually coerced to come away from the fray, wiping his hands on a union jack pennant as he left, much to the displeasure of the English audience.

15. Thierry Henry, France

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    Thierry Henry is unique on our list in that the reason for his inclusion came outside of the World Cup finals, where his deceit during the 2010 World Cup playoff fixture against the Republic of Ireland put him in a far gloomier light than ever before in his career.

    Generally, the Arsenal legend is regarded as one of football's nice guys, and it's come across well in his participation as a component of the BBC's coverage in this year's competition.

    However, those on the Emerald Isle may not feel as amorous toward the Frenchman, whose handballs—yes, plural—in that 2009 playoff fixture led to the Republic's elimination from 2010 contention.

    With the stakes at their very highest and a place in South Africa on the line, Henry did what he had to in order to ensure Les Bleus made it into the tournament finals, but the camera doesn't lie, even if he did.

14. Claudio Gentile, Italy

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    One of those defenders cast in the same mould that brought you such brutes as Zhechev and Pepe, Claudio Gentile was anything but kind, the English translation of his surname.

    The Azzurri guardian gains prominence here due to the fact that his thuggish behaviour, albeit more accepted at the time, was sustained throughout the entirety of the 1982 World Cup, and not only that, but his Italian team would go on to take that summer's title.

    Gentile put the brakes on such attacking marvels as Diego Maradona, Zico and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge along the way, proving that you don't have to be cute in order to win football's highest accolade.

    It may have been effective, but there's no denying that what Gentile promoted was almost anti-football, but it was what the player built a career on, and there's only so much you can take away from that.

13. Nicolas Anelka, France

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    France are going well in their 2014 World Cup campaign, indicative of a squad morale that completely juxtaposes the fractious tension witnessed among their ranks in South Africa four years ago.

    Having made it to the final in 2006, it was an almighty fall from grace for Les Bleus to finish bottom of their group in 2010's edition of the tournament, with Nicolas Anelka at the core of his side's break-up.

    Halfway through France's 2-0 loss to Mexico, Anelka was reported by The Telegraph to have verbally abused manager Raymond Domenech. He was consequently sent home from the competition shortly after.

    Regardless of how strongly one feels against certain ideals or tactics being promoted within a side, dissent of this level just isn't acceptable for a player, who is required to buy into their coach's beliefs, even if just for the finals of football's biggest event.

12. Patrice Evra, France

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    If Anelka's decision to stand up against coach Domenech at the 2010 World Cup was wrong, then Patrice Evra's hand in leading a mutiny against the team's helmsman will have landed him in the naughty books for life.

    It's not the kind of reaction one would expect to see from the captain of their team, and ex-France stalwart Lilian Thuram was even quoted by BBC Sport as saying: "I demanded that the players be harshly punished and that Evra never returns to the France squad."

    Such was the extent of Evra's crimes, where he put personal preference above the needs of his team and effectively the French people as a whole.

    A squad player revolting against the establishment is one thing, but Evra's outrage against Domenech stands as a prime example of how not to wear the armband.

11. Pepe, Portugal

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    Matthias Schrader/Associated Press

    Despite his reputation as being one of football's more battle-hardened bastions currently in the sport, Pepe hasn't seen much of his violent exploits come in national team colours.

    The Real Madrid centre-back went about changing that trend this year, however, when he decided to (literally) butt heads with Thomas Mueller in Portugal's 2014 World Cup opener against the Germans.

    Mueller, of all people, is seen as something of a golden boy by the masses—an extremely talented player representing Bayern Munich, one of the most admirable clubs in the world, and he comes across as a likeable character to boot.

    Needless to say, Pepe picked the wrong target.

    After clashing heads with a floored Mueller, Pepe was given his marching orders, and it will have been hard for even Portuguese fans not to lambast their reckless defender, whose absence set the tone for a demoralising 4-0 defeat. 

10. Rivaldo, Brazil

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    For many, diving is the most villainous act of all, for at least a bad foul can be called accidental or unintentional, whereas simulation is always committed with a knowing mind.

    Rivaldo may have known what he was trying to do when clutching his face in a 2002 World Cup group meeting against Turkey, but the end product wasn't fooling any of those viewers with a decent enough angle of the incident.

    Late on in that fixture, Hakan Unsul, evidently frustrated to be trailing against the Selecao with only a few minutes left to play, kicked the ball in Rivaldo's direction, striking him on the leg.

    What followed next was pitiful as the Brazil legend fell to the floor in apparent agony, indicating that he had received a blow to the head or face in a move that will have only furthered the stereotype that South American players are favourable toward exaggerating any "fouls" that come their way.

    BBC News would later reveal that Rivaldo had been fined more than £5,000 by FIFA for his attempted plot, forever earning the ire of countless Turks in the process.

9. Roy Keane, Republic of Ireland

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    Roy Keane boasts a long, long list of career controversies, both during his playing days and after it, but only one opportunity arose for the Republic of Ireland general to cause a stir on the World Cup stage.

    Mick McCarthy's side had battled against the odds to take up their berth in South Korea and Japan, but Keane was to play no role in the finals, falling out with the management just a day before the tournament was scheduled to kick-off.

    Keane was left unimpressed by his side's training facilities in Saipan, launching a tirade of abuse in McCarthy's direction that resulted in him being sent home from the competition, per RTE.

    Bullish to the end, the captain of the national team showed no regret for his actions and opinion in Ireland was decisively split between who was more at fault for the debacle, discussing whether or not Keane's reaction to the poor conditions were warranted.

    Regardless, it's certainly a valid argument to suggest that Keane should have showed more composure as the leader of his group, ultimately sacrificing his 2002 World Cup dreams as a result.

8. Joao Morais, Portugal

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    As deplorable as Zhechev's actions were in Bulgaria's 1966 World Cup opener against the Brazilians, Joao Morais was guilty of the same offence but on a far grander scale.

    Pele was just coming back into the competition, having missed his team's second outing, a 3-1 defeat to Hungary, and the clash between him and Eusebio was billed as a tremendous head-to-head of a superstar pedigree.

    It never came to pass. Morais hacked, cut down and slid through any means he could in order to restrain the Selecao's main man, depriving a global audience of the matchup it was waiting to revel in.

    As touched upon earlier, this result also sealed Brazil's fate in not being able to progress past the group stage as they suffered a 3-1 defeat to the Portuguese, albeit not through the fairest of means by any understanding.

7. Zinedine Zidane, France

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    For the large part, Zinedine Zidane is a hero of the highest order to most, but there was one very particular moment in 2006 that painted him as the most evil of figures, at least for a time.

    Putting France's World Cup final on the line, Zidane was at the epicentre of an off-the-ball incident that had many scratching their heads—that was until the replay was seen around the world.

    In the 110th minute of the Berlin climax, Zidane left a unique mark on Italy defender Marco Materazzi, headbutting his opponent in the chest and inevitably being issued a red card for his actions.

    This would be Zidane's last contribution for Les Bleus before retiring, and it's hard to envision a much sourer end to his days representing France.

    The Real Madrid assistant coach does benefit in our rankings due to the fact that his service to football elsewhere has been so resoundingly positive, but there's no understating just what a bizarrely hideous moment in his career this was.

6. Marco Materazzi, Italy

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    Clive Mason/Getty Images

    One might look at the 2006 incident with Zidane and damn the French magician for his cruel actions, but there's very seldom smoke without fire in these kinds of situations.

    And more than a year after receiving the headbutt seen around the world, Materazzi revealed precisely what it was he said to Zidane in order to vex him so, per Italian magazine Sorrisi e Canzoni (h/t The Guardian).

    Enraging the France talisman to the point where even a World Cup trophy no longer held priority, Materazzi admitted to telling Zidane: "I prefer the w---e that is your sister."

    Although Materazzi may have been the victim in 2006, he was generally not as adored as his nemesis throughout his career, and so he gains prominence as a World Cup villain in our stakes by the slightest of margins.

5. West Germany Squad, 1982

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    As far as is known, match fixing hasn't been an abundant issue in the history of the World Cup, but one very evident occasion where the issue did come to the fore was in the 1982 competition.

    With Group 2 leaders West Germany facing second-placed Austria in the climax of their first round, Die Mannschaft knew that victory by a margin of one or two goals would result in their opponents advancing along with them. A win by any larger margin would mean that Algeria advanced.

    After Horst Hrubesch netted within 10 minutes, the powerhouses proceeded to pass the ball about without so much as a care in the world, raising concerns that they did as much with ulterior motives in mind.

    As Paul Doyle of The Guardian explained, this was partly due to the fact that Algeria had impressed far more than many were expecting of them in Spain that summer, and the Germans may have stood a better chance at silverware were the North Africans to see early elimination.

    West Germany got their wish, and what is widely looked upon as one of the cruelest team manipulations of a World Cup result made for horrible viewing, with the whole team at fault.

4. Harald Schumacher, West Germany

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    It takes a moment of truly devilish nature to earn the hatred—a justifiable superlative in this case—of the masses, and Harald Schumacher knew precisely what it felt like to have near unanimous disdain thrust upon him in 1982.

    It was during one of that year's semi-final fixtures that Dutch official Charles Corver will be remembered for one of the most egregious refereeing decisions in World Cup history.

    At Seville's Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, West Germany goalkeeper Harald Schumacher rushed out to meet France defender Patrick Battiston, put through on goal by Michel Platini.

    After poking the ball past the stopper, Battiston was taken out by Schumacher in almost murderous fashion, receiving broken teeth and damage to his spine as a result of the opponent's onslaught.

    The ball couldn't have been further from Schumacher's priorities, and the only thing worse than the hit itself was the relaxed manner with which he strutted away from the collision without so much as an apology in sight.

    Corver was somewhat to blame here, too, failing to award so much as a free-kick for the horrific offence, the only justice being that Schumacher would see West Germany lose 3-1 to Italy in the Madrid final.

3. Frank Rijkaard, Netherlands

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    Spitting is seen as a deplorable aspect of sport by many, and many a player will have grown up with mothers and grandmothers alike questioning: "Why do you have to spit?"

    But Holland's Frank Rijkaard took the offence to new heights in 1990, where his personal vendetta against West Germany's Rudi Voller garnered a global gaze and not in a good way.

    A rigid foul on the German forward set the tone for what would become a heated rivalry throughout the round of 16 matchup, but Rijkaard stooped too low when choosing to spit not once, but twice in Voller's permed locks.

    Voller did his best to make referee Juan Carlos Loustau aware of the atrocity that had been carried out, but he was having none of it, and Rijkaard ambled away with no remorse in sight.

    The pair would eventually both be sent off just 22 minutes into the game, showing just how efficient Rijkaard was in causing a tremendous stir with so little time on the clock.

2. Diego Maradona, Argentina

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    For the majority of the football fraternity, Diego Maradona is a contentious personality, but England fans have a history with the former Argentina legend thanks to one of the most infamous acts of deception ever to grace a football pitch.

    "The Hand of God" will be looked upon by some as the archetypal act of football treachery, and while others may have preceded it, Maradona's unpunished attack against the Three Lions in 1986 has since been viewed just about as much as any other World Cup moment.

    Maradona, who was eight inches shorter than England No. 1 Peter Shilton, opened the quarter-final's scoring by miraculously managing to outleap the onrushing goalkeeper, with referee Ali Bin Nasser under the impression the striker had used his head.

    The Argentinian of course knew all along that it was his hand which had proved decisive in prodding the ball in, and La Albiceleste would ultimately go on to triumph 2-1.

    The crime was especially villainous for fans to witness just because Maradona, termed by some as the best player in history, was capable of so much more, as was evidenced in his second goal of that fixture, where he dribbled past half the England line-up before slotting home.

1. Luis Suarez, Uruguay

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    He just doesn't know when to stop.

    Luis Suarez has played a role in two World Cups in his career and each have seen the Liverpool man land himself at the heart of furious controversy.

    Just a day prior to this article's publishing, the Uruguayan international appeared to bite Italy's Giorgio Chiellini in what is now the third biting incident of his playing days. 

    The Independent's Jack de Menezes wrote:

    Suarez clashed with the Italian as the two competed for a free-kick, when Suarez clearly threw his head in the direction of Chiellini. The centre-back fell to the floor in agony, immediately followed by the Liverpool striker who was attempting to play the victim of the clash.

    However, an incensed Chiellini got up and confronted the forward, before pulling down his shirt in an attempt to show the referee what he believed to be teeth marks on his shoulder.

    This, of course, follows up the controversy of 2010, where the striker knowingly prevented Ghana from scoring in their quarter-final meeting with the use of his hand, with Asamoah Gyan proceeding to miss the resulting penalty.

    The last remaining African nation would fall out of South Africa's tournament following that defeat and more than a continent's worth of people assuredly cast their rueful gazes in Suarez's direction.

    A brilliant player who has enjoyed a remarkable 2013-14 season, granted, but it seems there's no removing the bad bone in this hitman's body.

    The scariest aspect is that at 27 years of age, Suarez may yet have another two World Cups left in him.

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