The 20 Most Entertaining Players In World Football History
The "Beautiful Game" can be larger than life much of the time, and often it's the big personalities that make it so. The spectacle of football is made all the more exciting, entertaining and sometimes hilarious by the antics of the game's most colorful players on and off the pitch. But sometimes the game has extra thrills in and of itself: the fancy footwork, the spectacular goals, the NASCAR-esque collisions.
Here's our tribute to the 20 most entertaining players in world football history, who won fans and made headlines for performances on and off the pitch. If you have your own picks you'd like to add, please tell us in the comments.
Throughout his career, the Ballon d'Or winner was known to make some serious magic on the pitch. The "Divine Ponytail," as he was known by fans, even inspired an Internet game where the player, as Baggio, must execute some "magical kicks."
His penalty taking was world-class, and he was a visionary, winning fans all over the country, if not the world.
The Chelsea striker has emerged as a fan favorite and a colorful, controversial superstar in world football. Strong, versatile and capable of pulling off those spectacular goals, Didier Drogba has always been fun to watch.
A fiery, passionate player, Drogba's antics, including the time he went on a tirade calling referee Tom Ovrebo a 'f***ing disgrace' to the press's waiting cameras (much to the delight of Chelsea supporters, who no doubt agreed), are often as much the topic of conversation and source of intrigue as his skills on the pitch. His outburst at the camera went viral and was made into countless YouTube remixes, like the one to your left. (Warning: explicit language.)
No list ranking footballers by entertainment value would be complete without Mad Jens.
The rather eccentric German defender, who won over Gunners fans with a fearless presence on the pitch and a string of clean sheets, was also well known for his unpredictable, headline-worthy antics. He used the pitch as a personal restroom during a match with Stuttgart, sued a teammate for 20 million Euros for calling him "a muppet," picked fights with ballboys and tore off other players' clothes.
One of the best modern keepers, Lehmann certainly kept audiences on the edge of their seats, waiting to see what he'd do next.
The Real Madrid centre-back is one of the fiercest defenders in La Liga. Pepe is fearless, sometimes brutal and unafraid to cause those cringe-worthy-but-you-can't-look-away collisions.
Known as "The Animal," "The Monster" and "The Butcher," among others, Pepe makes fans stop, stare and sometimes squirm with his outbursts, but he can still play.
Marco Van Basten
The Dutch superstar was always a consistent striker and a lethal force at Ajax and AC Milan, bringing the latter a Champions League title in 1990 and becoming the Capocannoniere, or top goal-scorer, for Serie A that season.
Although a nagging ankle injury cut van Basten's career short, his stints in the Eredivisie and Serie A have already gone down in European footballing history, winning fans with his grace and speed and his impressive skills, like the ones exhibited in his now-iconic "bicycle kick" goal.
The Colombian keeper defied expectations and gravity with his "scorpion-kick" style of defending, and indeed the innovative play of "El Loco" made him one of the most exciting keepers to ever play the game.
His strong, versatile and ultimately thrilling defending made him an influential and vital figure in Colombian football at a time when the country needed heroes.
Although Colombia's World Cup campaigns in the '90s were marred by tough defeats and far more tragic consequences, Higuita helped raise the national team's profile and make Los Cafeteros a driving force in South American football throughout the early part of the decade.
The Dutch master, who had successful stints at Ajax and Arsenal, was a magnificent scorer on his own but perhaps more importantly, he made those around him better (like with this brilliant joint effort goal with Freddie Ljungberg in 2001).
Forever a legend at Highbury, Bergkamp won the hearts of Gunners fans worldwide by being a risk-taker: he'd try near-impossible passes, intricate fieldwork, nail-biting shots and netted some serious jaw-droppers in more than 230 career goals. To echo Mr. Kanye West: "Damn, they don't make 'em like this anymore."
He's one of football's most recognizable figures. The epitome of the modern megastar with great career numbers at two of the world's biggest clubs, Cristiano Ronaldo loves the spectacle and feeds into it with flair-heavy performances and killer goals.
But it wouldn't be a post about Ronaldo's entertainment value without mentioning his soundbites. Whether you believe he's trolling the press, trying to be funny or just legitimately has that ginormous of an ego, Ronaldo's remarks about how fans are jealous because he's "good-looking, rich and a great footballer" or how an elbow to the face doesn't matter because "in four or five days, I will be beautiful once again" fascinate and enrage fans alike.
The Chelsea striker may be the club's greatest player of all time, and he sure didn't get there by playing small. Gianfranco Zola became a fan favorite at Stamford Bridge with skill, finesse and a slew of almost cinematic goals. From aerials to backheels, Zola was unafraid to try new scoring tactics, and the results usually landed in his favor and into footballing history.
Yea, for as footballing doctrine sayeth, for a Maradona, there must also be a Pelé.
Often considered the best player of all time, the legendary forward was a genius on the pitch, enthralling fans the world over, and his quality performances were even the catalyst for an attempt (although it ultimately failed at the time) to make football big in the States, with American football bosses hoping to cash in on how exciting of a player Pelé was.
He may not be the entertainer Maradona or Eric Cantona were, but he didn't need to be in order to keep audiences enthralled: his performances often spoke for themselves.
Maradona good, Pelé better, George Best.
The Northern Irish legend, who may be the only footballer to have an airport named after him (Belfast George Best International Airport), possessed finesse on the pitch and personality in vast and equal amounts. His speed, ball control and goal-scoring made him a star at Manchester United, where he led the Red Devils to a Champions League title in 1968. His world-class performances earned him mythical status and a legion of fans, including Noel Gallagher from Oasis, who called Best "the greatest footballer of all time."
There was also the off-the-pitch George Best, George Best the celebrity, the player who left behind a series of self-effacing, often hilarious and thoroughly quotable quotes.
A few favorites:
"They say I slept with seven Miss Worlds. I didn't. It was only four. I didn't turn up for the other three.
"When birds start to take their clothes off, they say: 'I'm not doing this because you're George Best.'"
"People always say I shouldn't be burning the candle at both ends. Maybe they haven't got a big enough candle."
"I was born with a great gift, and sometimes with that comes a destructive streak. Just as I wanted to outdo everyone when I played, I had to outdo everyone when we were out on the town."
"Well, I suppose that's the knighthood f***ed."
It's all about the samba, baby. Ronaldinho emerged as Brazil's first footballing superstar of the new millennium with his fancy footwork on the pitch and on the sidelines, not just with his sambas and tricks but with a series of spectacular goals that made crowds go wild.
At the peak of his career, his skills and stunts won him fans the world over. He even enthralled his enemies—at an El Clásico performance at Santiago Bernabéu while he was at Barcelona, his performance and a pair of great goals led Real Madrid supporters to give him a standing ovation.
The Brazilian winger and former World Cup hero, revered for his dribbling skills and genius performances, may never fully get the international recognition he deserves, nor did he live up to his full potential, consumed by the excesses of stardom and eventually succumbing to alcoholism before he hit age 50. But instead of dwelling on how he died, let's focus on how he played.
What made Garrincha so captivating from the start was that his success defied the odds. "The Wren" got his nickname from his birdlike gait, the result of one leg being six centimeters shorter than the other. He overcame the circumstances of his youth to thrill crowds with his daring, unpredictable style of play.
According to a recent Garrincha biography, a performance of his even inspired the first shouts of "Olé!" at a football match. Talk about making history.
Manchester City's chant for their striker says it all: "An allergy to grass / but when he plays he's f***ing class / He drives around Moss Side with a wallet full of cash / Oooooh Balotelli!"
When Balotelli is on, he is a world-class striker: in City's last matchup against Blackburn Rovers, he replaced an injured Sergio Agüero and scored a class goal in the 4-0 victory. But all too often, fans find Balotelli intriguing not just for his talent, but for his antics.
Whether he struggles to put on a bib or claims "because I am rich" is a valid reason to have £5,000 in your back pocket when you crash your luxury ride or he's making some seriously outrageous statements, one thing's for sure: Balotelli always gets people talking. And hopefully, with a return to the first team at City expected, it'll be for the right reasons.
After his performance in the 1998 World Cup final, he was greeted by fans in Paris with the chant of "Zizou for President! Zizou for President!" Intriguing, fiery and an impeccable showman, Zidane has been called a magician, a scientist, an alchemist and a legend.
Although his temper sometimes got the best of him (and may have been at times just as intoxicating as his talent, like with that whole head-butt thing), his intricate, sometimes acrobatic footwork is a delight to watch, even if it's mostly in YouTube tribute videos now.
Zidane proved to be equally captivating on the silver screen, when he became the subject of a festival-favorite documentary called Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait in 2006.
In a list dominated by big personalities and the antics that come with them, it's important to recognize those players who are irresistible to watch because of their virtuosity on the pitch as well. Enter Leo Messi.
Since his breakthrough into the first team squad at Barcelona in 2006, Messi has captivated fans all over the world with his innovation, speed and dazzling goals. There may be no better example of his captivating quality as a player than this stunner against Getafe, complete with the exuberant narration of legendary Catalan commentator Joaquim Maria Puyal.
Robbie Fowler, Steve McManaman and the Rest of the
In their prime, Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman were the footballing equivalent of that one college roommate you had who made gravity bongs out of household objects with MacGyver-esque flair, threw absolutely legendary parties with kegs of good beer and occasionally peed in the Brita filter.
The ringleaders of a clutch of Liverpool players known as the "Spice Boys" for their fashion-savvy, high-rolling playboy ways, Fowler and Macca were a lethal striking force on the pitch and led the Reds to a 1995 League Cup win.
But it was their prankster reputations, although some exploits were less savory than others, which give them such a high ranking here. There were the lavish parties, Fowler's cocaine-sniffing goal celebration and the time, perhaps their epic peak of pranksterdom, when Fowler and McManaman convinced the rest of the "Spice Boys" to purchase two racehorses, naming one "Some Horse" and the other "Another Horse" in an effort to confuse announcers.
Destructive as they were sometimes, you can't argue that that last pursuit is absolutely legendary.
Manchester United has had many big personalities grace its hallowed pitch, but there are few that can top legend Eric Cantona, who fans voted Player of the Century following his retirement.
Passionate, flamboyant and a showman to his core, Cantona won fans over at Old Trafford with his spirited performances on the field and gained some notoriety for some bad, though thoroughly entertaining behavior, most notably his "Kung-Fu Kick" at Crystal Palace fan Matthew Simmons and amazing press conference speech about seagulls and sardines that followed. A temperamental genius, Cantona will always be one of the most intriguing figures to ever pass through Old Trafford's gates.
Following his time as a footballer, Cantona took his larger-than-life character to the silver screen with a budding film career, starring in the 1998 period drama Elizabeth and as himself in the 2009 dramedy Looking For Eric.
You need to be a pretty charismatic figure to be the deity of a fake religion. But Diego Maradona, long considered one of the greatest to ever play the game of football, has never shied away from the celestial: his infamous alleged handball in the 1986 World Cup semifinals has gone down in history as the "Hand of God" goal (it was later voted the World Cup Goal of the Century in a 2002 FIFA poll).
On and off the pitch, few players have commanded attention, for better or for worse, quite like Diego Maradona. As a player, his goals (when they weren't handballed) were impeccable, if not occasionally immortal, and "El Pibe de Oro" was an innovator on the pitch who changed the game for good.
The outspoken demigod of football was never one to back down from controversy either—he goes on madcap rants, fires barbs at spiritual rival Pelé and even swore to get naked if Argentina won the 2010 World Cup.
For his continuous headline-making on and off the pitch, San Diego Maradona takes the top spot.