The holidays are a time for giving and love and good vibes, which is why today, we will be saluting the game's dirtiest fighters.
Here we have a salute to the play-actingest, crotch-kickingest, red-card-receivingest scuzzballs to ever play the beautiful game. As this is a 50-item piece, we've got your standard-issue dirty tacklers, as well as your floppers, divers, play actors, bad-attitude-possessing players and just plain mean ladies and gentlemen.
If there's anyone we forgot or you have any thoughts on the selection, as always, have at it in the comments.
You’ve probably never heard of Paul Cooper (unless you read this, or the original BBC story from whence it came), which is why he was the perfect person to start us off.
He may be just a kid at 19, so it’ll be a while before he hits the all-time, but the Santos striking sensation already has an insane track record. He’s only been in professional football for three seasons and has already racked up 43 yellow cards and three reds, although the fact that he’s scored about twice as many goals means the managers gagging to woo him from Santos will probably forgive him.
Samuel is a player that often falls in the debate between merely tough tackling or flat-out dirty, and indeed, he often blurs that line but usually falls on the former. He’s a great defender when he’s on, but his highly physical play often leaves his opponents properly battered.
The Brazilian national team came into the 2011 Women’s World Cup looking like the team to beat, but thanks to Erika, they became known as the team to cheat.
Di María is arguably one of the best wingers in the world right now, a visionary player with loads of talent. But the Argentine international has a bit of a reputation for diving and theatrics, with some folks on the Internet not-so-affectionately referring to him as “Angel Dive María.”
The Manchester United legend’s legacy certainly is not that of a dirty tackler, but that of a creative, complete midfielder who is sorely missed at Old Trafford.
Salgado would have been more at home in an earlier era of football, one with more physicality to it. Now, what would have been labeled as tough-tackling—and even respectable 30 years ago—is considered nasty and cynical.
As such, Blackburn Rovers has-been Salgado looks like he will go the way of the 8-track and the roller rink.
A brilliant player in his prime, Michael Ballack’s had a few ugly moments. He was never the worst of the lot, but he’s gotten away with his fair share of dodgy moves when the refs weren’t looking. In a 2009 match between Chelsea and Manchester United, Ballack even admitted he got away with what should have been a foul, a free kick at least, when he delivered a pretty rough body-check to Patrice Evra.
Both England captains have had their share of unsavory moments on the pitch. Steven Gerrard developed a reputation as a rather bad tackler and a diver during England’s relatively disappointing 2010 World Cup run.
The English star is a talented midfielder, no doubt, and the antics that contributed most heavily to his thug reputation happened off the pitch as opposed to in-game. But Barton has still had his fair share of dodgy challenges that have seen disciplinary action and contributed to his public image.
Liverpool supporters perhaps best remember Poulsen as just being a straight-up transfer flop, but the Danish international has found himself in straight-up dirty territory before. In a 2008 Euro qualifying match, Poulsen straight-up falcon-punched Sweden’s Markus Rosenberg after Rosenberg struck him.
The general consensus of the account is that Rosenberg started the altercation, but it was Poulsen who did more damage.
Not just a dirty defender, but a poor-quality one at that. The left-back’s career started off alright, but he eventually saw his spot in the Manchester United first team go instead to Patrice Evra. His form was inconsistent, but it was his flopping that was purely expert. Sometimes his dives came with goals at the end, but usually they ended in misery and play-acting.
Drogba is one of the finest strikers of his generation and one of modern football’s greatest humanitarians and goodwill ambassadors, this is all to be sure. But over the course of his career, Drogs has gotten in quite a few memorable dives and is known to complain when things don’t go his way.
As amusing as his name is, Nobby Stiles (real name “Norbert”) is not the kind of person you’d want to encounter in a dark alley. The Manchester United defensive midfielder is one of the best to ever play his position, with the crowning moment of his career coming from a stellar, all-game performance in the final of the 1966 World Cup, which saw England’s first and only title.
Bolton Wanderers captain Kevin Davies is a tricky one to include—his level of dirtiness is certainly up for debate, with plenty of fans viewing it less as dirty and more as highly physical central-forward play. That being said, Davies has had a whole lot of cautionings—99, to be exact, second only to Lee Bowyer in career totals and the most of any active Premiership player, and there’s no way all of those could be considered defensible.
Ramos is one of the most lauded defenders in the world, a strong, versatile core in the Real Madrid back four and a highly decorated player with a World Cup title to his name.
The Aston Villa man is in a three-way tie for the most red cards in Premier League history with Patrick Vieira and Duncan Ferguson and the most for an active player in the Premiership. But it’s not just Dunne’s rough challenges that get him on this list. Tt’s the fact that he makes them at the worst possible times.
Masche is a world-class defensive midfielder to be sure, and he’s got the Olympic gold medals and a Champions League cup to back up his credentials. His performances have been so vital to the Argentine national team that Diego Maradona (also on this list) once remarked that his national team was “Mascherano and 10 more.”
However, while skillful he is, of a clean reputation he is not. He has a pretty strong reputation in La Liga as a diver. In both league and international appearances, he’s seen himself get sent off for some rather unsavory challenges. He was red carded twice during the 2011 Copa América, and while at Liverpool in 2009, he received a four-match ban and a sending-off for a bad challenge on Tal Ben Haim.
There’s another kind of dirty play which often goes unmentioned—the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Couto, who was part of the “Golden Generation” of Portuguese football and won a number of trophies with Porto, Barcelona and Lazio, found himself in hot water when he was banned after failing a doping test in 2001.
Like Fernando Couto, Jorge Costa was considered part of the “Golden Generation” of Portuguese football and racked up title after title in his 15 seasons on-and-off at Porto. While Costa was at Marítimo on loan, he came under fire for scoring an own goal, and Marítimo supporters accused him of deliberately working on behalf of Porto. Back at Porto, his aggressive style made him a controversial figure throughout his career.
Call him highly defensive. Call him dirty. Call him an eccentric bloke who dances around in his skivvies while singing about how his ex-manager is a “man of sh**” to the tune of “Guantanamera”—Gennaro Gattuso is certainly one to make an impression.
Most recently, Alves came under fire in a match between Brazil and Mexico, in which he side-rolled Chicharito and sent the little striker flying, getting himself sent off. Then, there was that time where he accidentally lodged his foot into one of his teammate’s heads.
Diouf was never really a dirty player in the traditional sense of diving and injury-creating dodgy tackles. But his behavior on the pitch—most notably several incidents where he spat at opposing fans, including an 11-year-old child, as well as Portsmouth's Arjan de Zeeuw in a 2004 incident.
Usually, it’s awesome when fans start paying attention to women’s sports, but the University of New Mexico’s women’s soccer defender Elizabeth Lambert drew attention to the sport in the worst possible way. In a 2009 match against Brigham Young University, Lambert was sent off for pulling the hair of an opponent, as well as kicking and punching her.
The incident went viral and made Lambert an instant sporting villain, effectively ending her career and contributing to more bad PR for women’s sports.
Ironically, his most notorious tackle actually shows how not-such-a-bad-dude Shawcross is. In another bout with Arsenal, this one in 2010, he landed a challenge that broke the tibia and fibula of Aaron Ramsey. Shawcross received a three-match suspension for it, a surprisingly short sentence, Arsenal fans would say.
Thierry Henry had something of a reputation for diving, but one incident above all serves as grounds to put him on this list. Nearly three decades after Maradona soured England’s 1986 World Cup campaign, a new “Hand of God” goal was born. In the 2010 World Cup playoffs between the Republic of Ireland and France, Henry made a handball that set up the winning goal for William Gallas. France won the match 2-1 and advanced to the World Cup, and outrage ensued.
In Henry’s defense, he handled his “Hand of God” incident quite a bit better than how Maradona handled his. He owned up to his mistake, offered a replay and even considered quitting international football. Following the train wreck that was France’s 2010 World Cup campaign, the latter did happen.
In a November 2011 match, Besiktas supporters grew so frustrated with Eboue’s diving that they actually pelted water bottles, cigarette lighters and other debris at him. Not that this is ever acceptable fan behavior, and his diving certainly isn’t justification for that, but Eboue’s reputation did come up in the press coverage and discourse surrounding the incident.
The hard-tackling midfielder’s fierce reputation off the pitch was cemented by an incident while he was at Middlesbrough where he was banned for three years from entering a pub in Stockton Borough after a drunk and disorderly evening (the ban is still going on).
This wasn’t the first time a de Jong tackle had gone horribly wrong. During an international friendly earlier that year, de Jong had made a late challenge that resulted in U.S. Men’s National Team member Stuart Holden suffering a fractured leg. In October of that year, a tackle on Newcastle United’s Hatem Ben Arfa saw the player require surgery for two broken bones.
While at Ajax, Suárez excelled as a striker, but also courted controversy on the pitch a number of times, most notably in a November 2010 incident in which he bit PSV Eindhoven’s Otman Bakkal on the shoulder. Ajax suspended him for two matches, and the Dutch media gave him the less-than-flattering nickname “The Cannibal of Ajax.” Hopefully, he won’t have any more Silence of the Lambs moments.
Pepe’s temper has gotten him into trouble, most notably when he served a 10-match ban for going crazy on Getafe’s Javi Casquero, repeatedly kicking him while he was down.
His foul-goading hasn't earned him many friends, and one particularly notorious (some would say "Oscar-worthy") move during the 2009-2010 Champions League made him one of the year's biggest sporting villains. In a clash with Inter Milan's Thiago Motta, Busquets took a dive, and in his injury-feigning, the cameras caught him peering through his fingers to see if his tactics had worked. (They had.) Busquets came under fire again during the Supercopa de España over the summer, when he was accused of referring to left-back Marcelo as a monkey. The FA opted not to press charges.
In his first appearance at Ibrox, he was sent off after two bookings, one for sending his cleat spikes into George McCluskey’s thigh (“My boot ran up his leg!” he later joked). Later on in his career, during a stint as the manager of Liverpool largely viewed as an unsuccessful one, he became notorious for locking horns with players in the dressing room.
He never actually sank his chompers into anyone’s flesh, but plenty of players still suffered injuries to their lower halves at his hands. According to legend, Leeds trainer Les Cocker was informed that Hunter had come back from a match with a broken leg, and Cocker responded, “Whose is it?”
Keano’s temper often got him in trouble on and off the pitch, from his notorious outburst at Republic of Ireland coach Mick McCarthy that got him banned from the national team to his on-pitch brawl with fellow list-maker Patrick Vieira to one of the most notorious dirty tackles in history.
The Chelsea defender was one of the Blues’ greatest icons of the 20th century, but his uncompromising style of play and tenacity often got a bit too aggressive. His most notorious display came in the 1970 FA Cup final against an equally-dirty Leeds United squad, where he became a hero by setting up Chelsea’s equalizer and a villain among the Leeds faithful for a shocking tackle on Leeds’ midfielder Eddie Gray with just a few minutes left in the match.
Robben also has a reputation as a bully to his own teammates, one he earned after choking his Bayern Munich teammate Thomas Müller for being “disrespectful.”
He racked up 12 red cards throughout his career—nine with the Gunners—along with more than 70 yellows, although the majority were in the beginning of his time with the club and he mellowed out with age and experience. Some of his challenges were more deliberate and tasteless than others, most notably a 2010 match in which he received a three-match ban for kicking Stoke City’s Glenn Whelan in the groin.
Gentile made his mark (literally) when he was in charge of defending the legendary Diego Maradona during the 1982 World Cup. After giving the Argentine a sound whooping, Gentile remarked after the match, “Football is not for ballerinas.” Indeed.
It wouldn’t have been so bad if Maradona himself hadn’t shown so little remorse about it. After he had made the goal with his fist, Maradona famously remarked that it was made “a little with the head of Maradona, and a little with the hand of God.” The fans probably weren’t too keen on that excuse.
Throughout his career, primarily spent with the Toffees and Rangers, "Big Dunc" racked up nine cards and a three-month jail sentence, the latter stemming from an incident in which he headbutted Raith Rovers' John McStay during a 1994 match.
His feud with Tottenham Hotspur’s Dave Mackay, best exemplified in a 1966 where Bremner got in a dodgy late challenge on Mackay, who had just returned to play from a second broken leg, created one of English football’s most memorable images.
Sometimes, all it takes is one really horrific move to get you into the dirty-playing Hall of Fame. In the case of Athletic Bilbao’s Andoni Goikoetxea, a defender already known for his aggressive tendencies that helped lead the San Mamés outfit to the top of La Liga two seasons running.
In a 1983 La Liga match at the Camp Nou, Goikoetxea made a horrific tackle on Barcelona’s Diego Maradona, resulting in severe ligament damage for the Argentine headliner and a brawl almost breaking out between the two teams.
Jones has had his share of memorable (and infamous) moments, but none can quite compare with when he broke the record for the fastest booking in English football history, when he grabbed Paul Gascoigne where the sun don’t shine just three seconds into a match. Ouch.
For a long time, Savage held the Premier League record for most yellow cards distributed, with a whopping total of 87. 87. (What’s even crazier is that that record has since been surpassed.) A passionate player to his core, Savage would stop at nothing to make his play, and that often meant some aggressive, nasty football.
In his memoir, Savage admitted that he used to get drunk the night before a match to play better. This doesn’t seem like the best idea.
Even when he wasn’t giving dirty tackles, Bowyer’s had some moments of abysmal conduct on the pitch. At Newcastle, he came under fire for brawling with teammate Kieron Dyer, and perhaps lowest of all. At Birmingham City, he was substituted after a reckless challenge and responded to taunts from West Bromwich Albion supporters by calling grandmother Sandra Cox the ‘c-word.’
Said van Bommel of his physical, controversial tactics in the 2010 World Cup: “Yes, I do the dirty work. And so what? A football team cannot just contain 11 dancers.”
This season, on his first appearance in the Serie A, a Coppa Italia match with AC Milan, van Bommel was sent off for a dirty challenge.
While at Inter Milan, tough, tattoo-covered defender Marco Materazzi saw mass amounts of acclaim and silverware (five Scudettos, four Coppa Italias and a Champions League) and he participated in the World Cup-winning Italian team in 2006.
At the height of his career, the Australian international centre-back was declared “the most hated man in football” by Birmingham City defender Martin Grainger and frequently disciplined, if not sent off, for reckless and often violent tackles.
In a career spanning two decades, Muscat racked up 132 yellow cards and 12 red cards and went down as one of football’s biggest villains. In 2001, he managed to seriously injure Craig Bellamy and Christophe Dugarry with reckless challenges. A year later, was sent off just nine minutes into a match for elbowing Michael Boulding in the face.