Eric Cantona and the 20 Most Charismatic Footballers in History

Peter CarrollContributor IIIOctober 14, 2011

Eric Cantona and the 20 Most Charismatic Footballers in History

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    Charisma is quite a metaphysical aspect to rate a player’s contribution to a team and to their respective sport.

    However, charisma is a personal quality or gift that can allow a player who possesses it to have great influence on a group of teammates.

    Over the last century we have seen many players gifted with such virtues, who are worthy of veneration, who have made a difference to their team’s performance and who have won a special place in the hearts of not only of those on their home terraces, but also a secretly impossible respect from rival fans.

    When studying the history of the sporting icon, an article by Gill Lines stuck out to me which suggested that our sporting heroes become celebrated due to their links with the tradition of sport they play—they are masculine, brave, competitive and creative.

    In this list of 20, the focus will be on the overtly passionate and charismatic through out the history of world football. These players have captured the public’s imagination and, sometimes, encapsulated the charisma of this great sport in one moment. 

Ricardo Zamora

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    Ricardo Zamora’s rise to fame came when Spain, and a lot of other countries, began to focus on their nation’s sporting promise as a means to have them considered equal to their neighbouring countries.

    The legendary goalkeeper also paved the way for football as a profession, being signed by Espanol from Catalan rivals Barcelona for 2,000 pesetas and a signing on fee of 25,000 pesetas.

    He was also one of the first footballers to be used as a marketing tool, and due to his popularity, went on to star in films and live the life of a Hollywood film star. When Zamora moved to Real Madrid he became one of the best paid professionals in Spain.

    The charismatic keeper played a crucial role in a victory over England that was celebrated like a World Cup win in Spain. MacFarland points out that at the time Zamora was trusted more than the politicians of the era, with sports writers claiming all Spain needed to triumph was “San Pedro in heaven and Zamora on earth”.

    Ricardo will be remembered for the role in Spain’s 1920s Olympic Football tournament winning team, and is immortalized by the Ricardo Zamora Trophy, which is given to the goalkeeper with the lowest goals to games ratio in the top two Spanish leagues every year. 

Marco Tardelli

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    'L'urlo di Tardelli' or “the scream of Tardelli” will live long in the memory of Italian football as one of the most vivid displays of emotion in rich history of their game.

    With all the trouble surrounding the Italian team at the time due to the inclusion of Paolo Rossi after being banned for allegedly tapping up games, a media frenzy surrounded the team during the 1982 World Cup.

    Tardelli’s goal put the Italians two goals up in the final against the steel of West Germany and his celebration will always stand out as one of the greatest advertisements for the passion involved in the beautiful game, as well as the defining moment of his and the World Cup winning team’s tournament.

    Amy Johnson of the Guardian highlights the importance of the goal in her article before the 2006 World Cup final.

    “They call it Tardelli's scream. It is the most beautiful image in the history of Italian football, the enduring reference point. Marco Tardelli screamed for 60 million compatriots after he scored the defining goal in the 1982 World Cup final. And, it was not just any old scream. It was so Italian, as if it had been formed by the docks of Naples and polished at La Scala.” 

Paul Gascoigne

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    No matter what opinion you have on the antics of Gazza off the field, one thing is undeniable, he was one of the most passionate and creative midfielders in the history of English football.

    With an unrivaled charisma, Gascoigne appealed to the working class football audience who could visualize themselves in his emotive face as he bore all for his country every time he wore the shirt.

    He seemed far more approachable than the others and with the enthusiasm of a child with the ball at his feet he was endeared by his nation.

    A moment of sheer emotion came in the semi finals of the 1990 World Cup when Gazza was on the brink of a childhood dream—to play in the World Cup final—when he received a yellow card for a lunge on Thomas Berthold.

    The talented midfielder seemed so destroyed at the sight of the card that he couldn’t hold back tears to the point where Gary Linekar turned to the bench and mouthed “have a word with him” to the great Bobby Robson.

    The raw determination and charisma Gascoigne played with restored pride to the English fanbase, and for that, he will never be forgotten. 

Roger Milla

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    If African football had a royal hierarchy, Roger Milla would be king.

    It was 14 years after winning the African Player of the Year award and after 152 goals in the French leagues, that Milla was put on the world stage playing the role of a super sub during Cameroon’s World Cup campaign in 1990.

    Scoring four goals of the bench and having a hand two against England, Milla’s goals paved the way for that Cameroon side becoming the first African team to reach the quarter finals of a World Cup.

    Milla’s second goal celebration against Columbia stands out as one of the best and most charismatic moment—so much so that it was used in Coca-Cola’s advertising campaign during the 2010 World Cup.

    The dancing celebration by the corner flag reminded people of the joy that football evokes in people and it will continue to inspire budding players all over the world.

Graeme Souness

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    Souness was a terrifying prospect in the middle of the Anfield midfield, who gave his side metal with his tough tackling.

    The Scot was also an incredibly under rated footballer and seemed to demand success in the teams he played in.

    With Liverpool, his dominance in midfield led to three consecutive league titles, an inundation of League Cups and, the club’s fourth European Cup. In possibly Liverpool’s greatest spell of all, Souness was one of the most important players.

    His leadership qualities were never replaced at Liverpool, but his name has been somewhat tarnished by his failed managing efforts with the Reds. It perhaps has taken away from the fact that Souness is probably the greatest midfielders in the club’s history. 

Paolo Di Canio

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    Di Canio was a showman, an artist and a rebel. Before all of that, however, he was an incredible footballer.

    The Italian first shot to the headlines after moving to England for pushing over a referee while playing for Sheffield Wednesday. The passion he had for the game sometimes overwhelmed him and led him to such volatile bursts of aggression.

    Against Wimbledon, in the colors of the Hammers, Di Canio launched home a scissor kick that is widely regarded as the greatest goal in Premier League history.

    Always wearing his heart on his sleeve, the creative striker also won the FIFA Fair Play award due to an incident that stands out the polar opposite to that of the referee pushing episode.

    While trying to clear a ball from his own box Everton, a goalkeeper, went down and clutched his knee in pain. However, despite having a clear opportunity to score Di Canio, caught the ball in his hands suggesting it is unfair to capitalize on a downed player’s injury.

    Such an individual may never be seen again in football. 

Andres Escobar

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    Andres Escobar was known as the gentleman of football, or more authentically as, “El Caballero de las Canchas.”

    Escobar was rather more introvert than the majority of the players in the list, but on a team full of fiery personalities, it was that characteristic that gave him a leadership quality or charisma under which the others reveled.

    The talented defender led his Colombian teammates into the World Cup finals of 1994, but due to the overwhelming money placed on the team in their home country, player’s family members began to go missing as a ransom for the players to be victorious.

    A devote Christian, Escobar tried to rally his troops, but ultimately ended up being murdered due to scoring an unfortunate own goal against the U.S.A.

    Despite feeling the hurt of what had happened, Escobar wanted to go down to see the people of his neighborhood and talk to them about what had happened when he returned to Columbia.

    On the brink of a move to A.C Milan, one of the world’s best defenders at the time, was shot 12 times by three assailants.

    Andres Escobar is now an icon in Columbia, not only for Atetico National, but the whole nation.

Johan Cruyff

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    Johan Cruyff is arguably, as well as a lot of players on this list, the greatest footballer of all time.

    With Ajax and the Dutch National team, Cruyff designed the “total football” mechanism and was an utter perfectionist demanding exceptional performances form all the players around him.

    Cruyff, a born leader, was a complete player in every sense of the word, with an ability to pass with the outside of his boot like no other player in the history of the game. He also designed a piece of skill known as the “Cruyff Turn”.

    Winning the guts of everything in the club game with Ajax before moving onto Barcelona, perhaps one of the tragedies of Dutchman’s tale is the fact that he never won the World Cup.

    The 1974 Holland side were probably one of the greatest teams of all time never to win the highest honor in the international game. 

George Best

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    Georgie Best gave the English leagues a shot of celebrity in the 1960s and was arguably the most famous man on the planet for a year or two.

    His playing style sometimes annoyed his teammates, but as Denis Law has alluded to in the past, as soon as they would get angry with him, the opposition goalkeeper was picking the ball out of his net.

    Best was known as “the fifth Beetle” after travelling around beating European opposition during Manchester United’s 1968 European Cup winning campaign.

    The Northern Irish man was known for his ability to run at players at high speed keeping the ball under an unbelievably close control.

    Unfortunately, the fast life of charisma on and off the field caught up with Bestie, who passed away in November 2005. 

Stuart Pearce

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    This inclusion may shock a lot of people, but when I was younger I found Stuart Pearce annoyingly passionate and charismatic.

    Every game that man would play, he would be red in the face screaming at his own team, referees and the opposition players. These charismatic and vocal additions went on to earn him the nickname “psycho” amongst club and country team mates.

    There is no moment that sums up the charisma of Pearce like the quarter final of Euro ’96 where he scored a penalty and let out a primal roar of repressed anger from the spot kick he missed against West Germany in the semi finals of Italia ’90.

    Although he may have looked like a serial killer in that moment, Pearce showed a bravery to step up and take that penalty that few players possess and it was that moment that finished his transformation into “Psycho.”

Ferenc Puskas

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    Having only been in Budapest a short time ago, Ferenc Puskas is a player that was always going to make this list of top 20. He is worshipped like a God in Hungary and murals and replica shirts dedicated to him are literally everywhere, from sports outlets to antique shops.

    The legendary Real Madrid striker has an astonishing goal scoring record of 514 goals in 529 games in the Hungarian and Spanish leagues as well as 84 goals in 85 games for the Hungarian national team.

    Puskas was the legendary leader of the “Mighty Maygars,” the Hungarian national team that made it to the final of the 1954 World Cup Final, and also led the team to winning Central European Cup in 1953 as well as the Olympic trophy in 1952.

    The Hungarian’s striking partnership, with De Stefano, will be remembered as arguably the greatest ever, winning five leagues, three European Cups and one Spanish Cup in their time.

Michel Platini

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    Platini was a magic player, and he lifted the French side to unprecedented heights on the field with his magic passing, sublime finishing and dead ball prowess.

    Every great performer has his stage, and Platini’s was the 1984 European championship where he was voted best player, finished top scorer and lifted the trophy as captain of the French team.

    His leadership ability was shown in bringing his team to two World Cup semi finals in 1982 and 1986.

    Another testament to his charisma is getting the World Cup to France in 1998, where all will remember his celebrations in the stands, boasting suit pants, jacket and a French national shirt taking the place of the suit and tie combo.

Roy Keane

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    No player has sparked such a matter of public debate in a country the way Keane did in Ireland days before the start of the 2002 World Cup. This proves how Keane’s charisma was a gift and downfall at the same time.

    When Manchester United signed Keane for a record fee from Nottingham Forest, Alex Ferguson already had the plans in place for the Cork man. Serving his apprenticeship under Bryan Robson, he would go onto be one of the most inspirational captains in the club’s rich history.

    He owned the midfield, took no prisoners, and bossed his team like an extension of Ferguson on the pitch. His epic battles with Patrick Vieira were a joy to behold and United still haven’t found a solid replacement for him.

    Keane’s hero moment came in the semi final of the European Cup in 1999, against Juventus, when he was booked making him unavailable for the final. With two goals separating the team’s Keane’s headed goal gave United momentum and they eventually came back to win the game. The treble winning captain’s performance that night is remembered as one of the best in modern European football.

    The United captain never had any difficulty in pulling directors up on the capitalism involved in football, ad evenly openly criticized his team mates if he felt they weren’t putting in their shift.

    One things for sure in Ireland, everyone has a side, your either McCarthy or your Keane, but together, everybody wonders how the boys in green would have got on if the talented captain, who led the team to the final stages, had been on the pitch.

Franz Beckenbauer

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    Franz Beckenbauer is widely regarded as the most successful player in the history of world football.

    Known as the "Emperor", for his dominance and the ball and charismatic leadership, the German captain won the UEFA European Cup with his national team in 1972, before destroying the dream of “total football” in 1974 on his was to winning the World Cup.

    With Bayern Munich, the inspiring leader won it all, four leagues, four cups and four European cups.

    The man who made 103 caps for his country was also called upon due to his charisma during the successful German bid to secure the 2006 World Cup. 


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    Garrincha is a Brazilian legend, who embodied charisma on and off the field and the reason why we hear “ole” today when an attacker beats their marker.

    Explosive pace, great control, power in either foot and a great header of the ball, Garrincha had everything a player needs, as well as a keen eye for the ladies (rumoured to father 36 children) and a few casual drinks that kept his playing career in Brazil.

    Brazil faced the 1962 World Cup without the flair of a young Pele, but Garrincha rose to the occasion showing the world that he was the best. Assisting and scoring on all cylinders, despite people thinking he would never even walk at one stage in his life.

    Severe birth defects are a testament to Garrincha’s ability—his spine was deformed, his right leg bent inwards and his left leg six centimetres shorter and curved outwards.

    The charismatic Brazilian is immortalized in statue in his hometown and will be remembered for his free will, creativity and charisma on the pitch.

Jimmy "Jinky" Johnstone

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    Jimmy Johnston's fast pace and skill earned him the nickname of "Jinky" amongst fans and team mates during his time at Celtic. 

    A true footballing legend, Johnston played a vital part of Celtic's historical "Lisbon Lions" team of 1967 who took the European Cup back to Glasgow after beating the Italian powerhouses Inter Milan. 

    After beginning his career at Celtic as a ball boy when he was 13 years old, the young Johnston knew what he wanted to do with his life and was still a crucial member of the club up until his death in 2006. 

    Jinky is now immortalized in statue outside of Celtic Park and is probably the most interactive football star, now having his own smart phone application available on the market. 

    The creative midfielder, short in stature, will be remembered for his dry wit and huge contribution to Scottish football. 

Diego Maradona

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    Maradona is considered the greatest player of all time by many people, and is one of the most charismatic players.

    Maradona’s creative attitude, fiery spirit and passion made him a fan favourite at Boca Juniors before he moved onto Barcelona and then Napoli.

    In 1986, it was Maradona’s World Cup, when he scored “The Hand of God,” against Italy with the backdrop of the Falklands War preceding. In the same match, Maradona scored one of the greatest goals of all time running from the Argentine midfield before beating countless English bodies and placing it in the back of the net.

    Having taken the trophy home in 1986, Maradona wanted to do it all again in 1990, and before the semi final against Italy, he urged the Italians to support Argentina in a classic spell of charisma.

    The talented player also admitted to spiking Brazilian left back Branco on live TV during the 1990 World Cup.

    Maradona ran into more controversy when he tested positive for cocaine at the USA World Cup in 1994.

    He is possibly the most famous man in the history of his country and his great charisma has led him to appearing on such shows as “Dancing with the Stars.”

Zinedine Zidane

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    Zidane is the greatest example of a midfielder in the modern game. Right up until the day he retired, he had a touch of class that maybe no other player had in the history of the game.

    He was charismatic in his presence alone, which made other players all around him step their game up to the next level in an attempt to be sufficient on the same field as the man.

    His stunning roulette would leave players for dead while he had already passed the ball or taken a shot on goal. In 1998, after serving a ban picked up for a red card in the opening game, Zidane came back to play amazing in the knockout stages as well as scoring a brace against Brazil.

    In his last World Cup in 2006, he was as amazing as ever, as the two teams in the final seemed to be defined by the performances of their captains. In what might be deemed poetic, Zidane burned out of the game when he head-butted Marco Materazzi in extra time of the World Cup Final and was giving his marching orders. 


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    The No. 10 of Brazil will always be known as the shirt that Pele wore.

    In 1958 he donned it first, and ever since that day he was regarded as one of the greatest players of all time. His passion for the game came pouring out in the final where he was snapped crying tears of joy.

    After the 1962 World Cup, in which Pele was injured in the first game, with Brazil still claiming the trophy, the young man set his eyes on 1966. This was a World Cup that had the great maestro considering retirement after the harsh tackles he under went in the opening round.

    In 1970, the team known as the greatest of all from the prestigious country of footballing talent went to the World Cup and claimed the trophy again, making Pele the only man to have won three World Cup medals.

    The Brazil team was unbeaten with both Garrincha and Pele, on the field at the same time.

Eric Cantona

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    Everything that Eric Cantona did on the football pitch exuded charisma, whether it be kicking a Crystal Palace fan in the head or simply playing the beautiful game the way it should be done.

    Lets not forget the famous quote that Cantona said post-karate kick times.  "When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea." 


    I had the pleasure of meeting Cantona last year and after he pushed some security out of the way so we could have a chat with him, he was an absolute gentleman. 

    However, it was quite clear that he was way cooler than us, after he asked me and my friend what we had thought of the film, we didn't really know what to say back to him. 

    His royal presence is best remembered by his goal celebration after lobbing the Sunderland goalkeeper in 1996, and his thundering strike that won United the F.A Cup in the same year.

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