Footballers (or soccer players if you’re North American) have to be supremely athletic to cover the 110 to 120 yards (100 to 110 meters) of the soccer pitch, all the while going for the ball or dodging other players. It’s not so surprising that the aggressive spirit that it takes to excel at the game sometimes boils into hits that are more violent than they should be, confrontations between players on the pitch, and other assorted bad behavior.
At times, players are simply single-minded in their pursuit of the ball, and unfortunately, these are the times when other players and their breakable body parts just get in the way. Things like this can happen in the heat of battle. Other times, a moment’s surge of anger and rage over an incident can send a player into overdrive, and result with their opponents going to the hospital. All it takes is a moment’s bad decision based on adrenaline-fueled emotions as you’re racing down the pitch. What could possibly go wrong?
When it comes to the next generation of footballers, let’s just say that the combination of athletic talent, teenagers, and lots of money can be a combustible one. While most players get a reputation for their game play, some garner even more headlines for their antics out of uniform.
From single notorious incidents to bad boys who just can’t keep out of trouble, here’s a look at 15 of the soccer world’s worst role models. And remember, these are trained professionals — don’t do this at home.
15. Jack Wilshere
Sometimes, the action happens both on and off the soccer pitch. Midfielder Jack Wilshere made his professional debut with Arsenal in 2009 at the age of 17, and it wasn’t long before the hotheaded teenager got himself into trouble. Tackled by Jerome Thomas of West Brom later that year, witnesses said there was an exchange of words as Wilshere was on the ground. When he got to his feet again, Thomas shoved him. It was Thomas who got the red card, even though many fans protested the obvious provocation. In a match against Birmingham City in 2010, Wilshere was sent off for lunging at Nikola Žigić, a Serbian national player. Wilshere was said to be heading for Žigić’s leg cleats first. The British player is just as charming off the pitch, however. He’s been involved in a number of street fights, and once tried to spit on a taxi driver who was wearing a hat promoting rival team, the Tottenham Hotspur. In March 2016, he got into a fight with a neighbor over a net he’d installed to keep his footballs in the yard. The police got involved after he allegedly spat on and threatened the 71-year-old neighbor.
14. Gerardo Bedoya
With a total of 46 red cards in his career, Gerardo Bedoya is often called “the world’s dirtiest football player.” Now retired, the Colombian star played as a defender and defensive midfielder and he earned the dubious distinction of garnering the most red cards of any player in the history of the game. The journeyman player went through more than 10 different clubs in a career that lasted over 20 years, leaving his mark everywhere he went with a playing style that routinely included elbowing, kicking, punching, and headbutting. He was banned for 15 matches in 2012 for elbowing and then kicking Yhonny Ramírez of the Millonarios in the head as he lay on the ground. After retiring as a player, in 2016, he continued his own tradition, this time in his debut as senior coaching staff for Independiente Santa Fe in Colombia. He was sent to the stands 20 minutes into his first match after blowing up at a referee and his assistant for several minutes when the opposing team evened up the score.
13. Mario Balotelli
Some players are a lightning rod for controversy wherever they go. Italian striker, Mario Balotelli, is one of those players. He’s best known for playing in the Premier League club Liverpool and the Italy national team. Mario Balotelli Barwuah – known as Super Mario – hit the headlines a lot during his two and a half years at Manchester City, but not for his game play. He crashed his Audi R8 near the training ground just two weeks after being signed in 2010. He was reportedly fined £100,000 for pitching darts at youth players from a window. He set his own house on fire in 2011, the day before a game, by setting off fireworks inside it (ironically, a week before being named an ambassador for firework safety). From Manchester City, he went to Milan for a year and a half in 2013, then to Liverpool. However, after an unsuccessful season at Liverpool, he went back to Milan on loan in 2015. The contract to loan Balotelli to Milan for a season in 2015 contained an unprecedented “anti-scandal” clause that stipulated he show up on time for practice, and behave himself both on and off the pitch. To be fair, Balotelli has faced more than his share of blatant racism from fans (even in his native Italy), and some of the many newspaper stories from his time in Manchester were proven false.
12. Képler Laveran Lima Ferreira
This Brazlian-born Portuguese soccer star is best known as a defender on the Real Madrid squad, but Pepe is also known to have a temper that flares up every now and then. During a match against Getafe in April 2009, Pepe brought Javi Casquero down to the floor, and had to concede a penalty at the 88th minute. The ruling seemed to infuriate him, and Pepe went on a rampage. While Casquero was still on the ground, Pepe kicked him in the back and stamped on him. He then landed a punch on Juan Angel Albin’s face and tossed a few insults at a referee as he left the pitch. He was given a ten game suspension. The Portuguese defender is a strong and aggressive player, and it’s not the only incident where his nasty side has come out. He’s been caught on film choking and slapping Cesc Fabregas. During the 2014 FIFA World Cup, Pepe received a red card while playing for Portugal after headbutting Germany’s, Thomas Müller. In 2012, he got away with stomping on Lionel Messi’s hand in an incident that was also captured on video. The Messi feud, though, cuts both ways. During a Barcelona-Real Madrid match in April 2016, sports commentators pointed out that Messi got away with a clear hit on Pepe during a match.
11. Luis Suárez
Luiz Suárez is often thought of as one of the most hated footballers in the world. Yet, he’s also a highly sought-after player, sometimes even called the best striker in the world. He’s played for Barcelona, Liverpool, and before that Ajax. All that talent, however, seems to come along with a penchant for biting into his enemies – literally. In 2010, while playing for Ajax, he was suspended for seven games after biting Otman Bakkal of PSV. The same year, while playing for Uruguay during the quarterfinals of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, he earned a red card after blocking a shot on goal with his hand. The incident happened during the last minute of extra-time against Ghana. The Black Stars were awarded a penalty but missed the shot, and Uruguay went on to win the penalty shootout and make it to the semifinals, earning Suarez extra enmity. In 2013, he was banned for 10 games by the English Football Association after sinking his teeth into Branislv Ivanovic of Chelsea. Playing for the Uruguayan national team at the 2014 World Cup, he bit into Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini, was fined and was not only suspended from playing but banned from all football related activities for a four month period during his first season in Barcelona. Along with the biting incidents, Suarez has often been accused of “diving” or faking an injury to win fouls and penalties.
10. Valentin Eysseric
One heavy hit is all it takes to ruin seasons, even careers, and all it takes to make that decision is a split-second of insanity as you’re running intently after a ball. Do players really go after each other’s weakest areas, or is it just a case of an ankle or shin that finds itself in the wrong place, at the wrong time? During a March 2013 match against Saint Etienne, Eysseric, a midfielder playing at the time for Nice, tackled Saint Etienne’s Jérémy Clément at shin height. Pursuing the ball, he landed feet first into Clément’s leg, upending him onto the ground. The violent hit broke Clément’s leg along with shattering ankle ligaments. Eysseric got an 11-match suspension for the deed. It’s one of two red cards the midfielder has racked up thus far in his career. Ironically, Jérémy Clément, another midfielder, is also known for his love of a good tackle.
9. El-Hadji Diouf
During his nine year professional career, El-Hadji Diouf played in France and England. He was known as a versatile payer who could be counted on as a forward and play both wings as well. An effective player on the pitch, El-Hadji Diouf nonetheless earned a negative reputation of bad behavior outside the game (albeit sometimes just barely outside). The Senegalese player has developed a distinctive way of registering his displeasure – namely, spitting. He’s been accused of spitting on fans of opposing teams, (specifically West Ham, Celtic, and Middlesbrough). He’s spat on Arjan De Zeeuw of Portsmouth and Blackpool’s goalkeeper. He’s made obscene gestures at fans and berated a ballboy with racial slurs. In 2012, he was involved in a barroom brawl, but didn’t face any charges as a result. The Senegalese player has also been on the receiving end of fan abuse, with some of it involving racial overtones.
8. Ryan Shawcross
With some players, you wonder: Is it malice or just a lack of discipline? Ryan Shawcross has made his career in England with Manchester United and Stoke City, along with the national team. Since the beginning of his career, the defender has racked up a troubling list of injuries in his wake. In 2007, his hit on Sheffield Wednesday player, Francis Jeffers, resulted in torn ligaments, but no repercussions as Shawcross went on to be named the player of the month in October of that year. Shawcross’ pattern of violent hits and marches off the pitch was set. In 2008, he tackled and injured Arsenal’s Emmanuel Adebayor off the pitch. Adebayor got his own back in 2009 with a blow to Shawcross in the face. In 2010, he broke Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey’s leg after a flying tackle. To be fair, he’s also been the target of his own fair share of hits as well over the years.
7. Axel Witsel
Running, kicking, and lunging at full tilt without protective gear can result in accidents and incidents causing serious injury, especially when players go after each other with a vengeance. Axel Witsel, a Belgian midfielder, started his career at the age of 18 with Standard Liège in 2006. His claim to infamy came in 2009 during a game between Anderlecht and Standard. Axel collided with Marcin Wasilewski as the ball sped towards them both, with Witsel simply continuing his stride by stomping on Wasilewski’s ankle. Marcin’s lower leg crumpled horribly and broke on live TV. The hit was dubbed the “horror tackle” by the press, and Witsel went from golden boy prodigy to social outcast. He received a red card for the hit, a move he protested vehemently, saying the incident had been completely accidental. Witsel did make an apology to the media after the fact, but fans of Anderlecht weren’t buying it and some even went so far as to send him death threats. He eventually got an eight-match suspension on appeal but never quite got over the bad PR in his native Belgium, and the incident was rumored to be one of the reasons behind his move to the Russian league a couple years later.
6. João Manuel Vieira Pinto
João Pinto spent his long career (1990 to 2008) playing for various teams in his native Portugal. He was known as “The Golden Boy,” an aggressive forward and fan fave, but he was also known for a number of incidents of extreme acting out. Pinto had a feud going with Paulinho Santos, a fellow countryman who played alongside João in the national team, and it was reciprocated. Bad blood between the two of them resulted in several instances of shoving and hitting each other on the pitch, as well as their ejections from the game. During one game, Pinto got into a tussle with a fireman at half time, and he once elbowed a rival team’s player during a practice match. The one incident that brought him the most infamy occurred during a match against South Korea in the 2002 World Cup. Pinto was given a red card and suspended for six months after punching a referee in the stomach.
5. Zinedine Zidane
Sometimes, a single moment of passion can have massive repercussions. Zinedine Zidane (known as “Zizou”)had a storied career as a soccer player, with both World and European championships under his belt. He’d been named FIFA World Player of the Year three times. Yet, his career came to an ignoble end during the 2006 World Cup in the final round of play between France and Italy. The score was an even 1-1 when Zidane headbutted Marco Materazzi, a player on the Italian squad. Zidane was given a straight red card and France lost the match. Zidane never played again and sadly, despite his many positive contributions, the headbutt is what he’s most remembered for. Materazzi later admitted to the media that he’d tossed insults about his mother and sister at Zizou before the French footballer lost it, and the Italian player received a fine along with a two-game ban for the provocation. Materazzi himself was no stranger to red cards, including inflicting a groin injury on Andriy Schevchenko, and attacking then-teammate Mario Balotelli in a tunnel after a losing game.
4. Rivaldo Vítor Borba Ferreira
Playing for his home team of Brazil, Rivaldo was widely mocked for his behavior during a group staged match against Turkey at the World Cup in 2002. During the game, Rivaldo fell to the floor, clutching his face as if it had been hit after a kick from Turkey’s Hakan Unsal. He continued to hold his hands to his face as if hurt, even after the replay footage clearly showed the ball had hit him in the leg. Unsal received a yellow card for the incident (his second of the game) and Brazil went on to win 2-1. After the fact, FIFA fined Rivaldo for his playacting, but it didn’t stop Brazil from winning the World Cup that year. The incident was one of the first highly publicized cases of diving, and became a kind of benchmark. Years later, the media will still refer to “pulling a Rivaldo” for cases of overdone injury acting. Rivaldo went on from the life of a player to the appointment as president of the Mogi Mirim Esporte Clube in Brazil.
3. Paolo Di Canio
Paolo Di Canio has never been a stranger to controversy (before or after his career in the game). Italian footballer Paolo Di Canio was well into a successful mid-career when he was traded to the EPL via Sheffield Wednesday from Celtic in Scotland in 1997. It was a high price tag deal for the day at £4.2 million. Paolo Di Canio’s career with Sheffield Wednesday, however, was short-lived. After a promising first season and a lot of fan interest, his run of good fortune came to an end with an incident that is still infamous in EPL circles. Sheffield had actually won the match against Arsenal in September 1998 when Paolo pushed referee Paul Allcock to the ground. It looks like one of those rage-fueled decisions made in a split second and regretted over the years. Di Canio was suspended for 11 games and levied a heavy fine. Since his retirement from the pitch, he’s continued to garner headlines as a self-described fascist with a fondness for Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. His political beliefs caused a flurry of controversy when he was appointed as Manager of Sunderland in 2013.
2. Éric Cantona
For the vast majority of his storied career with Manchester United, Éric Daniel Pierre Cantona was known as a strong, solid player, a hardworking and a reliable forward. If you were to look at his career stats though, there’s a noticeable gap during the 1994-95 season, marred by what came to be known as the “Kung Fu Incident” in the press. The Manchester United star was banned from the game for nine months and had to perform 120 hours of community service as a result of criminal charges after the incident that happened in January of 1995 during an EPL (English Premier League) match against Crystal Palace. After the French soccer player had already been given a red card for kicking a member of Crystal Palace, he passed by a fan who was hurling insults at him across a barrier as he was leaving the pitch. Enraged, Cantona vaulted over the advertising boards that stood between them to land a scissor kick and a few punches on the fan’s face. The repercussions included a hefty fine, and he sat out the rest of the season. Moral of the story: don’t shout insults at a man who’s just taken out his football-fueled rage on someone else seconds prior.
1. Football fans
Sometimes, there’s a lot more action in the stands than there is on the pitch. After a decades-long lull, football hooligans are back in force in 2016 and soccer fans are grabbing headlines for inciting violent episodes throughout Europe and South America. When professional soccer players seem so prone to lose their cool, it’s no surprise that their fans would follow suit. After screaming for their team for hours, it can be hard for fans to take when they lose – and it only adds to the fever pitch of emotions at play when they win. And for some fans, it’s almost a way of life. On some occasions, fans will flood the field after a match to fight or break whatever they can. In July 2016, fans of Argentina’s Bella Vista team – which had just won a match – attacked fans of Tiro Federal, the losing team, after the game. The fight happened as fans invaded the pitch after the game. But, it doesn’t stop at the pitch or the stands. During big matches, the unruly action can spread all over town. There were allegations of organized, vicious gangs of Russian hooligans intent on causing mayhem at the European Championship in Marseille in June 2016. Six Russians were arrested in Germany as they made their way home from the Euro 2016 tournament. In parts of Argentina, fans of rival football clubs have become rival criminal organizations, complete with their own hit men. From beating up fans of rival teams to looting to lethal organized crime, footie fans are sometimes the worst role models of all.