An all-time XI of the hardest, dirtiest, nastiest players to ever wreak havoc on the pitch.
At it’s best, football can be passionate but fair, driven but honest, a sport for the supremely skilled to test themselves at the highest level. Sometimes—just sometimes—football lives up to the title “the beautiful game.”
Other times it’s about doing anything and everything to get one over on those bastards over there.
This is the meanest XI I could think of: a group of men Genghis Khan would call brothers. These are players who did whatever it took on the pitch because there are no pictures in the record books, only the names of winners.
The Fenerbahçe stopper ticks all the villainous boxes: imposing physique, short temper, terrifying beard. He was always ready to take on the entire squad of rivals Galatasaray, and has gone toe to toe with the likes of Didier Drogba and Wesley Snijder—in between punishing opposing testes and throats. Since joining the Yellow Canaries, Demirel has picked up five league titles, three Super Kupas, and two Turkish Cups.
Nicknames aren’t given without purpose, so you can only imagine what Norman “Bite yer legs” Hunter was like on the pitch. Fifteen seasons as part of Don Revie’s famous Leeds United side saw the Englishman collect a League title, League Cup, Fairs Cup, and FA Cup. Famously, after Leeds United manager Les Cocker was informed that Hunter himself had “broken a leg,” he responded: “Whose is it?”
Materazzi may have earned the sympathy of millions when his chest received the infamous embrace of Zinedine Zidane’s shining head in the 2006 World Cup Final, but don’t be surprised that it happened in the first place: The Italian was one of the dirtiest in the business. Quick with sneering insults and sharp elbows, his tackles were a hilariously bad mix of screaming, blood, and hospital bills. In a decade with Inter Milan, Materazzi went home with 15 winners medals, 2006 being the highlight, capping a domestic treble by winning the World Cup and being (literally) overshadowed by Zizou.
‘Goiko’ (Andoni Goikoetxea Olaskoaga)
In the ’83-84 campaign that brought the double to the San Mames for Athletic Bilbao, ‘Goiko’ managed to create his own trophy. Away against Barcelona, he viciously tackled Diego Maradona, leaving the Argentine weeping over shredded ankle ligaments. ‘Goiko’ enshrined the boots from that match in a glass case on his mantel, earning him the name of “The Butcher of Bilbao.”
Ramos wins. A lot. In addition to a sack of medals from both club and country, Ramos holds the dubious honor of being La Liga’s most sent-off player, ever. A fan of bullfighting, the Spaniard clearly loves to toy with opponents, and isn’t afraid to add some theatrics of his own. An array of slaps, high tackles, elbows, dives, stamps, and hip checks soften his opposition up before a stoppage time header drives the blade straight through their heart.
When people are making piñatas of your dives you might want rethink your approach to the game. Like the inevitable cut inside to his favored left foot, Robben’s theatrics seem outside of his control. But the Dutchman’s oversensitivity to gravity hasn’t stopped him from claiming league titles in four countries and slotting home the winning goal in the 2013 Champions league final.
George Orwell once wrote “if you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face, forever.” Had Orwell been born a few decades later, and had the pleasure of watching 1980s English football, he might have changed his forecast: “imagine Vinnie Jones crushing Gazza’s bollocks in a vise-like grip, forever.” In between being cartoonishly violent on and off the pitch, Jones and the rest of the Crazy Gang won the ‘88 FA Cup.
A talent across the midfield, Bremner didn’t so much play matches as unleash himself on them. The captain of Don Revie’s legendary Leeds side was referred to in the Sunday Times as “10 stone of barbed wire,” and led the team through a laundry list of classic fixtures that are almost universally described as “physical encounters.” A fierce competitor to the end, Bremner requested Sunderland as the opponent for his own testimonial at Leeds to avenge the previous season’s FA Cup final loss.
‘The Rhino’ is legendary in Italy for his ferocity on the pitch and his eccentricity off it. Forming one of Milan’s all time great midfield partnerships with Andrea Pirlo, Gattuso was the immovable object to Pirlo’s irresistible force. Slapping Zlatan, headbutting Tottenham Hotspur manager Joe Jordan, and playfully attempting to “murder” Pirlo with a fork, the list of stories about Gattuso is almost as long as his list of honors.
Easily the most divisive character in modern football, Suarez has done it all—and then a few things no one else had thought of. Diving? Of course. Handballs? Just to knock Ghana out of a World Cup—and he’d do it again too. Rash tackles? To be sure. Biting? Oh, yeah. But not once, THREE TIMES. Barcelona think they can tame the wild man and so far their efforts have brought them the European Cup. They might keep hold of the latter next season but I wouldn’t put a penny on anyone taming Suarez.
Everyone else on this list has been sent off, suspended, banned for extended periods, or at the very least ridiculed in the media. Big Duncan has done time. Ferguson earned three months in the clink for assault after he headbutted an opponent while playing for Rangers. A shining example of fighting from the front, Ferguson’s battering ram style saw Everton win the ‘95 FA Cup, the club’s most recent piece of silverware.
Who is on your list? Share your thoughts with us on Twitter @8by8mag.