Football’s most polarising players


Football would be boring if we just liked every player to ever grace the game.

And while that’s not to say we should go out of our way to despise or abuse players, it does make it immediately more captivating when there are controversial and colourful characters on a pitch, making life miserable for the opposition and more so the referee.

Thankfully, each generation of the game has always gifted us those over the top characters that we can’t help but love to hate. Here are the top 30 most polarising players in football.

Let’s face it – he’s good / Jan Kruger/Getty Images

It’s not that Henderson is a particularly animated character, but more the fact that nobody could decide how good he was for so long.

Since his arrival at Liverpool in 2011, everyone except Liverpool fans has been enraged and convinced that he is little more than average. Let it go, please, because the truth is he’s much better than that.

Effenberg at Euro 92 / Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Blending a delightful catalogue of footballing ability with a number of disciplinary issues and controversies away from the field, Effenberg was incredibly marmite.

The German fell out with Berti Vogts and regularly had spats with the national team, and described himself as ‘a mother-in-law’s worst nightmare’ due to his consistent affairs away from the pitch.

Di Maria found a home in Paris / John Berry/Getty Images

When not turning full backs inside out with mazy runs and obscene, ankle breaking movement and then embarrassing goalkeepers with top bins curlers, Di Maria isn’t all that universally liked.

The Argentine’s singular season in Manchester saw him flop at Old Trafford. Frustrating, but fine. But then he gave up after a year and headed onto PSG for a big payday, which really twisted the knife for Manchester United fans.

Nobody knew whether or not to care / Michael Regan/Getty Images

Nobody outright despised Owen when he joined United for free in 2009 – namely because his legs were cooked by this point – but it did feel a little off.

United fans didn’t know what to think at first, and neither did Liverpool fans. Add in rather strange punditry since, and he’s become a rather unreadable man.

Keane isn’t obsessed with making friends in the sport / Visionhaus/Getty Images

He’s had a weird path, has Keane.

Loved at Manchester United for his combination of ability and aggression, opposition fans despised the Irishman for his on pitch attitude. But since moving into a punditry role, Keane has even managed to lose the vote of some United fans for his opinions.

The destroyer / Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

The industrious Dutch midfielder is rarely seen as one of the game’s bigger characters, but he harmed his image somewhat with the role he played at the 2010 World Cup.

Deployed as a destroyer in the Netherlands’ midfield, Van Bommel went entirely against total football and, in the final, simply sought out to hacking down Spanish midfielders at every opportunity. The neutral did not enjoy.

Not everyone is a fan of Dele / Julian Finney/Getty Images

Upon his arrival to the top flight with Tottenham, a young Alli took the Premier League by storm and looked set for a seriously bright career.

And while everyone was in awe of his supreme technical ability and range of finishing, it was his aggressive side and ability to wind players off the clock that riled up opposition fans. Considering his recent stagnation, those attributes haven’t done him kindly.

He’s got it all to come / LOIC VENANCE/Getty Images

Despite being so young, Mbappe is already held in the category of elite level footballers. But with great power comes great responsibility.

That responsibility is to rise above barrages of hate and criticism that now comes his way for playing in a ‘farmer’s league’ and missing a crucial penalty at Euro 2020.

Terry and Bridge’s issue was very public / Julian Finney/Getty Images

Despite being one of the finest defenders England has ever produced and winning it all with Chelsea, Terry’s reputation isn’t the strongest.

Terry has been caught up in both adultery and racism controversies, with the former incident seeing him temporarily losing England captaincy and the latter resulting in a ban and a fine. It has left a stain on an otherwise mammoth career.

Diouf has had problems everywhere / PAUL BARKER/Getty Images

Controversy followed Diouf no matter where he seemed to take his career, making it very difficult for fans to get on his side wherever he signed.

From car crashes in France to spitting and taunting fans and more motoring offences in England, Diouf’s troublesome life off the field meant that plenty of fans had no time for him.

Busquets is more refined these days / David Ramos/Getty Images

Having refined his image significantly in his senior years as Barcelona’s veteran head in modern times, it wasn’t always that simple for Busquets.

When La Liga and its two top sides were at their peaks in the late 2000s and early 2010s, Busquets built up a reputation for being a nightmare to deal with. Not technically, but in drawing fouls and overexaggerating situations. Spanish football didn’t enjoy the antics, but they worked.

Icardi left Inter for PSG / Catherine Steenkeste/Getty Images

Famously going behind the back of his former teammate Maxi Lopez, Icardi’s private life has seriously affected his reputation in the game.

While his stock was booming at Inter, the Argentine openly had an affair with Lopez’s wife, who then divorced Lopez for Icardi after the situation unfolded online. Negative press all round, not enough football focus and plenty of controversy. Nobody really knew how to feel about him as a result.

Time for a new haircut, Zlatan / MIGUEL MEDINA/Getty Images

For as undeniably exceptional as he is, it’s somewhat understandable that there are plenty of football fans not so keen on Ibrahimovic.

For every outrageous, unworldly action he produces on the pitch, it’s often cancelled out by the constant use of third person, obsession with lions and a ponytail that even WWE would turn their nose up at.

Fellaini was a nuisance / Michael Regan/Getty Images

A bright spell at Everton saw Fellaini become the Premier League’s unique entity that nobody quite knew how to feel about.

But by the time he’d served five years with United, the Belgian had largely become disliked in the league for his rash style of play as an auxiliary striker, throwing elbows out like The Rock in his prime. United fans weren’t keen either.

Barton gets red cards even from the dugout these days / Alex Davidson/Getty Images

Loved by the neutral for his strange French accent during his spell at Marseille, Barton was a strange figure throughout his playing career.

Looking rather talented as he came through the ranks at City in the early 2000s, he quickly garnered a reputation for his lack of discipline and attitude on and off the pitch. He’s been marred with legal issues and had more red cards than I’ve had hot dinners, putting plenty of clubs and fans off him.

Materazzi played the game / JOHN MACDOUGALL/Getty Images

The Italian World Cup winner became French enemy number one in 2006 for his shenanigans in the final, that tipped the balance of the game.

Infamously winding up Zinedine Zidane with whispers and jeers, he provoked the headbutt and then turned on the theatrics to ensure the Frenchman was sent off. The dark arts is a serious weapon to have.

Arnautovic feels like wasted potential / Alex Livesey/Getty Images

The Arnautovic plot has bitten several clubs where it hurts over the years, and left a bitter taste in plenty of fans’ mouths.

Deemed a seriously talented and powerful forward at Premier League level, he and his agent would regularly force through moves and chase the next opportunity, showing no loyalty to current employers and destroying relationships. No remorse; ask Stoke and West Ham fans.

Pepe knows how to win games on his own / Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Defenders are always the notoriously tough men on the pitch, and Pepe has always towed that line, while blending it with some whinging when needed.

It hasn’t always endeared him to opposition fans – many have objected against his rash tackling and loud mouthing – but the Portuguese centre back was a key cog in Real Madrid’s European domination.

You could trust him as far as you could throw him / Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

He tugged on the heartstrings, did Tevez.

One of the most electric and undeniably talented forwards of his era, the Argentine had United fans’ hearts until he swapped them for City in 2009. He then stole the hearts of City fans, and crushed them again when falling out with the club and leaving for Juventus. Tevez’s sublime skill was always blighted by his questionable transfers that you knew were coming sooner or later.

Diego Maradona made football an artform / Getty Images/Getty Images

Alright, the only people who really dislike Maradona are the English. And those that still do should probably grow up and move on.

One of the greatest ever, Maradona was also a serial winner and put that on show at the 1986 World Cup with his ‘hand of god’ that knocked England out. We can look beyond it, though, because watching the late Argentine strut his stuff is the perfect recipe for happiness.

He does not give one. / Michael Regan/Getty Images

In his prime, Costa was that player you dreaded watching your team come up against. He’d wind up defenders off the clock and get everyone booked with all of the dark arts.

But beyond his shenanigans, he had the ability to back it up. After causing havoc, Costa would always find a way to knit together an attack with the vital goal. You hate that you love him.

The jury will always be out on Neymar / UEFA – Handout/Getty Images

Neymar is now what Mbappe has to come.

In the early 2010s, everybody loved the tricky Brazilian youngster. But as time has worn on – and since his world record £200m transfer – Neymar has had to deal with an increasing number of haters. Some love his eccentric style, other loathe his ‘lazy’ take on the game and inability to reach new levels.

‘Farmer’s league’ or something / Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

It sounds absurd, but alas. Social media has seen Pele’s legacy actually get put under question.

Having not been able to watch the Brazilian play the majority of his career, many believe that there is enough evidence to discount the footballing icon as a ‘fraud’. It’s not true, by the way. Not in the slightest.

Ramos is a born winner / Fran Santiago/Getty Images

Everybody hates a serial winner. It’s jealousy, truthfully, because who wouldn’t want Ramos in their defence?

He can score clutch goals, commit hefty challenges and tactical fouls, draw fouls and wind up the opposition. When he’s not on your side and you’re in a big game, the Spaniard is beautifully despicable. Never change, Sergio.

He is inevitable / Pool/Getty Images

It’s not that Fernandes is hated, but more that people continually fail to acknowledge his excellence.

The impact he’s had at Old Trafford is nothing short of sensational. United have a talisman and a serial winner capable of scoring, creating and inspiring. Opposition fans continue to reduce him to a ‘penalty merchant’ which truthfully is way off.

Luiz is a joker / Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

David Luiz single-handedly held down s**t-housery in the Premier League throughout the 2010s for Chelsea.

He became public enemy number one in Old Trafford when he was pictured laughing after getting Rafael sent off, and has made a career of combining last-ditch defending and wonder goals with rash challenges and ruining the opposition mood.

The greatest of all time / David Ramos/Getty Images

Again, social media comes in to put a spin on the legacy of the greatest ever.

Sure, Messi has scored a record 91 goals in a single calendar year. Sure, he’s won a record six Ballon d’Or awards, and sure he’s got countless other achievements. But don’t ever forget that Twitter has dubbed him ‘Pessi’, because he’s a ‘fraud’.

Greatness / Tibor Illyes – Pool/Getty Images

When Pessi is on his dinner break, fraud watch turns to ‘Penaldo’.

You know, the guy who’s been pushing Messi every step of the way and given football a rivalry at levels we’ll never be able to fully comprehend, let alone see anything similar again. But yes, Ronaldo is a confirmed fraud.

Suarez hasn’t helped himself / Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

Racism rows and several instances of biting has seriously tarnished what would’ve been an even more remarkable career for Suarez.

Unrelenting power, range and movement, the Uruguayan has proven it for club and country and won the lot with Barcelona. But it’s difficult to look erratic and unacceptable behaviour.

Pogba is incredible / ODD ANDERSEN/Getty Images

He is so undeniably talented, but Pogba remains football’s biggest enigma.

The Frenchman takes hate from just about every angle – pundits, press and even his own ‘fans’ – and while he hasn’t always lived up to the hype since returning to United, his talent is off the scale. Pogba on his day is unplayable, and the haters cannot stand that.

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