There is a fine line between being an aggressive, hard nosed player and a dirty one. With some players it is difficult to distinguish whether or not they are simply playing with grit and determination or whether they are purposefully committing bad tackles and playing outside the laws of the game. This is not always the case however, and throughout history there have been dozens of players which are easy to label as a “dirty player”. Even supporters of the team they play for find themselves struggling to defend them after a wild tackle or unsportsmanlike play, and these are the type of players which are extremely volatile and you never know what is going to happen once the whistle blows.
There is always plenty of talk about dirty players and what constitutes this label. This season we have seen players such as Diego Costa earn himself a reputation after two stamps in a game against Liverpool, as well as some other behaviour that has ruffled plenty of feathers. Stamping is unfortunately quite common in football, and often what earns players this label, but that is child’s play to some of the shocking behaviour by dirty players on the football pitch over the years. Whilst seeing opposing players get in each others faces is good fun, there are also times where it is taken to the extreme and the safety of those on the pitch is in jeopardy. The players that take this to the extreme will strike fear into the opposition (this is their goal), but consequently their reputation will be tarnished and even their teammates might struggle to defend them after their actions.
Here are the 15 dirtiest players in soccer history.
15 Gennaro Gattuso
Fans of AC Milan adore Gennaro Gattuso and no one can deny his passion, but many times this leaked over into dirty play and it is these moments which saw him develop a reputation as a dirty player. His ferocious play in Glasgow and in Italy would earn him the nickname “Il Diavolo” (The Devil), and there are many victims of his reckless challenges that would testify to this. During a Champions League fixture with Spurs in 2011, tempers flared and the final whistle saw Gattuso remove his shirt before hurling abuse at Tottenham’s assistant coach (and fellow hard man) Joe Jordan, before head butting him in a moment of madness.
14 Lee Cattermole
I’m not sure I have ever seen a Sunderland game in recent years where Lee Cattermole has not been booked or in the middle of some kind of incident. The midfielder has a notoriously bad disciplinary record, with 75 yellow cards and seven reds to his name (so far). This puts him level with Roy Keane for dismissals and it is the 4th most in the Premier League era. He has often captained the squad, and this is because of his undeniable determination, but this will too often boil over into overly aggressive behaviour which makes him a liability for his team.
13 Luis Suarez
Unlike the majority of entries on this list, Suarez has not developed a reputation as a tough player; instead it is quite the opposite (he is known for going down rather theatrically). He is still a dirty player however, and this is most evident through high profile incidents where he has bitten an opposing player. Other incidents which have helped to label him as a dirty player include swearing at fans, pulling an opponents hair and kicking players.
He was also found guilty of racially abusing Patrice Evra, which falls under an entirely different category of player and ensures that he is not a player that too many like. He may not be your typical dirty player, but there is no denying that Suarez is dangerous and reckless out on the field.
12 Billy Bremner
Bremner was the key figure in a notoriously bruising, but successful, Leeds team. Bremner was a hard nosed but highly talented player, and often his temper and challenges were reckless and this is what led him to develop a reputation as a dirty player.
Bremner saw red for a clash with Kevin Keegan during the 1974 Charity Shield, and Bremner also played a part in what has become one of the more famous photos in football. Tottenham’s Dave Mackay had just returned from his second broken leg, and a late challenge on him by Bremner ruffled his feathers enough for Mackay to grab him by his collar as he confronted the Leeds defender. Bremner may have been a great player, but he was also one that had a tendency to play outside the rules of the game and put others in danger with his decisions.
11 Gary Medel
Medel’s nickname perfectly summarises his play, and “El Pitbull” has a remarkable disciplinary record to go along with his reputation. During his time at Sevilla, Medel picked up an incredible seven red cards and 34 yellows in just 94 appearances. Sometimes a player’s record can be misleading, but this is not the case for Medel who has been involved in a number of high profile incidents on the pitch. Despite his hot headed play and record, Medel is also a highly talented player but one that is also extremely volatile.
10 Joey Barton
Barton has evolved into a character over the years, with many now laughing at his comments on Twitter. Whilst he can be entertaining, Barton has also developed a reputation as a dirty player and some of his actions have not been quite so humorous. This includes picking up a 12-game suspension after he went on a tirade by elbowing Carlos Tevez, kicking Sergio Aguero and attempting to head butt Vincent Kompany in the last game of the 2011-12 season. There have been numerous other incidents, with the most recent seeing him punching Tom Huddlestone in the groin for his 9th red of his career. Speaking about the latest incident, Hull manager Steve Bruce accurately assessed the situation by stating “You can’t be punching people in the knackers can you?”
9 Ron “Chopper” Harris
Nicknamed Chopper, he was never going to be a particularly soft player. Opponents would fear facing off against Chelsea during Harris’s playing career, and for good reason too as you would always come off second best. Whilst Harris was at times an excellent defender and a fantastic tackler, he inevitably also developed a reputation as a dirty player due to the weight of challenges and a number of late tackles. Most famously, “Chopper” put in one of the most crunching challenges in soccer history in the 1970 F.A Cup final against Leeds. Harris went in incredibly late and high, clattering Gray in his midsection in what was a fiercely contested game. Another victim for “Chopper”.
8 Marco Materazzi
The most high profile incident that Materazzi was involved with saw him be head butted by Zinedine Zidane in the 2006 World Cup final, but Materazzi has been involved in plenty more and is also usually the one dishing out the physical blows.
He picked up a staggering three red cards and 12 yellows during his lone year at Everton, and one of his dirtiest plays was a brutal elbow to the head of Juan Pablo Sorin during a Champions League tie. He may have won a lot in his career, but he did not win over many fans or opposing players during his career, just ask Zidane.
7 Nigel de Jong
There is a long library of evidence that make it difficult to argue that De Jong is not a dirty player, and the Holland international has famously left his mark on a number of players. During his time at Man City, de Jong broke the fibula and tibia of Hatem Ben Arfa in a sickening challenge which left him requiring oxygen as he was stretchered off. The Dutchman also broke Stuart Holden’s leg in a friendly match, and most famously karate kicked Xavi Alonso in the chest in the 2010 World Cup Final in what was closer to assault than a fair challenge.
6 Vinnie Jones
Vinnie Jones’ reputation as a “hard man” landed him a number of acting roles and over the years he has kept us all entertained with his on screen antics. There were a number of times where no one was laughing however, as Jones was notorious for his reckless challenges and dirty play. This of course includes grabbing Paul Gascoigne by the testicles, in what has become one of the more famous photos in English football. Many love him, many hate him, and Jones certainly embraced his reputation as one of the “bad boys” of the league.
Real Madrid’s central defender Pepe is prone to moments of madness. This includes stamping on Lionel Messi’s hand, kicking a player whilst he is down, slapping a player, kicking someone in the face and plenty more (sometimes in the same game). It is hard for his teammates to defend his actions at times, and those that are up against him are fully aware of his reputation. To make matters worse, Pepe also has a tendency to dive, which immediately negates any “tough man” image and further harms his reputation. Playing for the best team in the world he is clearly talented, but he is also a huge liability for Madrid.
4 Mark van Bommel
You either love him, or hate him. Mark Van Bommel was certainly a player that was not scared to put in a questionable challenge or do whatever it takes to win, but he could also be classified as a winner. Over the years he put in countless late tackles, elbow checked opponents, grabbed their private parts and he was also famous for time wasting. It was never pretty with Van Bommel but it was often effective, however it was also often reckless, devious and dangerous.
3 Duncan Ferguson
It is usually the defensive players that develop a reputation as a dirty player as it is expected of them to make challenges, but this did not stop striker Duncan Ferguson from becoming known as one of the meanest players around. Ferguson, who played for Everton and Newcastle, picked up eight red cards during his Premier League days, which places him joint 1st in the league’s history alongside Richard Dunne and Patrick Vieira. Even more worrying was Ferguson’s head butt on John McStay when Ferguson played for Rangers, which saw him serve a 3-month jail sentence for assault.
2 Roy Keane
Roy Keane relishes his reputation as one of the scariest men in football, and his recent facial hair experiment is a testament to this. Since he finished playing he has resorted to intimidation in interviews, but during his playing career he developed this reputation through wild, over the top challenges with many of these being difficult to argue as “sportsmanlike”. There are dozens of altercations, but the most notable is Keane’s horrendous challenge on Alf Haaland, which effectively ended his career. After Keane suffered a season ending injury at the hands of Haaland, he sought revenge and went in wildly high on a tackle which left the Norwegian in a heap on the turf. Keane admitted in his autobiography that it was an act of vengeance.
1 Kevin Muscat
Muscat’s reputation exceeds dirty play, and there have been a few alarming incidents which have little to do with football and can only be described as violent behaviour. This includes ending the career of Matty Holmes, which left Holmes needing four operations on his leg after there were initial fears it would need to be amputated. He has also more than left his mark on Craig Bellamy, Christophe Dugarry, Adrian Zahra, Ashley Ward and many more players. Making many enemies during his career, Muscat would be labelled “the most hated man in football” in 2000.
Muscat would consistently put in horror challenges and play well outside the laws of the game, putting many people on the pitch in danger due to his over aggressive and violent play.
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