Some players are born leaders, others are born warriors who will do anything they can to get behind their side’s cause. These types of men are adored by teammates, fans, and managers alike. Quite often they end up with the captain’s armband wherever they may ply their trade. Football is game of eleven men looking for harmony on the pitch and a greater group needing to establish camaraderie off of it, and personality can play a crucial role.
While there are plenty of these positive characters in the game, however, there will always be those who specialize at sowing the seeds of discontent in their own camp. Agitators, dissidents, rabble-rousers – whatever title you think suits them best, these are the players that coaches wish they never signed and teammates can’t wait to see the back of.
Football is littered with tales of training-ground bust-ups, revolts incited by noted bellyachers and even the despicable use of firearms as a means to threaten players wearing the same colors. The majority of those standing guilty of working against the best interest of the men they’re meant to be looking out for are constantly on the move. But somebody, somewhere always seems willing to give them another job – and with it, a shot at redemption. Frustrating is that some of football’s most unruly figures have failed to maximize inestimable potential due to their antics. As George Bernard Shaw once put it: “The most tragic thing in the world is a man of genius who is not a man of honor.”
There’s no shortage of these misguided figures in the modern game – and their kind will foreseeably continue to be fixtures in the football landscape unabated down the years. Following are the top 15 worst dressing room cancers in football who continue to pull on a shirt week in week out, despite having histories of raising resentment in those around them.
15 Mauro Zarate
Even before he landed in Europe, Mauro Zarate had developed a reputation for pettiness. As a youngster at Velez Sarsfield, the Argentine once famously came on as a substitute to embark on a brilliant run and round the goalkeeper – only to refuse to put the ball into the back of the net. Why? Zarate felt the need to protest having been benched for his selfishness in possession by doing the utmost to insult his teammates. Later on at Lazio, the West Ham man’s transgressions would include going on unsanctioned leave, getting head coach Davide Ballardini fired and performing a fascist salute on camera – only to claim he had never heard of Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini. It would take a short book to enumerate the full list of his antics in the Italian capital, and at 27 years old, it’s unlikely he’s done making headlines for the wrong reasons.
14 Josip Ilicic
When Ilicic became available in the wake of Palermo’s 2013 relegation to Serie B, it was slightly surprising to see that Fiorentina didn’t face more competition to sign him. The talented Slovenian was the bright spot on a dismal Rosanero side, but a poor attitude meant that a host of potential suitors decided against taking a chance on him. Viola fans have had it out for him since he arrived and the situation has reached a boiling point this season. Ilicic enraged supporters when he threw aside a black armband worn in memory of Giovanbattista Pirovano in a November tilt with Napoli, later making a ‘shush’ gesture as he was jeered off the pitch when substituted. In the same month, he quit international duty after falling out with Slovenia boss Srecko Katanec. Scars ran so deep that the Fiorentina hierarchy pressed the 26-year-old into making a taped official apology on the club’s official website. Ilicic’s antics have kept a dark cloud of Fiorentina in what’s been a difficult campaign, serving as more of a distraction for his teammates than a helping hand.
13 Benoit Assou-Ekotto
Assou-Ekotto has always been an opinionated customer, which is perfectly fine – until it affects his relationship with those around him. The Cameroonian famously admitted to seeing football only as a job and feeling no connection to the game, revealing a startling lack of passion despite being in a position millions dream of on a daily basis. While on loan at Queens Park Rangers from Tottenham, Assou-Ekotto posted a photograph on social media of him beaming alongside Spurs outcast Emmanuel Adabayor – having just watched the North London side get hammered 5-0 by Liverpool. The 30-year-old returned to White Hart Lane this term after playing in the World Cup over the summer, where he headbutted Cameroon teammate Benjamin Moukandjo during a 4-0 loss to Croatia, and his lack of diplomatic skill has seen him frozen out of the side by Mauricio Pochettino.
12 Hatem Ben Arfa
When Ben Arfa tangled with Sebastien Squillaci in training in his final months as a Lyon player, it might have been an omen that suitors should have heeded. The Frenchman subsequently forced through a move to Marseille in the summer of 2008. Two years later, he pressed through yet another transfer to Newcastle, claiming he had fallen out with Didier Deschamps. Ben Arfa never quite hit the highs on Tyneside, with injuries and attitude issues curtailing hopes of success at St James’ Park. After denying a bust-up with Magpies boss Alan Pardew earlier this year, the playmaker was sent to Hull City on loan over the summer, effectively ending his Newcastle career with only one year left on his contract. Just this week, talk emerged of a breakdown in relations between Ben Arfa and Tigers manager Steve Bruce, which has since been denied by the player, while Bruce called for a better work ethic from the 27-year-old.
11 Ricardo Quaresma
Difficult as it may seem to comprehend at this point, Quaresma was once regarded as a better prospect than former Sporting Lisbon teammate Cristiano Ronaldo. Over a decade on, the latter has cemented his place as one of the greatest ever to play the game, while Quaresma serves as a cautionary tale for youngsters worldwide. The Portuguese fell out with Frank Rijkaard in arrogant fashion at Barcelona before returning to his homeland with Porto, where he became a cult hero. Having rebuilt his reputation, Quaresma then moved on to Italy, England and Turkey – where he clashed with just about everyone he came in contact with. His time with Besiktas culminated in Quaresma ensuring coach Carlos Carvalhal’s sacking before facing accusations of abusing two staff members in incidents so unsavory they don’t bear repeating.
10 Adel Taarabt
Like Quaresma, Taarabt possesses skillful feet and pace that can leave defenders tied in knots – yet he’s accomplished very little due to his insolence. The Moroccan managed just 16 total appearances for Tottenham after joining as a 17-year-old, even managing to get himself banned from the training ground by Juande Ramos. Harry Redknapp stuck by the renowned troublemaker, however, linking up with him once more at Queens Park Rangers. But after Taarabt spent last term on loan at Fulham and Milan – declaring himself the ‘Moroccan Balotelli’ at the latter – he’s found himself in hot water back at Loftus Road. Redknapp has lambasted Taarabt, referring to the 25-year-old as “the worst professional I’ve ever come across.” The Englishman has insisted he will no longer protect the rebellious winger, who has played only 24 minutes of Premier League football this term.
9 Teofilo Gutierrez
Colombia is a nation rich with options up front at the moment, so there were more than a few turned heads when Gutierrez ran out to lead the line for Los Cafeteros at the World Cup. The striker has an extensive rap sheet when it comes to offenses counterproductive to a team ethos. Gutierrez rocked the boat at Trabzonspor by jetting off to his homeland without explanation – when questioned, he claimed non-existent ‘health problems’ were the reason for his impromptu departure from Turkey. It wasn’t long before he was back in South America permanently with Argentina’s Racing, where he committed his most notorious act of delinquency. Confronted by goalkeeper Sebastian Saja in the dressing room for being sent off in a derby match, the striker responded by brandishing a gun, which police later determined to be an air rifle. But Gutierrez’s teammates wanted nothing to do with him regardless, and just days later he was shipped out on loan to Lanus – where he continued to wreak havoc.
8 Mario Balotelli
Few people – footballer or otherwise – know how to cause a scene quite like Balotelli. Air pistols, darts, and training bibs are all items best kept out of his lengthy reach, each the subject of headlines which had naught to do with his abilities with a ball at his feet. Roberto Mancini – the Italian’s manager at the time at Manchester City – once claimed he would need a psychologist if he were to speak with his countryman on a daily basis. The two once famously came to blows on the training ground at City, with Balotelli also tangling with then-teammates Micah Richards and Jerome Boateng during his first spell in England. Now 24, the Liverpool man is fast running out of time for his antics to be explained away as follies of youth. Having represented four top clubs already and incurred the wrath of his Italy compatriots over the summer in Brazil, Balotelli’s chances for reform are wearing thin.
7 Emmanuel Adebayor
As contentious figures in football go, Adebayor may have the market cornered. The Togolese has burned bridges throughout the course of his career. Arsenal fans have a particular bone to pick with the ex-Gunner, who managed to kick Robin van Persie in the face and go to great lengths to taunt his former supporters all in one game for Manchester City. Adebayor would eventually be forced out of Eastlands by Roberto Mancini, landing at his third Premier League club in Tottenham following a loan spell at Real Madrid. At Spurs, he was sent to train with the youth team when Andre Villas-Boas took over at the helm in the 2013-14 campaign. He was restored to the side by interim boss Tim Sherwood, who was discarded in favor of Mauricio Pochettino for the current season. Under Pochettino, Adebayor has struggled and strained his relationship with Spurs by criticizing fans and claiming black magic is responsible for his poor form. It’s safe to say Adebayor doesn’t exactly have a stabilizing effect in the dressing room.
6 Gokhan Tore
Unlike many of his fellows on this list, Tore doesn’t have a particularly checkered past – but one shocking incident places him in the running. The former Chelsea youth star came under the spotlight recently for his role in a bust-up involving fellow Turkey internationals Hakan Calhanoglu and Omer Toprak. At a team hotel, Tore and a gun-wielding accomplice gained access to Toprak’s room, where a friend of his and Calhanoglu were visiting. Toprak and Calhanoglu were threatened at gunpoint while Tore confronted their companion, supposedly over an affair the man had with the Turk’s ex-girlfriend. According to Calhanoglu, he and Toprak were left terrified as Tore assaulted the unidentified individual – leaving him in a bloody heap. Calhanoglu has refused to say whether in the future he’d consider playing alongside Tore, who was shot in a nightclub in April at random, but it’s safe to say that teammates will forever be wary of the Besiktas winger.
5 Ravel Morrison
Sir Alex Ferguson never wanted to give up on Ravel Morrison, but the troubled youngster essentially left the Scot with no choice after three turbulent years. The midfielder was meant to be the next young star to emerge at Manchester United, only for his indiscipline and lack of commitment to be his undoing at one of the globe’s most illustrious clubs. Morrison displayed a disheartening lack of interest in emulating the champions he called his teammates at United, drawing the ire of nearly everyone at Carrington with the exception of Sir Alex. The youngster was also plagued by legal troubles relating to criminal activity, having fallen in with a questionable crowd in his personal life. Ferguson at last grew weary of advocating for Morrison, sending him off to West Ham in 2012. Morrison would later clash with Wilfried Zaha on England U-21 duty, while controversies away from the pitch have continued to follow him wherever he goes.
4 Pablo Daniel Osvaldo
It’s no wonder why the 28-year-old is currently on his tenth professional club in the past nine years – he tends to rub people the wrong way. Osvaldo’s exploits at Roma included punching Erik Lamela in the face as the Giallorossi fell 2-0 to Udinese in November 2011, courting the hatred of the club’s fanatical fan base and insulting interim coach Aurelio Andreazzoli in the aftermath of the 2013 Coppa Italia final. Roma then managed to ship him off to Southampton for £15.1 million, where Osvaldo confirmed his penchant for violent outbursts. The Italy international followed up a suspension for his part in a touchline brawl by attacking Saints center-back Jose Fonte during a training session at Staplewood. He was quickly loaned out to Juventus, refusing to return to base at Southampton in the summer. Inter stepped up to take Osvaldo on loan for this season, but the south coast side remain his parent club and thus face the difficult task of offloading him permanently.
3 Joey Barton
Barton is as controversial as they come. By the time he was 25, the Englishman had gotten himself sent off during half-time, initiated a massive fracas in a summer friendly and been suspended for tamping out a cigar in a Manchester City youth player’s eye. And he didn’t stop there. In the next few years, Barton faced myriad off-field troubles and was barred from talking to the press by manager Stuart Pearce for publically criticizing his club’s transfer policy. His time at City came to an acrimonious end in 2007 as he was arrested for assaulting teammate Ousmane Dabo in training, later pleading guilty in court. Since, Barton has served jail time and innumerable suspensions while plying his trade for Newcastle, QPR, and Marseille – actions which have called his character into question and sabotaged his employers’ respective causes.
2 Nicolas Anelka
Once Anelka became known as ‘Le Sulk’ for his downtrodden demeanor during his second and final season at Arsenal, he seemed a marked man. Vicente del Bosque, Luis Fernandez, Avram Grant and Andre Villas-Boas are only a few of the many managers the Frenchman has had tense relations with down the years. But his most infamous row came with former France boss Raymond Domenech at the 2010 World Cup. Anelka reportedly laced into Domenech with some choice words after being criticized at half-time of Les Bleus’ group stage loss to Mexico, earning himself an early trip home from South Africa in the process. The France squad then descended into open revolt in light of Anelka’s dismissal, finishing bottom of their group with one point after reaching the final four years prior in Germany. Anelka, 35, remains an active player, now with Mumbai City in the Indian Super League, having left West Bromwich Albion in March in the wake of controversy surrounding his controversial ‘quenelle’ goal celebration.
1 Antonio Cassano
Cassano may well have been the most talented player of his generation, but has by his own admission spent the majority of his career underachieving and dodging responsibility. So detrimental has the mercurial forward been in the dressing room down the years that Fabio Capello saw fit to coin a term in Cassano’s namesake. 'Cassanata' has entered the Italian vernacular as a word to describe anything that flies in the face of football’s team ethos. Since turning professional in 1999, Cassano has done everything from throwing wild tantrums on the pitch, to refusing to train, to speaking out against managers, teammates and club owners in less-than-flattering ways. The 32-year-old’s penchant for being overweight – due to a self-avowed love of pastries – and openly warring with anyone crossing his path also severely limited his prospects at the international level. Parma president Tommaso Ghirardi told the press that colleagues told him he was ‘mad’ for signing Cassano in the summer of 2013 – an indication of the level to which the ex-Roma man’s reputation for disruptiveness precedes him.
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