Traditionally seen as the working man's game throughout Europe and South America, one of the reasons soccer is so loved is because of the characters that have blessed the game. The sport seems to be a magnet for eccentric's and big personalities. It can be the case that characters such as the one's on this list, can attract those from outside soccer, who are not normally interested in the game, towards it.
When it comes to players, the biggest personalities can sometimes be the most difficult to manage. With managers, the big characters can often be the most beloved, but for the most brash one's with the biggest ego's, they need success in order to avoid looking foolish. Whilst some of these colorful characters divide opinion, most are universally liked and loved figures.
The game needs colorful personalities and these players sure do the game favors. While opinions may vary on these players, fans of the game can't deny that the game wouldn't quite be the same without them. After all, we shouldn't all want robots walking around out there, would we? Not only are these players packed with talent, but they have the a certain presence about them that piques our interest as well.
The media and press focus in more recent years means there is an inevitable bias towards the modern game in this list. There will, no doubt, have been some great personalities of the game between the turn of the century and the Second World War, but sadly, far less is known of these figures. Here are the top 20 personalities in the history of soccer:
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20 Gianfranco Zola
Enthusiastic and effervescent, Gianfranco Zola was renowned for playing the game with a smile on his face. As a player, Zola was one of the finest to have graced the Premier League. With his diminutive stature, Zola had a low sense of gravity, a lightning change of pace and exceptional agility. A flair player and a free-kick specialist, Zola became almost universally appreciated in England during his seven years at Chelsea. As a manager, the Italian has been criticized for being 'too nice' at times, and has struggled in spells with West Ham, Watford and Cagliari.
19 Francesco Totti
The quintessential one-club man, Francesco Totti is nothing short of a God at Roma. So loved is the cult figure, fans gather outside the stadium to celebrate his birthday each year and his nicknames include, 'The King of Rome' and 'The Gladiator'. Generally deployed in the hole behind a front man, Totti is a classy and elegant no. 10, capable of scoring and providing goals on a whim. Totti is married to a showgirl and well-known for his humorous and original goal celebrations. He is also a UNICEF goodwill ambassador. Through his loyalty, joviality and good deeds, Totti has become a likable character beyond the Aurelian walls.
18 Lionel Messi
Messi may well be the quietest character on this list, but is undoubtedly one of the most endearing personalities of the game. Messi is the greatest player of his generation and quite possibly, of all time. He has the most La Liga goals, most El Clasico goals, most Barcelona goals, most Champions League goals, most La Liga assists, most goals in a calendar year and the most Ballon d'Or wins of any player in the history of the game. With such a list of honors, one wouldn't begrudge Messi from having a little arrogance, yet he has none. He remains remarkably unselfish on the pitch and incredibly humble off it.
17 Mohamed Aboutrika
Mohamed Aboutrika is not as well-known outside of Africa as he really should be. One of the most gifted players that the continent has ever produced, he amassed a century of caps for Egypt and spent the vast majority of his career at Egyptian giants Al-Ahly. As a player, he was loved for his skillfulness, flair and intelligence, but he was even more loved for his actions away from the field of play. Former Egypt manager Bob Bradley said of him "He's incredibly popular and people love him. He's respected not just as a player, but as a man." Aboutrika has a bachelor of arts degree in Philosophy from Cairo University and his political involvement has grown over the years, particularly regarding the conflicts in Gaza and following the Port Sad Disaster. Like Totti, Aboutrika has worked as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF.
16 Jose Mourinho
Jose Mourinho's style continues to divide opinion, but generally speaking, even if a guilty pleasure, we all love Jose. When he first arrived at Chelsea and announced himself as the 'Special One', it was clear Mourinho was going to go one of two ways; become a laughing stock, or a cult figure, based purely on success. Undoubtedly, it has been the latter. The Portuguese coach has had almost unrivaled success, winning a plethora of trophies in four different countries, and is now back at Chelsea where he seems most at home. Older and wiser perhaps, Jose has curbed the boastfulness, but is still good value for a funny press conference more often than not.
15 Jose Luis Chilavert
Nicknamed 'the Bulldog', Jose Luis Chilavert was a short-tempered goalkeeper and a free-kick specialist. He scored a total of 67 goals in his career, including eight for his country, meaning he has scored more international goals than former England striker Emile Heskey, having played a similar number of games. Chilavert is the only goalkeeper to ever score a hat-trick in a single game and his eccentricity has been known to boil over into acts of aggression, landing him in hot water more than once. Most famously, Chilavert was involved in an infamous brawl with Colombian striker and fellow hot-head Faustino Asprilla. He also once threw a punch at Diego Maradona and has been likened to Che Guevara in his native Paraguay.
14 Stan Bowles
Despite being arguably England's most gifted player in the 70s, Stan Bowles is still best remembered for his behavior off the field than on it. Gambling addiction had put pay to Bowles's early career but he finally got his break at QPR where he became a firm fan favorite and inspired the team to their highest ever league finish of second. Bowles regularly missed training and was often found in the bookie's minutes before a game kicked off and would ask fans during the game where the horses he'd backed had finished. Named QPR's best ever player, Bowles could never emulate that success at any other club or for England, with whom he played just five games.
13 Andrea Pirlo
Another more understated personality of the game, there aren't many people out there who dislike Andrea Pirlo. The deep-lying playmaker is as classy as on the pitch as he is off it. His range of passing is extraordinary and his vision is second to none, without him both Italy and Juventus look lost for ideas. Pirlo runs his own vineyard in Italy, and is considered a wine connoisseur. Regularly involved with charity work and effortlessly cool, Pirlo is undoubtedly one of the game's most likable figures.
12 Frank Worthington
Ian Greaves once described Worthington as "the working man's George Best." Outlandish and outspoken, Worthington was never afraid to speak his mind. A technically gifted forward, Worthington was often critical of those around him, once stating "Some players second touch is a slide tackle. Other players can control the ball further than I can kick it." A confessed drinker and womanizer, whilst dating Miss Great Britain, Worthington participated in a threesome with a Swedish mother and daughter. He later entitled his autobiography, 'One Hump or Two'. His drinking habits were already hampering his career in his early 20s, a potential move to Liverpool ended up with Worthington at Leicester, before he became one of the game's great journeymen, playing for 20 different clubs.
11 Roger Milla
You will seldom find a person who could watch footage of Roger Milla celebrating his goal at the 1990 World Cup without raising at least a hint of a smile. One of the greatest African footballers ever, Milla scored over 400 career goals in just over 700 games. Whilst most great players find their global audience in their late teens or early 20s, Milla would have to wait until he was 38 before getting widespread recognition. He lit up the 1990 World Cup, as his four goals made Cameroon the first African team to reach a World Cup Quarter-Final. His celebration in 1990 essentially kicked off the trend of quirky goal celebrations and four years later he became the oldest ever World Cup goalscorer at 42. Today, Milla is an itinerant worker for African causes.
10 Eric Cantona
One of the game's great mavericks, Eric Cantona regularly fluctuated between the incredible and the insane but ultimately became a Manchester United legend and one of the Premier League's most highly-regarded forward players. Talented and controversial in equal doses, 'King Eric', as he was known, had a troubled disciplinary record throughout much of his career. Most notable among his offences was of course the infamous Kung-fu kick on a Crystal Palace fan in 1995 which saw him receive a six-month ban. Since retirement, Cantona has flirted with politics as well as being involved in acting.
9 Sir Bobby Robson
Born in County Durham and the son of a coal miner, Sir Bobby Robson has become one of the most beloved figures of the game. He experienced mixed success for much of his managerial career but is one of few British managers to experience genuine success outside of the island itself. He won trophies in Holland, Portugal and Spain with PSV, Porto and Barcelona and took England to World Cup semi-final in 1990, the closest the country has come to winning the tournament since actually winning it back in 1966. Robson sadly passed away after a long battle with cancer in 2009 but the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation continues to raise money and Robson's legacy still lives on.
8 Diego Maradona
Perhaps the most divisive figure on this list, a large number of people will refuse to admire Diego Maradona, and they have every right to do so. A cheating cocaine addict, Maradona is perhaps not what you would call an ideal role model, but despite such flaws most find it difficult not to revere the pure genius which was Diego Maradona in his prime.
Arguably the greatest footballer to ever live, Maradona was simply unplayable at times and a genuine pleasure to watch. Born to the humble setting of a shantytown on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, he soon became known as 'the Golden Boy' in Argentina and inspired a generally average Argentina squad to World Cup glory in 1986. Maradona has had persistent drug and weight problems since the mid-90s and has often been politically involved, seemingly causing controversy wherever he goes.
7 George Best
Like Maradona, Best is perhaps not the shining beacon of how to live one's life that most mothers would present to their children, but as a footballing personality, few can compare to the Northern Irish legend. Best suffered from alcoholism throughout his life, and a successful liver transplant was not the wake up call it should have been, as he continued to drink until his body could take no more and he eventually passed away in 2005. Best once joked, "In 1969 I gave up women and alcohol - it was the worst 20 minutes of my life." He also used to quip, having spent almost all of his tidy fortune, "I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered." Despite such alcohol abuse, Best has still gone down as one of greatest players in the history of the game.
6 Zlatan Ibrahimovic
One of the game's most colorful characters, Zlatan certainly isn't short of confidence, nor is he short of ability. Both physically and technically excellent, Ibrahimovic has become one of the most feared strikers in world football. Even though the Swede can back up his brashness, it still doesn't stop it being ridiculous and comical the majority of the time. The PSG forward has recently adopted 'Dare to Zlatan' as his tagline, and when asked if he was more human or God, he replied "Zlatan is just a human. In the same way a great white shark is just a fish."
5 Rene Higuita
When you hear that someone is nicknamed 'the Madman' it is probably a safe assumption to make that they are a bit of a character, and Rene Higuita most certainly is that. The 'sweeper keeper' role which Higuita made his own was one that always left the possibility of humiliation, but when carried off successfully was quite a sight. The likes of Manuel Neuer and other goalkeepers who partake in more play than is expected of them owe a lot to Higuita, who was the first man to experiment with this style.
His scorpion kick at Wembley against England enshrined him in football folklore, the Colombian also scored over 50 career goals. In 1993 he was jailed for seven months on account of profiting from a kidnapping, but was eventually released without charge. A friend of the deceased drug lord Pablo Escobar, Higuita has previously tested positive for cocaine use.
4 Paul Gascoigne
There is not a lot left to say about Paul Gascoigne; his story was at times magical, but ultimately a tragic one. His addictive personality has led to a series of problems with mental illness, most notably suffering from bipolar and alcoholism. Despite his troubles, his natural ability shone through, and at times he was a force of nature. At the 1990 World Cup, he was tremendous for England. It is rare for fans to become as emotionally attached to footballer as the English did with Gazza, always willing him on, even after his playing days, but every time the former Lazio man seems to be on the up, his demons re-surface. When not intoxicated, he is a very funny and entertaining character and one we hope will eventually overcome his troubles.
3 Bill Shankly
The man who transformed Liverpool from second division mediocrity to the best side in Europe, Bill Shankly has a personality to match his list of honors. A football fanatic, Shanks was always obsessed by the game. He famously said, "Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that." Shankley won three league titles at Anfield, and handed the club over to assistant Bob Paisley in excellent condition, laying the foundations for his successors continued success. A proud socialist in a working class city, Shankly was immensely popular in Liverpool as a larger than life character.
Sometimes referred to as the 'King of Cool', Socrates was an awe-inspiring man. With a doctorate in medicine and a practicing doctor, Socrates was not your everyday footballer. On the field, he played with an assured nonchalance, always in control, with exceptional technique, vision and reading of the game, and he should have won the World Cup with Brazil in 1982. A chain smoking, heavy drinker and serious academic, Socrates passed away aged just 57 and was widely acknowledged as a huge loss to the world of football and one of the finest characters to have graced the beautiful game.
1 Brian Clough
The greatest manager England never had, Brian Clough is the greatest personality in the history of football, if not the history of sport. A prolific striker whose career was cut short through injury, Cloughie immediately turned to management. Another man plagued by alcohol addiction, before he began hitting the bottle heavily, he was arguably the greatest manager in the history of the game. He guided Derby from second division nobodies to league champions before taking Nottingham Forest from equal obscurity in the second division and transforming them into consecutive European Cup winners.
His quotes and epigrams are so pithy, so witty and so great in volume that they have been transformed into entire books. When asked how he dealt with player disagreements, he said, "We sit down. We talk about it for 20 minutes. And we decide I was right." With regards to his philosophy of the game he said, "If God had wanted us to play football in the clouds, he'd have put grass up there." And, of course, never short of self-confidence, "I wouldn't say I was the best manager in the business, but I was in the top one." Clough's outspoken nature and wit caused him some disagreements over his career but for the most part, they made him the most beloved and interesting figure of the English game.
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