Footballing mavericks are sadly a dying breed. Players who go against the grain, play their own way and live their own way. In the modern game, social media and instant news mean as soon as someone does anything with a hint of controversy they are roundly condemned, often leading to footballers living restricted lifestyles. While on the pitch, only very few genuine maverick players still exist.
The term 'maverick' is defined as "an unorthodox or independent-minded person", and the players on this list certainly fit that description. There are those who are mavericks off the pitch, living wild or exciting lifestyles and often on the edge of self-destruction. Then there are those who are mavericks on the pitch, often frustrating managers due to their failure to follow instructions but making the team due to their outstanding natural ability. Often though, those who are mavericks on the field are also mavericks outside of the game.
There are a high number of British players from the late 1960s and 70s, which could be considered the peak of mavericks within the game, when the long hair, party lifestyle and rock 'n roll ideals of pop culture bled into the British game. The sport itself has had a great many mavericks over the years, meaning there are a number of unfortunate omissions. Here are the top 20 mavericks in soccer history:
20 Tony Currie
Tony Currie is considered by many Sheffield United supporters to be the club's greatest ever player. Like so many mavericks, Currie was loved by the supporters. This was in no small part due to his showmanship. A gifted midfielder with great skill, Currie was known for his flamboyance and playing to the crowd, which he did to a tee. As graceful as they come, Currie later played for Leeds and QPR, but is best remembered at Sheff Utd. He won 17 caps for England, but in reality, it should have been more.
19 Peter Osgood
Another from the era that has been noted for the prevalence of footballing mavericks, few were as talented on the pitch as Peter Osgood. His name still rings around the stands at Stanford Bridge, even though the club legend has been dead almost a decade. At Chelsea, he scored 103 goals in 279 games, many of them spectacular efforts, and he was regarded as one of the finest center-forwards in the country for much of his career. Adored for his personality as well as his ability at Chelsea, Osgood won only four caps for England, once more down to his reputation off the field more so than on it.
18 Zlatan Ibrahimovic
The only currently active player to make this list, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is part of a true rare breed. Old school supporters may dismiss the inclusion of the Swede among the great mavericks of yesteryear, but he deserves his place. In an era of sanitized and dulled-down players, Zlatan remains a real character, who the public have endeared to. More than that, he is still a maverick on the pitch, and one of few players who still surprise people with the audacity and excitement in his game, typified by his 30 yard overhead kick against England.
17 Charlie George
Current Arsenal star Alexis Sanchez said that he was inspired by old clips of Charlie George's FA Cup final goal, in the build up to Arsenal's final clash with Aston Villa last season. George remains a cult hero among Gunners fans, not only because he was a local lad who broke into the first team at 18, but also because of his flamboyance and maverick approach. You may see a theme emerging, and once more, George won only one cap for England, who turned their backs on the country's great mavericks throughout the 1970s.
16 Stan Bowles
Few in the game match the description of maverick better than the long-haired Stan Bowles. He became a fan favorite at QPR, where he scored 97 goals in 315 games. Capable of playing as both a forward and attacking midfielder, Bowles saw football as entertainment, and aimed to entertain the fans as well as score goals every time he took the field. Yet again, Bowles only won five caps for England, and had a difficult relationship with the England set-up. Away from QPR, Bowles struggled, not being given the same freedom that he had with the Rangers.
15 Jose Luis Chilavert
Breaking away from 1970s England momentarily is Paraguay legend Jose Luis Chilavert. In the European game, reliability and consistency are the crucial attributes of the goalkeeper, but in South America, they have more time for an eccentric and maverick like players between the sticks, and few can top Chilavert. He was, to put it kindly, a nutter. During his career he threw punches at both Diego Maradona and Faustino Asprilla, as well as receiving a prison sentence for attacking a physiotherapist. As a goalkeeper though, Chilavert was excellent. He was a three-time IFFHS World Goalkeeper of the Year winner and chipped in with 74 career goals as a set-piece specialist.
14 Alan Hudson
Back to Britain now and a former teammate of the already featured Peter Osgood. Even among the excellent players on this list Alan Hudson was notably gifted. An extraordinary player with a great range of passing and natural ability, he was a very heavy drinker. His addiction plagued his career, but he still managed to turn in regularly excellent performances. He played for Chelsea, Stoke and Arsenal before heading over to the States, where he spent four years in the NASL. Hudson played twice for England, once in a 5-0 win over Cyprus, and once in a 2-0 win over world champions West Germany, in which he was the star performer. Despite this success, a maverick was yet again overlooked by England.
13 Rodney Marsh
There must be something about Queens Park Rangers and mavericks, because before the arrival of Stan Bowles, it was Rodney Marsh who played the roll for the Hoops. An exquisite striker, Marsh scored 106 goals in 211 games for QPR, where he became a fan favorite and is still hailed as the club's greatest ever player. He had a little less success at Manchester City, where some felt he upset the team spirit, but his ability was still there for all to see. Marsh won only nine caps for England.
12 Eric Cantona
A more recent maverick and one of the Premier League era, Eric Cantona is a curious character. While some mavericks are criticized for their lack of work ethic, such attack could not be leveled against the Frenchman. However, he did have one thing in common with the great mavericks: the ability to self-destruct. Despite the problems, he was a genius on the pitch, with Alex Ferguson recently describing him as one of only four world class players he ever managed. Cantona won four league titles with Manchester United before retiring at the age of just 30.
11 Robin Friday
Robin Friday was a heavy drinker, smoker and drug abuser who had a shocking disciplinary record and often committed acts ranging from stupid to disgusting. Despite all this, he was also a wonderfully gifted footballer. Physically powerful and technically excellent, he could have become a real star. His career was brief though, as he played only two full seasons, in which he was Reading's player of the season and top scorer in both. His addictions eventually spelt the end of his career, he was forced into an early retirement aged 25 and was dead by 38.
10 Crazy Gang
It wouldn't be fair to include just one of the infamous Wimbledon team known as the 'Crazy Gang', but that squad as a group deserve to be included. A physical side who relied upon force rather than ability, they weren't like many of the mavericks on this list who were technically very good. The Crazy Gang, despite their unusual approach, experienced incredible success. They rose from the non-league to the top flight and even beating Liverpool in the greatest FA Cup final shock in history.
9 Paolo Di Canio
Another Premier League import, Paolo Di Canio was an incredible talent, although he was never far from controversy, and still isn't, despite having moved into management. The Italian is an admitted fascist, although he doesn't describe himself as a racist. Di Canio even has a tattoo of Benito Mussolini on his back. Despite all this, Di Canio was still a hugely popular figure at the clubs he played for, and none more so than West Ham. His exciting style of play, twinning technique and creativity with aggression and tenacity made him an exciting player, and one of the great mavericks of his time.
8 Paul Gascoigne
Quite possibly the most technically gifted player England have produced since winning the World Cup in 1966, Gascoigne, like so many geniuses, was flawed. He had all the ability in the world but suffered with bulimia, OCD, bipolar, alcoholism, cocaine, chain-smoking, gambling and junk food problems, all of which made it very difficult for Gazza to consistently play to the best of his abilities of truly capture the wealth of potential ability he had. A joker off the pitch and a genius on it, he was loved by England fans, and did amass 57 caps, far more than most English mavericks.
The South American game is not without its mavericks, and few have been as bonkers as Brazilian Edmundo. A talented second striker who played at the highest level in both Brazil and Italy, and later Japan. Despite his terrific talents, Edmundo was very inconsistent, especially towards the end of his career, something which is sometimes put down to his eccentric personality. He won 39 caps for Brazil and seven trophies in the country's domestic leagues.
While chasing the title in Italy with Fiorentina, Edmundo left the club to return to Rio for the city's carnival. More recently, he was pictured feeding beer to a chimp. It was later revealed that he had hired an entire circus to perform at his son's first birthday; an act which led him to be prosecuted by animal welfare groups.
6 Len Shackleton
Perhaps the first great footballing maverick, Len Shackleton's career lasted from 1939 to 1957. He was nicknamed the 'Clown Prince of Soccer' due to his image as a great entertainer. Shackleton embraced such a reputation, stating that he felt entertaining the fans was of greater importance than winning. He played for three clubs, Bradford PA, Newcastle and Sunderland. He scored six goals on his Newcastle debut and 297 in his entire career, coming over 622 games. Shacks antics included combing his hair whilst on the ball, sitting on the ball and playing one-two's with the corner flag. Like his successors, Shack struggled to win international caps, retiring with only five to his name.
5 Frank Worthington
If you looked at Frank Worthington's record you could be forgiven for thinking he was merely a decent journeyman forward. The stats show that he scored 260 goals in 828 games for more than 20 different clubs. Those who saw him play however, would tell you he was much more than some journeyman forward. Technically, he was excellent. With the likes of Leicester, Bolton and Birmingham he was a quality forward. An intelligent player with great touch, control, finesse and vision, he was nicknamed 'Elvis'. A great maverick of the game, Worthington only played eight times for England.
4 Brian Clough
The only real maverick manager on this list and Brian Clough was as much of a maverick as almost any player that the game has ever seen. Clough's playing career as a prolific scorer in the North East was cut short by injury, but he experienced even greater success in management. He took both Derby County and Nottingham Forest, who were struggling second division sides at the time, right to the top. His achievements have never been matched in the English game, and he did it all with a maverick approach, sharp wit and unnerving philosophy of how the game should be played.
3 Diego Maradona
Arguably the greatest player of all time, Diego Maradona was also one of the game's great mavericks. He may have been a cheat and drug user but he was also a genius. Running with the ball, there have been none better than Maradona and he transformed mediocre Napoli and Argentina teams into Italian and world champions respectively. He was every bit an independent thinker, if a little mental. He met and spoke with Fidel Castro and made his political views very clear. He was without peer on the pitch and has been outspoken away from it, still causing controversy today.
2 Rene Higuita
There are mavericks and then there are maniacs. Rene Higuita was both. Known as 'El Loco', or 'the Madman', his nickname should give you some indication of his character. He was the most eccentric goalkeeper the game has ever seen. He took the 'sweeper keeper' role to new extremes, and became world famous for his scorpion kick at Wembley Stadium in a game against England. He won 68 caps for Colombia, and scored 44 career goals.
He had a large influence on the way goalkeepers played the game, although few followed the extremes set by him. In 1993 it was revealed that he had acted as a go-between for Colombian drug baron Pablo Escobar, and in 2004 he tested positive for cocaine. Given what Higuita was like sober, one can scarcely imagine him on cocaine.
1 George Best
The greatest maverick in football history is surely George Best. He paved the way for the likes of Frank Worthington, Robin Friday and others who followed him that also made this list. Best was the ultimate playboy footballer. Off the pitch he was known for his stylishness, womanizing, drinking and partying. On the pitch, he was known as the most technically gifted player in Britain, if not the world. A European Cup and Ballon d'Or winner in 1968, Best self-destructed like so many of his ilk at a young age.
He talked about retirement from as early as the age of 25, and it became a reality at 27 when he left Manchester United. Although he did make a return to the game, it was only for minnows and NASL sides, at an age when he should still have been the best player on the planet. Drinking was ultimately his downfall, as he destroyed his first liver before wrecking another following a transplant. Best died in 2005, aged 59.