As they say, the distance between footballer and fan is greater these days than it ever before has been. No longer do footballers take the train home alongside the adoring masses or take a casual stroll down to the pub to spend some quality time with supporters. In truth, it’s really been quite a while since footballers have done either of those things, but the fact is that a giant invisible partition exists between the men who ply their trade on the pitch and those who spend hours a day attempting to get their attention on Twitter.
How much can one expect to know about an individual who is constantly in the spotlight, yet spends the majority of his existence under the protection of public relations teams? Outside of the refreshing – and increasingly rare – candid interview, insight into what a player truly thinks and feels is hard to come by these days. Often, even when a player does open his mouth to express himself, he does so at his own expense. There’s always some section of people lying in wait to misinterpret what a footballer says – intentionally or unintentionally – as football is at its core a game of raw emotion, on and off the field.
In turn, many footballers become caricatures of themselves, some without intention. What the throngs of enthusiasts largely believe them to be from a human standpoint is what they become. Consensus of understanding rules in an arena such as football, and players thus are left to fight public perception with regularity.
These are the misunderstood – the men of the beautiful game whose intentions have been misinterpreted, whose actions have been accepted to mean they’re misguided, unpleasant or unmotivated characters among other things. Maybe some aren’t give their due, others given a bad rap undeservingly. But footballers are people underneath the surface, and people are, for lack of a better way to put it, more complex than they seem at face value. Following are the top 20 most misunderstood players currently in football.
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20 Andrei Arshavin
Somewhere out there, Andrei Arshavin is still doing his thing. Well, actually he’s doing it with boyhood club Zenit Saint Petersburg – under Andre Villas-Boas’ direction. Funny how some things turn out, isn’t it? Before he linked up with the former Tottenham boss back in his native Russia, there was of course his time at the Emirates with Arsene Wenger. He was a divisive character to say the least. Some Gooners loved the diminutive winger, believing him to be an understated genius who was too hastily judged by the press and their fellow Arsenal fans in the stands. Then, there was another camp, one that maintained Arshavin was lazy, selfish and took up space that would be better occupied by a more motivated youngster. Arshavin was never one for tracking back, his rather one-dimensional talents not entirely suited to the Premier League and the ethos of Wenger. That said, he remains a cult hero in some circles and still plays on at 33 – even if it is a bit hard to imagine the animated Russian as an elder statesman in football terms.
19 Felipe Melo
Felipe Melo is one of those players who has never stayed in one place for too long, either wanted elsewhere due to his success or unable to maintain an understanding with his current employers. With Galatasaray he is on his ninth club in 14 years as a professional, still only 31 years old. Something of a volatile character, Melo first arrived in Europe with Mallorca, also representing Racing Santander and Almeria in Spain before moving on to Italy. After just a year at Fiorentina, he incurred the wrath of the Viola faithful by joining arch rivals Juventus two weeks after signing a contract extension at the Artemio Franchi – the Bianconeri paid the release clause inserted into his new terms. Melo was largely disappointing in his two seasons in Turin, turning in a few top performances but tempering excitement around him by unnecessarily lashing out against opponents – such as Mario Balotelli. Joining Galatasaray initially on loan, Melo has gone on to become a cult hero in the Turkish capital for his tenacious displays, though he hasn’t stopped courting controversy. In 2013, he was sued for defamation by a journalist for comments made on Twitter, also coming under investigation in Las Vegas last year for attacking a group of group of Fenerbahce supporters who had insulted him at a restaurant with a written message.
18 Fernando Torres
Fernando Torres probably isn’t what most people think he is. Then again, it seems that it’s been a while since Fernando Torres himself has known what he is. Once a deadly striker that struck fear in the hearts of opponents, the Spaniard underwent a depressing transformation from prowling lion king of the savannah to meek housecat too afraid to chase his own shadow. The downfall of the former Liverpool man has left him a psychological mess for some time. Devastating miss after miss at Chelsea certainly weighed on him. Even if his physical state had deteriorated and left him an inherently weaker player than before, it’s hard to believe that he would have dropped off to such an extent without an additional mental block that sapped any and all confidence he had left. Torres didn’t ask for his massive Chelsea price tag and nobody would want to become the butt of ridicule the way he has – no wonder he only cracked a smile for the first time in years after returning to Atletico Madrid.
17 Mirko Vucinic
The Montenegrin has always been, let’s say, different. And refreshingly, he’s never been afraid to be himself, even if it made him look a bit unhinged at times. Vucinic’s signature goal celebration has long been stripping down to his underwear and either discarding his shorts entirely or waving them around above his head. The former Lecce striker put his nether regions on display in a celebratory manner while playing for both Roma and Juventus, as well as his country. Beyond this, Vucinic has often been viewed as a mercurial hit man, displaying Jekyll and Hyde type form down the years – one week he’ll be finding the top corner from distance with confidence, the next overcomplicating the simple and ballooning over the bar from point-blank range. Largely fueled by emotion, Vucinic has always seemed able to take fans along on a roller coaster ride like no other due to his unpredictability, a trait which can prove both elating and maddening. At 31, he’s now plying his trade in the UAE with Al Jazira – but don’t rule out one last go in Europe for the Montenegrin, he still has plenty to offer and it would seem a fitting end to a career defined by mutability.
16 Sebastian Giovinco
Sebastian Giovinco was destined for greatness, or at least that’s what many wanted to believe. At one point he was tipped to be the long-term successor to Alessandro Del Piero at Juventus, placing a great deal of weight on the slight shoulders of a player who grew up dreaming of becoming a Bianconeri legend. It took him a spell away from the Turin club at Parma to truly find his feet in Serie A, with Giovinco returning to his hometown in the summer of 2012 seemingly ready to shine. Instead, his fortunes steadily slipped with time. As Juventus became dominant in Italy once again, the Atomic Ant increasingly struggled and even became a target for sections of fans. And just like that, with his contract set to expire in the coming summer, Giovinco took the decision to move to MLS despite being just 28 years old. But why, as many have cried out? Footballers have a short earnings window and accepting a contract with Toronto FC will allow Giovinco to maximize his income. Plus, the idea of playing on in Europe away from Juventus would have looked a painful ask. Taking on an alternative adventure is thus understandable for Giovinco, who never quite hit the highs he was tipped to reach.
15 Marouane Fellaini
Circumstance can play a massive role in how any footballer is viewed. Last season, Marouane Fellaini found himself in a nightmare situation that brought envy out of nobody, even if earning a move to Manchester United appeared to be on the surface a brilliant turn of luck. As the marquee summer purchase of the ill-fated David Moyes era, Fellaini looked doomed at United from the start. Before he was even able to step on the pitch, the Belgian was labeled a panic buy, taken in by his former boss at Everton for a price far above his natural value. His dire performances vindicated the crowd already stacked against him, tasked with unfamiliar tactical roles in a side that was deeply flawed beyond his ability to compensate. Not put in a position to succeed, Fellaini quickly became a misunderstood quantity at United in stark contrast to the intriguing player he was to watch at Everton. His luck has been markedly better under Louis van Gaal, but what his legacy at Old Trafford will ultimately be remains to be seen.
14 Dejan Lovren
Players have ambitions and loyalties simply aren’t what they used to be today. Aspirations are just fine, although footballers can make a real hash of things in chasing them. Enter Dejan Lovren. The Croatian thought he was on a sinking ship at Southampton in the summer, with his teammates streaming over to Liverpool. Lovren too wanted in on Champions League football at an historic giant after enjoying a brilliant campaign. He agitated and forced his way to Anfield via a transfer request, implying that Southampton had stood in the way of him achieving his dreams. Conceivably Lovren was indeed just reaching for the stars – understandably so – but he undoubtedly could’ve been just a tad more graceful about it.
13 Kevin Mirallas
Last month, Kevin Mirallas’ name shot into the headlines – but for the widely dreaded wrong reasons. In the first half of Everton’s January Premier League encounter with Aston Villa, the Toffees won a much needed penalty. It takes stones to step up to take a penalty, and the Belgian decided he had what was required to do so, even if unauthorized. Typically it would be Leighton Baines doing the honors, only Mirallas shrugged off his teammate and proceeded to set down the ball on the spot. He proceeded to miss terribly and Everton could manage only a scoreless draw with a rather dour Villa side. Rumors flew about that he would be sold even after manager Roberto Martinez claimed Mirallas had been substituted a half time due to injury. Mirallas stayed at Goodison Park, but has continued taking heat ever since. He’s been in hot water before – Belgium boss Marc Wilmots famously told Mirallas to shut his trap after he complained about the possibility that Adnan Januzaj could make the Red Devils’ World Cup squad. Footballers are quite often placed in a situation where overconfidence can come naturally, and it may be that Mirallas is just as human as everyone else.
12 Giovani dos Santos
For any player joining La Masia from abroad at the age of 12, there would be a great weight on their shoulders. Such was the case for Giovani dos Santos, son of former footballer Zizinho and a boy who was expected to come through the ranks at Barcelona and become the next Ronaldinho. It didn’t quite happen that way. A media-incited rivalry with Bojan saw him leave the Camp Nou at 19 for Tottenham, where he’d gain a reputation as an unsettled youngster largely lacking focus. After finally finding success in Spain, dos Santos continued to be doubted as part of the Mexico national set-up due to his status as a “European,” raised in a footballing sense outside of his homeland. Dos Santos has seemingly long lacked the benefit of the doubt of those around him, to his credit persevering even though his path to the present has been far from easy.
11 Carlos Vela
It’s almost hard to believe Carlos Vela is still only 25, so eventful has his career been to date. He was only 16 when he left Mexico for Arsenal, only to be denied a work permit in England in a saga that dragged on for nearly three years. In the end, Vela never truly found much success at the Emirates and made clear he wished to permanently move to Real Sociedad, a move which left some Arsenal fans at varying levels of disappointment. But it is Vela’s international tussles that have above all shaped his reputation. For three years he refused to represent Mexico in light of a strained relationship with his nation’s football authorities. His return to El Tri in August was in turn controversial – though the full story of why Vela spurned his country’s advances for so long may never be known.
10 James Milner
At least James Milner is able to see the humorous side of things. The English midfielder has joked endlessly about his Twitter alter-ego – Boring James Milner – even going on hunts through the Manchester City organization to try to discover the understated genius behind it. Whether Milner’s internet personality is sharing his tactics for maintaining the structural integrity of his garbage bins with Samir Nasri or giving his toaster a thorough clean, the idea that the 29-year-old is a dull character is constantly being propagated. It all stems from the conventional view of Milner as a player symbolic of industry in the center of the park, lacking flair. Is that a fair tag to place on a footballer who has supplied 80 assists from midfield over the course of his professional career?
9 Mario Balotelli
Yes, it’s always him. Whether it be demented genius or just plain demented, Mario Balotelli is seemingly always at the scene with the proverbial smoking gun in hand. There’s no doubt that the Italian is something of a disruption in the dressing room – he has a history of clashing with teammates and managers, performing outrageous acts that derail focus. Balotelli makes questionable choices and doesn’t always look the most committed, while he often gives of an air of arrogance that his displays on the pitch can’t justify. But one would still be hard pressed to find any malicious intent in Balotelli’s actions. Sure, at 24 years of age, he’s no longer a raw teenager who can be excused for childish ridiculousness. That being said, there’s a distinct immature streak in the Italian that makes him a poster boy for misunderstood footballers – whether he’ll actually ever grow up remains to be seen.
8 Adem Ljajic
There was a time when Adem Ljajic was set to enter the ranks of Manchester United as a raw teenager, only for the plug to be pulled on the deal after everything was agreed. The Serbian’s former coach at Partizan Belgrade, Goran Stevanovic, would later admit that Ljajic was hit hard mentally by the transfer’s collapse. Instead he joined Fiorentina. In 2012 he became embroiled in controversy when then-Viola boss Delio Rossi threw a punch Ljajic’s way, the young forward having sarcastically clapped upon his substitution. Rossi was sacked, while Ljajic’s teammates cried foul over the Italian’s claims that the Serbian had made an unsavory comment about his family. While at Fiorentina, Ljajic was also exiled from the Serbian national team by Sinisa Mihajlovic for refusing to sing the national anthem on religious grounds. Ljajic initially encountered difficulties after moving to Roma in August 2013, seen to be agitated over a lack of opportunities. However, the 23-year-old has experienced an uptick in form this term and looks to be at last shedding his image as a rebel – though painting him with that brush may have been unfair to begin with.
7 Nigel de Jong
Ask anybody who the dirtiest players in football are at the moment and the response will likely include Nigel de Jong’s name. Three incidents in particular have given rise to the Dutchman’s stature as nothing but a careless destroyer. De Jong shattered Stuart Holden’s leg during an international friendly in early 2010, later in the same year breaking Hatem Ben Arfa’s leg in two places representing Manchester City in the Premier League. In between, the midfielder landed an infamous kick to the chest of Xabi Alonso in the World Cup final, leaving millions outraged that he was not sent off. Bad as his offenses may look, however, de Jong is more than just a crushing tackler. The Dutchman is an accomplished passer from deep-lying positions and a natural leader on the pitch – plus, he’s only ever received one straight red card in his entire career.
6 Carlos Tevez
Is there anybody who truly knows what Carlos Tevez is thinking? Probably not, but nonetheless there’s no shortage of people willing to take a jab at the Argentine. First, there was his protracted third-party drama involving Media Sports Investments. Then, there was his departure from Manchester United for Manchester City, which drew the ire of the Red Devils for clear reasons. Tevez’s behavior during his time at the Etihad irked plenty of people, only adding fuel to the fire for his detractors – his exile from the Argentina squad at the same time didn’t help improve his deteriorating image either. But at Juventus, it must be said that he’s turned things around. The Argentine has been a loyal servant to the Bianconeri cause and played his way back into his nation’s plans. Divisive as he may be, Tevez is one of those players that just seems to need a certain type of environment to be stable – and if he finds it, he’ll give his all for the shirt.
5 Mario Mandzukic
Being the front man for one of Europe’s best clubs is an absolute dream. Or at least it is in theory, because Mario Mandzukic found out it isn’t always rosy leading the line at Bayern Munich. The Croatian was the striker of choice under Jupp Heynckes during his first campaign at the Allianz Arena, bagging 22 goals across all competitions en route to an historic treble after joining from Wolfsburg in the summer of 2012. Mandzukic would outdo himself the next season with 26 total goals, but nonetheless saw his time at Bayern come to an end soon enough. Several times over the course of the term he was dropped from the squad entirely by new boss Pep Guardiola, with his future in doubt. Mandzukic was widely characterized as a malcontent, a sulky character who didn’t buy in to the Spaniard’s philosophy. He’d later admit to wanting to leave because he didn’t believe Guardiola’s style of play suited him. The fact remains, however, that Mandzukic still gave the side plenty while he was still in the camp – and another team-oriented coach like Diego Simeone wouldn’t have moved for him if his attitude were as bad as perceived.
Pepe lashes out. He gets sent off regularly. He turned his back on Brazil to represent Portugal. To anybody who doesn’t support Real Madrid or his adopted nation, Pepe is public enemy number one. But there’s another side of the central defender that doesn’t get quite the same level of press as his ill-tempered antics. Pepe has been known to purchase large quantities of food during holiday seasons and spend his time personally distributing it to the less fortunate in Madrid. Something has to be said for such kindness, as there’s no shortage of footballers who aren’t so willing to lend a helping hand despite being in a position to do so. Beyond this, the Portugal international also has an understated reputation for making a point of interacting with fans and forging close relationships with his teammates, showing himself to be a generous figure. Perhaps his rage on the pitch comes from an uncontrollable desire to protect what is close to him – even if he does take things a bit to far now and then.
3 Cesc Fabregas
When one leaves La Masia as a teenager, Barcelona fans don’t soon forget. That’s exactly what Cesc Fabregas did at the age of 16, believing he’d have a better chance of breaking through at Arsenal. Fabregas became a hero and club captain at the Emirates, only to make an emotional return to Barcelona when the opportunity came knocking. He wasn’t entirely well received. The Spaniard was shuttled around the park in an effort to shoehorn him into the lineup, often drawing the ire of fans with less-than-stellar performances. Viewed as something of an expensive mistake at the Camp Nou, Fabregas looked destined to leave once more. Arsenal supporters were devastated when he joined Chelsea, even as the Gunners turned down the chance to take him back via first right of refusal. The midfielder has been on the receiving end of plenty of undeserved ill will over the course of his career, though so far at Chelsea has been nothing but a hit with the Stamford Bridge faithful.
2 Arjen Robben
Few things in football could invite disdain at the same level as a world class player admitting to indulging in the game’s darkest art: diving. Arjen Robben did exactly that during the World Cup in Brazil, infamously apologizing for having intentionally hit the deck against Mexico – albeit not for the winning penalty, as many would have guessed. The Dutchman’s rap sheet for simulation was already a mile long before his exploits in South America, having thrown himself to the ground with minimal contact countless times while at Chelsea, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. Hate him for it or not, there’s an important point to consider about Robben’s diving. What should be clear at this point is that the winger cares less about his reputation and more about winning matches. And don’t call him a one-trick pony, either. Robben sure loves cutting inside onto his left foot and does so with shocking regularity – but his quickness makes it so effective one could hardly blame him.
1 Lionel Messi
Yes, the man who headlines the discussion of who is world football’s top player is a misunderstood figure. Lionel Messi is loved by millions for the feats he performs on the football pitch, but is something of an enigma from a personal standpoint. There’s no shortage of ambivalence surrounding Messi in his homeland of Argentina, where the cult hero status of Diego Maradona reigns supreme even to this day. Having left the nation of his birth for Barcelona at a young age, there’s a distinct lack of connection between Messi and his countrymen – and he hasn’t been able to make up for it by winning trophies with the Albiceleste. Messi may lack the egotistical nature that makes Cristiano Ronaldo less palatable for many, however his relative distance from nearly everyone in the game makes him a difficult figure to connect with. Due to a relative lack of interviews and openness about his life, an endless stream of often negative rumors about Messi the man – rather than footballer – have proliferated down the years. Perhaps only when the Argentine hangs up his boots will the football community at large be permitted greater insight into his persona.
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