Football has always loved its characters. Be it flashy players on the pitch or mavericks off it, there is an insatiable appetite for those who break the rules and stand out from the crowd. ZujuGP takes a look at those who have never failed to leave fans on the edge of their seats.
flamboyant /flamˈbɔɪənt/ (of a person or their behaviour) tending to attract attention because of their exuberance, confidence, and stylishness.
Colombian goalkeeper René Higuita was nicknamed El Loco ("The Madman") for a reason. Besides his trademark flowing locks, Higuita was known for a then-unorthodox ‘sweeper-keeper’ playing style and a flair for the dramatic, sometimes electing to dribble up the pitch to launch surprise attacks.
While Higuita often took free kicks and penalties, scoring at least 41 league goals in a colourful career, he is most well known for his scorpion kick clearance during a friendly against England at Wembley Stadium in 1995.
Briefly retiring in 2005 after testing positive for cocaine, Higuita made headlines once again for undergoing several plastic surgery procedures while on a reality show. “I am tired of being ugly René, I want to be handsome René," he declared.
Former Arsenal sports psychologist Jacques Crevoisier used to tell a story about Nicklas Bendtner’s time at the club and the tests that their young players were put through.
"One of the categories is called 'self perceived competence' - how good the player himself thinks he is,'' Crevoisier told Swedish magazine Offside. “'On a scale up to 9, Bendtner got 10! We have never seen that before.”
"When Bendtner misses a chance, he is always genuinely convinced that it wasn't his fault.”
The Danish striker, who only recently retired, has never been short on confidence. “I want to be top scorer in the Premier League, top scorer at the World Cup and, within five years, I want to be among the best strikers in the world,” he told the Danish press in 2009. "Trust me, it will happen." It did not.
Bendtner also once celebrated a goal against Portugal at Euro 2012 by lowering his shorts to reveal a Paddy Power logo on his underpants. UEFA were not amused, fining him €100,000.
The Divine Bald One (“Le Divin Chauve”) is famous for his trademark shaved head and his stint with Manchester United. Another sweeper-keeper in the mould of the aforementioned Higuita, Barthez is often considered one of the finest goalkeepers of his generation.
Supporters of Man United and the French national team will often recall the sight of Barthez letting compatriot Laurent Blanc kiss the top of his head before games, a pre-match good luck ritual with the defender that began during France’s epic run to the World Cup title in 1998.
Although his first season in Man United colours was a roaring success, Barthez’s eccentric style also led to many heart-stopping moments for Red Devils fans as he would constantly take on opposing strikers by dribbling past them when a simple clearance might have sufficed. But his stunning reaction saves, many which came in clutch moments, made him an instant fan favourite.
A loss of form in subsequent years led to the end of his stint in England and return to France with Marseille and a first retirement in 2006. The break did not last long however, as he returned at year’s end with Nantes, although he soon departed after altercations within the squad and with fans. Barthez then started a second career in motorsport, which surprised absolutely no one.
It all began with an audacious goal from midfield, a swing of the boot that sent the ball floating over Wimbledon goalkeeper Neil Sullivan and into the annals of Premier League history. Blonde locks, movie star looks and a cultured right foot did the rest. Beckham was soon a household name in the United Kingdom and beyond as he transcended the football pitch and achieved global superstardom.
Dating pop star Victoria Adams of the red-hot Spice Girls didn’t hurt, and even though he would undergo a public trial by fire after his red card against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup, Becks soon showed his remarkable ability to bounce back and prove his doubters wrong.
This would become a pattern throughout his career, as he moved from one super club to the next, never failing to make the headlines no matter which city or team he ended up in. Whether it was captaining England or joining the Galacticos at Real Madrid or turning up stateside to bring Major League Soccer to a whole new level, Beckham did it with no small amount of panache.
These days, as a retired footballer and co-owner of both Inter Miami and Salford City, the 46-year-old is still one of the most recognisable faces in the world and a global style icon. It would be no exaggeration to say that Beckham blazed a trail for the modern day superstar footballer, showing that it is possible to have a profile both on and off the pitch while excelling in both arenas.
Ronaldinho’s trademark grin and long flowing locks are synonymous with the Brazilian footballer.
In his prime, he was a bewitching force on the pitch, able to take on any and all comers with a bag of tricks that could easily put any marker on his backside. A true maestro with the ball at his feet, Ronaldinho had magnetic close control and an unerring eye for goal.
One of the world’s highest paid players in his time, Ronaldinho was also the face of many different brands, achieving global recognition with cameos in advertisements for the likes of Pepsi, Coca-Cola and the FIFA video game.
It would perhaps come as no surprise that a viral advertisement with Coca-Cola ended up being the first YouTube video to register one million views on the site, with the midfielder appearing to volley the ball repeatedly against the crossbar without it touching the ground. Were any camera tricks involved? It was Ronaldinho, anything was possible.
While Ronaldinho’s partying lifestyle and gradual lack of dedication to his craft led to a decline in ability over the years, fans will always remember him at his peak - a silky smooth dribbler who could cut open defenses with a feint or two and a wide smile on his face.
When Cristiano Ronaldo first broke through at Manchester United, he was a wiry winger with a penchant for flashy dribbles and gelled locks. While his style of play and hairstyles have changed over the years, his legend has only grown.
Ronaldo’s career reads like a football fairytale so far, as he swapped Man United red for Real Madrid whites as he joined the galactico revolution, before bringing his trademark swagger to The Old Lady of Italian football - Juventus.
But just this year, there was another remarkable chapter added to his story, as the 36-year-old made a stunning return to Old Trafford with the blessings of former mentor Sir Alex Ferguson, leaving fans and media alike eating out of the palm of his hand.
There might never be another like him.
Whether it’s constantly referring to himself in the third person, or taking out a full page advertisement in the Los Angeles Times (“Dear Los Angeles, you’re welcome”) upon signing for the Galaxy, Zlatan Ibrahimovic has always been quite the showman.
Despite his larger-than-life personality, he has always been able to back it up with his prodigious talents on the pitch. While he failed to win a trophy in the aforementioned stint with LA Galaxy, Ibrahimovic announced himself with two superb goals off the bench in a 4-3 comeback win over crosstown rivals Los Angeles FC and added another 50 goals in the 55 league appearances following that.
The 39-year-old is now back with AC Milan, still scoring at a fine clip in one of Europe’s top leagues. “I'm like a wine: the older I am, the better I get,” he reportedly told Aftonbladet. It’s hard to argue with him given the evidence at hand.
“Why always me?” read the caption on Balotelli’s undershirt after scoring a goal in the Manchester Derby in 2011. The then-Manchester City striker was referring to media reports of his various escapades since joining the English club, but one could hardly blame the tabloids given the number of hijinks Balotelli seemed to dream up on a regular basis.
There was the time he drove into a women’s prison in Italy to have an uninvited look around, or when he threw darts at a youth team player as a training ground prank. In fact, the Italian forward had just set part of his own house on fire the day before his derby shirt celebration, only to then be unveiled as Greater Manchester’s fire safety ambassador later that week. You couldn’t make it up.
The Barcelona-born right back might have kicked his last ball in anger for Arsenal, but Gunners fans will no doubt have fond memories of a cockney-accented 18-year-old Spaniard making his debut for the team back in 2013.
Known for his blazing pace early on in his career, Bellerin was reported to have broken Theo Walcott’s (remember him?) 40m dash record while at Arsenal. His marauding style of play endeared him to supporters on the pitch, while his sartorial choices off it often made headlines.
Whether it be his dangly earrings, flashy clothing or ever-changing facial hair, the Spaniard stood out at all times. The footballer even went viral in 2018 when fans noticed that he bore a passing resemblance to singer Dua Lipa and her new haircut.
Bellerin has continued to make waves with his unique life and career choices, from turning vegan in 2017, becoming co-owner of EFL League Two club Forest Green Rovers in 2020 and promising to plant thousands of trees for every Arsenal victory after football’s return from COVID-19 the year after.
Long before becoming the Paris-based superstar whose every move in the city is documented by endless streams of paparazzi, Neymar was already drawing attention as a prodigiously talented teenager in Brazil.
Clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona were already tracking Neymar from the age of 17, and the youngster was regularly showing off his bag of tricks en route to more than a century of goals for Santos.
Sao Paulo defender Ivan Piris was definitely not a fan of the endless stepovers in 2012, punting the tricky winger up in the air after being on the end of one too many flashy moves during a game.
The Brazilian was reportedly also warned by a referee for showboating in a 5-0 win against Montpellier in 2020, before earning a yellow card for dissent.
Off the pitch, Neymar often makes headlines with his sartorial choices, new tattoos, countless sponsorships as well as a string of rumoured girlfriends.
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