Tricksters have a long and celebrated legacy in mythology. From Coyote to Eshu to Loki, every culture on Earth has acknowledged and celebrated mythic figures who bend and break the rules to suit their purposes. With soccer producing its own culture and folklore, it seems fitting that we would find ourselves drawn to those players who do whatever they deem necessary to win. (Or stroke their ego. Which is like winning, kinda.) Some players like to use superior dribbling ability to shame opposing players. Others clearly missed their calling as world-class actors. Still others take every opportunity they can to stick it to someone they don’t like, and sometimes don’t even mind when they’re caught. Soccer is full of players who break rules, flaunt conventions, and generally aim to misbehave. And we absolutely love them for it. Here are 20 of soccer’s greatest tricksters.
This list isn’t in any particular order, but I put Garrincha first because it just isn’t complete without him. The man would beat his defender, then slow down so his opponent could catch up with him just to beat him again. How can you not love that?
2. Mario Balotelli
The thing I like about Mario Balotelli is he’s not afraid to look stupid. This is an excellent example. Yes, the move didn’t work out, but it could’ve been awesome, so why not try? And isn’t this game supposed to be fun, anyway?
3. Rene Higuita
I just said that trying something awesome is worth it in soccer, even if it doesn’t work. That’s because sometimes it does work, and you end up doing something like THIS. Holy cow.
4. Eric Cantona
I have a ton of respect for Eric Cantona. His combination of pace and guile made him one of the most effective forwards in the 90’s-era Premier League. But he’ll never be able to get away from the image of him going all Mortal Kombat on a fan. (Unless he does more weird indie movies. Then, maybe.)
5. Nigel de Jong
And speaking of Kung Fu Soccer, there’s this guy. Excellent holding midfielder, made a huge name for himself at Ajax, Manchester City, and now AC Milan. But the guy drop-kicked Xabi Alonso in a World Cup Final. Beautiful, perfect Xabi Alonso. You can’t buy that kind of infamy.
6. Luis Suárez
You knew this was coming. He bites. He dives. He commits deliberate handballs to deny goals. He may or may not engage in racist speech. He gets in his opponents’ heads. He does whatever he has to do to get an advantage. And he kindasorta gets away with it because he’s one of the best players in the world. Mostly by doing stuff like this.
7. Zinedine Zidane
I’m going to leave out the headbutt and the smoking here and focus on his movement and dribbling. Which, holy heck. It’s like someone dropped Gumby off at La Masia with $20 and an apology note. Zidane spent most of his career making some of the best defenders in the game look like amateurs, and for that, we love him
8. Joey Barton
It’s hard to pick just one thing when it comes to Joey Barton. But we’ll settle on the red card and subsequent kick out on Sergio Aguero in QPR’s away match at Manchester City in May 2012. (Yes, that game.) I used to say that Barton missed his calling by not getting into a combat sport and I stand by that. Maybe there’s still time!
Aaaaaaaand speaking of MMA fighters masquerading as footballers, there’s this guy. Oh boy. You’d have to be a pretty devout Madridista to defend much of what Pepe does on a pitch. But he’s a mainstay of Real Madrid’s backline and he gets results. So, there’s that.
Rivaldo had a long and fruitful career, playing for 11 teams and scoring almost 300 goals for club and country. But he’ll never, ever live this one down. This incident at the 2002 World Cup is just so ridiculous you can’t help but laugh. (Unless you’re Turkish, I guess.)
11. Thierry Henry
Fun Fact: when you type “thi” into YouTube’s search box the very first suggested phrase is “thierry henry handball vs ireland.” Henry had a long, celebrated career as one of the most lethal strikers of his generation. But this is what he’ll always be remembered for. (And that whole “Invincibles” thing, I guess.)
12. David Luiz
If David Luiz had just faked a hit in order to have an opponent sent off, he likely wouldn’t have made this list. It’s the giggling and the cheeky wink at the camera that earns him a place in this esteemed pantheon. Shine on, you possibly sociopathic diamond.
13. Rafa Márquez
If you listen closely, you’ll hear a vaguely unsettling sound akin to the grinding of thousands and thousands of teeth. That’s the sound of USMNT and New York Red Bulls fans (among others) trying to restrain themselves. Like others on this list there’s plenty of material to choose from, but we’ll go with this gem from the 2002 World Cup. Ougly.
14. Cristiano Ronaldo
He’s nimble on the ball. He’s dangerous on set pieces. He scores more goals than entire teams put together. He’s arguably the best player in the world. But my favorite CR7 moment- and I say this as an England fan- has to be this whole charade from the 2006 World Cup. The wink almost made me feel better about the whole thing. My feeling- and this is applies to everyone on this list- is that if you’re going to be a bastard, own it. Dude definitely owned it here.
15. Robbie Fowler
In the interest of full disclosure: I’m a Liverpool fan, and as such I’ve got all the time in the world for Robbie Fowler. He may not have a majestic ‘stache like Ian Rush, but hey, we can’t all be perfect (even if your nickname is “God”). But this scene from 1999- in which he celebrates a converted penalty in the Merseyside Derby by pretending to snort the touchline as if it were a line of cocaine- takes the cake. He ended up earning a hefty fine and a four-game suspension for that little stunt. Knowing Fowler, he probably thinks it was totally worth it.
I could almost write a whole other piece on Ronaldinho’s shenanigans. (In fact, I just might.) But it doesn’t get a whole lot better than this. As a teammate was preparing for a throw-in, Ronaldinho asked the opposing keeper for some water. While he was drinking he just sort of drifted into position to collect the throw, unnoticed by opposing defenders who, y’know, thought he was getting water. Ronaldinho ended up in perfect position to receive the ball and deliver a cross that resulted in a goal. He later said he didn’t plan it this way, and maybe it’s better that this was totally spontaneous. I don’t know. Point is, this is brilliant.
17. Diego Costa
He fights with opponents, he pushes the limits of what he’s allowed to do in a match, and he does what he has to do to win. But what makes Diego Costa unique is how he can get into his opponents’ heads without resorting to dirty play. A snide comment here, a well-timed taunt there, and all of a sudden players for the other team are calling for his head. That takes talent.
18. Roy Keane
In isolation, this foul on Alf-Inge Håland is a pretty bad tackle, and Keane was deservedly punished for it with a three-match suspension and a fine. But then Keane released his autobiography a year later in which he says that the incident was premeditated revenge for something that happened four years prior. The FA then suspended him another five games- well after the initial controversy, mind you. Keane later said he had no regrets over the incident. This whole episode tells you pretty much everything you need to know about Roy Keane, and why he’s on this list. Holy heck.
I was really tempted to include a dribbling compilation video here, since I think that shows Neymar at his level best. His rainbow flicks in particular are something else. But in the end, it has to be this reverse foot penalty. It may have only been in training, but it still demonstrates the craftiness and subterfuge that makes Neymar such a great player.
20. Diego Maradona
I’m closing this list, appropriately, with probably the greatest trickster of them all. Maradona had a legendary career, was silky smooth on the ball, and lethal in front of goal. But when they write his obituary one day, this will be in the opening paragraph. The “Hand Of God” goal has almost taken on a legend of its own, transcending the player himself. But I don’t think anyone else could’ve pulled this off. What a beautiful, maddening, ridiculous legacy to leave behind.
Who did I leave out? Tell me who would be on your list in the comments below.