Hard men in football are often overlooked but every single great team has at least one of them. There are the kind of players whose presence alone breeds a fearlessness in their team-mates and strike fear and hesitance into the hearts of opposing players. Here we listed the hard men of the modern era (post-1974) from 11 to 1.
11) Bobo Balde
A pivotal member of Martin O’Neil’s Celtic team and one who embodied his manager’s emphasis on physical superiority. The Celtic fans would taunt opposing strikers with the phrase “Bobo’s gonnae get you” over and over again. After playing against Celtic in the UEFA Cup in 2003, Michael Owen recently admitted that Balde was one of those defenders he dreaded meeting again in his career as winning the ball was simply not enough for Bobo, he always made sure the opponent knew they were in for one of the most daunting 90 mins of their career. Even in the volatility of Old Firm matches the 6ft 5 Balde was untouchable and no-one dared cross him. A rare occurrence indeed.
This goal below showcases everything Balde was about – power and a disregard for whatever was in front of him.
10) Pablo Guiñazú
Currently dawning the black and white of Vasco da Gama, Guiñazú has earned a reputation throughout his career as one of the fiercest midfield enforcers on the South American continent. He is not one to shy away from conflict but often it is conflict that shies away from him. There aren’t any really great videos of Guiñazú to illustrate this point but as the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, and this is definitely true for the above.
9) Tomas Repka
Repka made his name as a defensive stalwart with the exciting Fiorentina side of the late 90s containing the likes of Francesco Toldo, Gabriel Batistuta and Rui Costa. A lengthy period followed at West Ham before he returned to Sparta Prague. Often his own worst enemy on the pitch as too often his passion overflowed towards downright anger, it is no surprise to hear he picked up 19 red cards in his career. A player adored by the fans of every club he played for and one who left a mark despite his tendency to lose his mind.
In the video below you can see Repka kick-off very aggressively against the referee, an opposing coach and then slap the camera once he is sent off. The incident starts at around 01:05.
8) Matthias Sammer
Sammer in the history of football is one of only three defenders to win the Ballon d’Or, the other two being Franz Beckenbauer and Fabio Cannavaro. One of the finest players of his generation and an often overlooked quality of his is his tenacity in breaking forward out of defence to meet the tackle. The raw aggression Sammer used to drive his game on became the driving force of Ottmar Hitzfeld’s Borussia Dortmund. He was the kind of player that went to any limit necessary in order to win, to the extent that his determination became intimidating to the opposition.
7) Vinnie Jones
Since his retirement Vinnie Jones has branched out into acting taking his hard man persona with him and doing well in the process, most notably in Guy Ritchie’s films. Jones was the last of a long line of hatchet men in British football before modern laws gave the attackers much more protection towards the end of his career. The image above of Paul Gascoigne and him has worked its way into English footballing immortality, and rightly so.
6) Roy Keane
Keane’s aggression made him stand out from an early age. An all-round talented footballer with an incredible engine, bit it was his will to win that set him apart. Sir Alex Ferguson broke the British transfer record at the time to bring him to Manchester United and Keano would become his on the field general for the next decade. Various scuffles stick in the mind when lookng back at his career but the most infamous is the Alf-Inge Haland one in which Keane waited four years to get retribution. Even now it is still labelled as the worst tackle in Premier League history.
Even now in his role as a pundit Keane still has that very underlying aggression in a lot of what he does, particularly when sharing the studio with Gareth Southgate.
5) Duncan Ferguson
Notorious from an early age, at just 23 years old Ferguson was jailed for 3 months for headbutting Raith Rovers defender John McStay whilst playing for Rangers (video below). He would soon move down south to Everton and quickly earned the nickname Duncan Disorderly. The Everton fans instantly took to him and he went on to become a longstanding hero at Goodison Park. Some of Big Dunc’s hard man moments are so good that they are funny. His antics brought him some lengthy bans but there was something almost romantic about the way Ferguson brought the laws of the game into his own hands and it is easy to see why the Everton fans took to him so strongly.
He also famously once caught two men trying to rob his apartment and went face to face with the both of them. One burglar managed to flee but Duncan detained the other and in doing so the burglar ended up spending three days in hospital. This also led to the second man being caught and both burglars ended up doing prison time.
4) Jaap Stam
Sir Alex Ferguson himself said the only major regret of his career was selling Jaap Stam to Lazio at a time when United thought the best of him had passed after a serious knee injury. Stam was imperious in United 1999 treble winning season. Compared to the likes of Roy Keane, Stam was more of a silent hard man. In a clash with Arsenal’s Patrick Vieira, it took roughly 8 players to hold Stam back. Even now in his retired days he still has those moments in him. In the 2012 Soccer Aid, a charity football event in the UK, Stam went through Olly Murs, a tackle which caused the singer to come off the pitch well before he was expected to.
The clip is the ultimate example of Stam scaring the life out of an opponent. As the player tried to stamp on Stam, Jaap bounces back up and the sheer fear in the player’s face says all we need to know about Stam:
3) Walter Samuel
One of the greatest ever South American defenders and his performances in Serie A over the last decade put him along modern greats such as Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta. Samuel rose to prominence as part of the formidable Boca Juniors team at the end of the 90s that went 40 games unbeaten and won the Copa Libertadores, forming a seemingly impenetrable partnership with Colombian Jorge Bermudez. Samuel, nicknamed Il Muro (translated as ‘the Wall’) then moved to Roma and won the Scudetto in his first season in Italy. An unsuccessful spell with Real Madrid followed before he turned to Italy to play with Inter Milan. Samuel was an essential part of Mourinho’s Inter side that won the Champions League in May 2010. The watertight defensive duo of Lucio and Samuel put in some historic display against Messi and co. manhandled Drogba with ease and made light work of Bayern in the final.
Samuel never lets an opponent by him, even if it means he has to resort to a clear out and out foul. And although he isn’t the tallest (stands at 6ft), he is a colossus to move around. No-one messes with him. Even Ibrahimovich and his enormous ego knew better than to provoke Walter Samuel. It is also worth noting that Walter Samuel is one of the few players to successfully return to a world class level after two cruciate ligament injuries. A testament to Samuel’s ability and the effect he has on his team-mates is that since he joined Inter in the summer of 2005, Inter have won every single Milan Derby Samuel has played in.
2) Claudio Gentile
Two performances of Gentile’s continue to gain notoriety, the man-marking jobs he put in against Zico and Maradona in the 1982 World Cup, a tournament Italy would go on to win. Gentile had a reputation for his uncompromising style of defending and his willingness to follow tactical instructions to the smallest detail. It was no shock then that Italy coach Enzo Bearot tasked Gentile with the role of stopping the two key men of Italy’s opponents in the group of death against Argentina and Brazil. This had become a regular feature of Bearot’s tactics as in previous tournaments he had used Gentile to man mark other players he believed were the biggest threat at the 78 World Cup – Holland’s Johnny Rep, Argentina’s Mario Kempes, Brazil’s Roberto Dinamite and Austria’s Hanz Krankl. Italy topped their group ahead of their well favoured opponents, Argentina would go on to win the World Cup in 1986 and the Brazilian side of the 1982 are often cited as the greatest ever squad to never win a World Cup.
Gentile’s performances in these two matches cemented his place alongside the great Italian defenders. At the same time, they are now looked upon as performances that would be impossible to get away with nowadays as they were so aggressive and heavy-handed. In the videos below that show both of his matches mentioned, you can see both Zico and Maradona becoming visibly less eager to be involved in play as Gentile’s incessant presence continues to wear them down.
1) Graeme Souness
The midfield pitbull who led Liverpool through the best moment of their history in winning three European Cups in a span of 6 years. The second Scot on our list, Souness was famous for his tree-trunk like legs, something he says he gained from his days delivering milk up high tenement buildings as a milkboy in Edinburgh. Souness was a player who would often very quickly set the tone in matches and let the opposition know they’d have to battle tooth and nail to even stand a chance against his side. Perhaps the best story of Souness is from the 1984 European Cup semi-final matches between Liverpool and Dinamo Bucharest. Souness broke the jaw of Dinamo captain Lica Movila in the home leg at Anfield by throwing a punch at Movila behind the referees back. The Dinamo players were outraged by this and Liverpool went to Bucharest to protect their 1-0 advantage from the first leg, the Romanians were hell-bent on revenge against Souness and singled him out for one of the biggest kickings the tournament had ever seen. This rough treatment however only served to motivate Souness and he put in one of his best ever displays in a Liverpool strip as they went through 3-1 on aggregate. One of the Romanian commentators described Souness’ performance as as close to insanity as he had ever seen on a pitch, Souness at one point started to laugh whilst on the ball as he dodged three very wild tackles from Dinamo. The Scot later said that his legs were cut to pieces after that game but he never wanted to give the Dinamo players the satisfaction of knowing they could hurt him.
Even in management Souness still had that fire in him as he sparked a riot in the Turkish Cup Final in 1996 when he planted a Galasataray flag in the centre of the pitch, igniting a volatile response from the Fenerbahce fans inside the stadium.