The Hardest Footballers of the Modern Era
Hard men in football are often overlooked, but every single great team has at least one of them. They are the kind of player whose presence alone breeds a fearlessness in the team mates, and hesitation into the heart of opposing players. Here we list the hard men of the modern era from 20 down to 1.
- Stuart Pearce
Any player who earned the nickname Pyscho deserves a place in the list of football’s hardest men, although even his biggest detractors would find it difficult to call him dirty, picking up just 2 red cards in his career and 38 yellows. A tough tackling left-back with a thumping shot from free-kicks, Pearce is best remembered for his involvement in two penalty shoot-outs for England. In 1990, he missed, along with Chris Waddle, as England crashed out in the semi-finals to West Germany. Six years later there came redemption at Wembley, as he scored from the spot to help put Spain out of Euro 96. The picture of him pumped up in valedictory triumph remains one of the enduring images of the tournament.
Pearce later summed up his philosophy, both on and off the field: “I will do whatever it takes to win a football match”.
- Bobo Balde
A pivotal member of Martin O’Neill’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 later admitted that Balde was one of those defenders he dreaded meeting again in his career, as winning the ball was simply not enough for Balde – he always made sure that opponents knew they were in for one of the most daunting 90 minutes of their career. Even in the volatile atmosphere of Old Firm matches, the 6ft 5 inch 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, or whoever, was in front of him.
- Pablo Guiñazú
Currently playing for Talleres in his native Argentina, 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 are not any 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.
- Gennaro Gattuso
Nicknamed the Ringhio (“The Snarl”) Gennaro Gattuso was a defensive midfielder best known for his time at AC Milan with whom he won two Serie A and Champions League titles, as well as the Coppa Italia and the Club World Cup. A hard-tackling player, Gattuso, who also won the 2006 World Cup with Italy, was renowned for his competitive nature, which sometimes crossed the line as to what was acceptable.
This included getting a red card against Ajax in the Champions League for striking Zlatan Ibrahimović in the face, and then taunting Schalke’s Christian Paulsen after another bruising Champions League match.
In Britain though, the Italian is best remembered for his clash with Tottenham coach Joe Jordan after a Champions league match in February 2011. After a fiery encounter, during which Jordan allegedly was frequently abusing Gattuso from the side-lines, the two came together at the final whistle, and more words were exchanged. Gattuso then grabbed Jordan, hardly a shrinking violet himself during his playing days, and then head-butted the Scot. He was handed a 5-match ban from the competition, later admitting that he lost control.
Today he is manager of AC Milan, although under pressure for his job because of the team’s relative lack of success on the field.
- Matthias Sammer
Sammer is one of only three defenders in history to win the Ballon D’Or, the other two being Franz Beckenbauer and Fabio Cannavaro. One of the finest players of his generation, one of his often overlooked qualities was 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 intimating to the opposition.
- 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. One dramatic production he has yet to feature in is the Nutcracker Suite, but the image above of him with Paul Gascoigne has worked its way into English footballing immortality, and rightly so.
Jones was a player who could strike fear into the very best of his contemporaries. These included Ruud Gullitt “He squeals more than the fu***ng pigs in my farm!” and Kenny Dalglish “I’ll tear your f***ing head off and puke in the hole.”
- Tomas Repka
Repka made his name as a defensive stalwart with the exciting Fiorentina side of the late 1990s, containing the like of Franceso Toldo, Gabriel Batistuta, and Rui Costa. A lengthy period at West Ham followed before he returned to Sparta Prague. Often his own worst enemy on the pitch, his passion frequently overflowed into downright anger. It is no surprise to heat that he picked up 19 red cards in his career. A player adored by the fans of every club that he played for, and one who left his mark on the game, despite his tendency to lose his mind.
In the video below, you can see Repka react very aggressively against the referee and opposing coach, and then slap the camera once he is sent off.
- Duncan Ferguson
Notorious from an early age, at just 23 years old Ferguson was jailed for 3 months for head-butting 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 almost something 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 burglars 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 the process, 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.
Former West Brom defender Paul Scharner paid tribute to Ferguson’s ability with his fists, saying “I began to appreciate how he earned his reputation as a hard man. It was a nice punch, I have to say”, whilst the man himself said: “Hand on heart, I never started anything, never once. That’s the truth. I finished a few.”
- Paolo Montero
Former Juventus centre-back, and sometimes left-back, Paolo Montero is the proud holder of the most red cards in Serie A, having collected no fewer than 16, in addition to the 5 he gathered whilst playing in his native Uruguay and Argentina. Capped 61 times by Uruguay, he was renowned for his leadership and organisation, as well as his strength. Part of the Juventus side that won four Serie A titles he was famous for his aggressive style and his habit of picking up unnecessary yellow and red cards. He was described by his Juventus team mates as “fierce, indomitable, and essential”.
- Jaap Stam
Sir Alex Ferguson himself has said that the only major regret of his career was selling Jaap Stam to Lazio at a time when United thought that he has was past his best, after a serious knee injury. Stam was imperious in United’s 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 8 players to hold Stam back. Even now he is retired, Stam shows that he still has those moments in him. In the 2012 Soccer Aid, a charity football event in the UK, Stam went straight through Olly Murs, a tackle which caused the singer to leave the pitch prematurely.
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 the Dutchman.
Stam left his mark on all he played with as the following quotes illustrate:
“He was very quiet off the pitch, very quiet in the dressing room – but once he got on the pitch you knew he meant business. He wasn’t somebody you wanted to cross, he was a real animal on the pitch.”
- Paul Scholes
“It was one of the mistakes [ selling Jaap Stam ] I made – hopefully I haven’t made too many – but that was one.”
- Sir Alex Ferguson
The man himself summed-up his attitude when it came to standing up for himself in 2012 saying ““A player recently came at me with a head-butt, so I grabbed him and put him in a head-lock. He looked a bit blue when I let him go.”
- 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 Bearzot tasked Gentile with the role of stopping the two key men of Italy’s opponents in the so-called second round group of death against Brazil and Argentina.
This had become a regular feature of Bearzot’s tactics, as in previous tournaments he had used Gentile to man-mark other players he believed were the greatest threats, such as Holland’s Johnny Rep, Argentina’s Mario Kempes, Brazil’s Roberto Dinamite and Austria’s Hanz Krankl at the 1978 World Cup. In Spain, four years later, Italy topped their group ahead of their more favoured opponents. Argentina would go on to win the World Cup four years later, whilst the Brazilian side of 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 among the great Italian defenders. At the same time they are now regarded as performances that it would be impossible to get away with nowadays, because they were so aggressive and heavy-handed, and would not be allowed with present refereeing standards. In the videos below that show the two matches mentioned, both Zico and Maradona can be seen becoming visibly less eager to be involved in play, as Gentile’s incessant presence continues to wear them down.
- Roy Keane
Keane’s aggression made him stand out from an early age. An all-round talented footballer with an incredible engine, it was Keane’s will to win that set him apart. Sir Alex Ferguson broke the transfer record at the time to bring him to Manchester United, and Keno would become his on-field general for the next decade, with his battles with Arsenal’s Patrick Vieira box office stuff, for those who liked X-rated movies! Various scuffles stick in the mind but the most infamous one is the knee-high tackle that he made on Manchester City’s Alf-Inge Hâland in the derby which ended the Norwegian’s career. It was revenge for a taunt that Hâland had thrown Keane’s way three years earlier after Keane himself had injured a knee. To this day it is regarded as one of the worst tackles in Premier League history, and the jury is still out as to whether Keane deliberately set out to injure his opponent.
Keane as a player generated more than his fair share of quotes during his career, some of the most memorable of which were:
“He looked like a Manchester United player as soon as I saw him. We played him at Forest and the way he played told me a lot about the lad. His determination, his energy, his attitude to losing and winning told me something about him before we even got him. With Roy Keane present, keeping the ball was never a problem. I said so from the minute he came to the club. ‘He never gives the ball away, this guy,’ I told the staff and players.”
— Sir Alex Ferguson
“I remember my first training session: I got the ball from the keeper, I passed it to Gary Neville at right back and Keane just exploded, saying: ‘You passed it sideways, that’s the easy pass! You’re not at Leeds or West Ham now!’ At the time I thought: ‘What’s he talking about?’ Then when I got home, I sat and thought about it and thought: ‘Yeah, you’ve got to try and affect the game’.”
— Rio Ferdinand
“If I could pick one player in my team, I would always pick Roy Keane, in front of any other players I’ve played with. Keano had everything; he was a leader, a great player, and probably the best I ever played with.”
— Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
Even now in his role as a pundit. Keane still has then underlying aggression in a lot of what he does, recently accusing the current squad of players at Old Trafford as getting away with murder, and of throwing former Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho under the bus. Keane said: “I’m not Morinho’s biggest fan, don’t get me wrong but I just can’t tolerate footballers who just hide behind their agents, their pals in the media. It’s a bit of a joke really”. Not one to mince his words, Keane went on to say, “The modern player, they’re not just weak players, they’re very weak human beings. You can’t say a word to them. It wouldn’t have happened in our dressing room just because of the fact we had good characters and good leaders. We wouldn’t have tolerated lads not putting a shift in”.
- Walter Samuel
One of the greatest ever South American defenders, his performances in Serie A puts him alongside 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 1990s that went 40 games unbeaten, and won the Copa Libertadores, forming a seemingly impenetrable partnership with Colombian Jorge Bermudez.
Nicknamed Il Muro (translated as “The Wall”), Samuel then moved to Roma and won the Scudetto in his first season in Italy. An unsuccessful spell with Real Madrid followed, before he returned 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. On the way to the final, the watertight defensive duo of Lucio and Samuel put in some historic displays against Messi and his Barcelona team mates, manhandled Chelsea’s Didier Drogba with ease, and made light work of Bayern in the final.
Samuel never allowed an opponent by him, even if it meant that he had to resort to a clear out and out foul. And, although, at six feet tool, he was not the tallest, he was a colossus to move around, and nobody dared to mess with him. Even Zlatan Ibrahimović and his enormous ego knew better than to provoke Walter Samuel. It is also worth noting that Samuel is one of the few players to successfully return to world class level after two cruciate ligament injuries. A testament to Samuel’s ability and the effect he had on his team mates is that, after joining Inter in the summer of 2005, The Nerazzurri won every single Milan derby that Samuel played in before he left the club for Swiss club Basel nine years later.
- Andoni Goikoetxea
Andoni Goikoetxea has earned a place in football folklore for delivering what has been described as the worst ever tackle in Spanish football, gaining him the epithet the “Butcher of Bilbao”. Goikoetxea, a central defender, was playing for his home town club Athletic in September 1983, away to Barcelona in September 1983, featuring Argentine superstar Diego Maradona in their ranks. As Maradona looked to start another attack, Goikoetzea launched himself at the forward from behind, breaking his ankle with a sound that was described later as wood splintering. César Luis Menotti, coach of Barcelona at the time, accused the Basque of belonging to a race of anti-footballers, and called on him to be given a lifetime ban. Instead he was given a 10-game suspension and, unrepentant, he kept the boot he used to destroy Maradona’s ankle ligaments in a glass case.
Goikoetsea, who actually played 39 times for Spain, did not stop there. When Bilbao and Barcelona met in the Spanish Cup Final nine months later, a mass brawl erupted at the end of the match, and Goikoetsea singled out Maradona for special treatment again, kicking the Argentine in the chest. For that he copped an 18 game ban, reduced to 7 on appeal.
In fact, Goikoetsea appeared to reserve his worst excesses for Barcelona players, having three years earlier, inflicted a serious knee injury on German international Bernd Schuster from which he never really recovered.
In 2007 The Times labelled him the “hardest defender of all time”.
- Marco Materazzi
Materazzi has become notorious for his role in the 2006 World Cup Final, when playing for Italy against France, the defender verbally abused Zinedine Zidane to such an extent that the Frenchman head-butted him and received a red card. What has been said during their encounter remains a matter of conjecture to this day, although it appears to have been derogatory remarks about Zidane’s mother and sister. However, it earned Materazzi an indelible page in the history books, whilst his other contributions to that match, conceding a penalty, then scoring the equaliser, before netting in the penalty shootout, have faded from memory.
If this were an isolated incident then Materazzi would scarce warrant his inclusion in the list of hard men. However, it was not. No stranger to controversy, Materazzi was renowned for his aggressive and physical style of play, which earned him no fewer than 25 red cards and more than 60 yellow cards in a 21-year career that took him to no fewer than 9 clubs. That included a brief spell with Everton for whom he played 27 games, and was sent off three times.
The club where he enjoyed his greatest success was Inter Milan, with whom he won 5 Serie A titles, the Champions League, and the Coppa Italia on four occasions. However, he was seldom out of the headlines. In 2004 he clashed with Siena player Bruno Cirillo following a Serie A match, which he missed through injury. He followed Cirillo into the dressing rooms after the game, traded insults with him, and then punched him in the face, fracturing his lip. He apologised but was still given an 11 match ban. Team mates were not immune from him either. In 2008 with the Serie A title on the line, Materazzi argued with striker Julio Ricardo Cruz who was to take a vital penalty against Siena. Materazzi prevailed, only to see his effort saved easily.
After a brief comeback with Indian Super League side Chennaiyin, Materazzi finally retired in 2016, assured of his place in the record books, although not necessarily for the right reasons.
- Graeme Souness
The midfield pit-bull who led Liverpool through the best era in their history, as they won three European Cups in a 6 year span, Souness, who is the second Scot on our list, was famous for his tree-trunk like legs, something he says he gained from his days delivering milk up high tenement buildings as a milk boy in Edinburgh. Souness was a player who would often very quickly set the tone in matches and let the opposition know they would have to battle tooth and nail to even stand a chance against his side. Perhaps the best story about Souness comes 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 referee’s back. The Dinamo players were outraged by this, and, when Liverpool went to Bucharest to try and 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 the performance of Souness as being as close to insanity as he had ever seen on a pitch, with the Scot, as one stage, starting to laugh whilst on the ball as he dodged three very wild tackles for Dinamo players. Souness 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 Galatasary flag in the centre of the pitch, igniting a volatile response from the Fenerbahçe fans inside the stadium.
- Sergio Ramos
Spain and Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos has had a distinguished career, winning the Champions League 4 times, La Liga and the Club World Cup on 4 occasions, and the Copa del Rey twice. He also won the World Cup with Spain in 2010. However, it is his disciplinary record that marks him out from his fellow professionals, both for club and country.
Ramos currently holds the record for the most cards by any player in La Liga, 19 of which have been red – another record. Five of those red cards have come in El Clásico matches against Barcelona – yet another record.
However, his exploits are not confined to the domestic game. In the Champions League again he is the most carded player in history, with 37 yellow and 3 red cards, and, to top it off, he also lays claim to being the most carded player ever for the Spanish national team.
Yet, despite all these infringements, it was an incident that did not earn him a card of any colour that is amongst his most notorious, when he forced Mo Salah out of the 2018 Champions League final with a shoulder injury, after Ramos appeared to hurt the Egyptian deliberately in a tackle. An online petition demanding that UEFA and FIFA take action against Ramos attracted more than 170,000 signatures, whilst the Spaniard was forced to change his phone number after receiving death threats.
The Spaniard’s attitude can best be epitomised by this quote: “If they have legs, break them” whilst his attitude to football is best summed up by the player himself “If you don’t live, eat, breathe, football then you’re not a true football player. You just wear the jersey”.
- Yannick Cahuzac
Yannick Cahuzac may be little known outside his native France, but the defensive midfielder is doing his best to earn his place in posterity by the frequency with which he racks up red cards, having received 17 so far in his career. The 2016/2017 saw him hit a real purple patch, seeing red three times in just four Ligue 1 games. He also can lay claim to the most stupid dismissal in history, after he decided to punch the board helped up by the 4th official when being substituted when playing for Bastia against Angers.
- Felipe Melo
Former Brazilian international Felipe Melo deserves his place on this list for his involvement in one of the most infamous brawls of recent times. Following a Copa Libertadores match between Penarol of Uruguay and Brazilian visitors Palmeiras, mass violence broke out at the final whistle, instigated by Melo who punched unused Penarol substitute Matias Mier. The ensuing brawl included players and officials by both sides, and spilled over into the stands where spectators were injured, and police vehicles damaged. Melo was one of four players to receive a three match ban for his part in the trouble, but this is a man who had previous.
Whilst playing for Juventus in the Derby d’Italia, he was sent off for elbowing Inter Milan’s Mario Balotelli, provoking a huge fight between Gianluigi Buffon and Thiago Motta. Then in 2013, he was sued after taking to social media to call Fox Sports pundit Maurice Prado a “coward” and an “arsehole”.
A year later, whilst he was on holiday with his family in Las Vegas, two men in a restaurant decided to taunt Melo by championing the name of Fenerbahçe, deadly rivals of Galatasary, the Turkish club that the midfielder played for during 4 seasons. Melo, never one to turn the other cheek, responded by showing the middle finger and kicking one of them, in a case that later turned up in the hands of the American police.
- Gerardo Bedoya
Gerardo Bedoya may have retired three years ago, but the Columbia defender and defensive midfielder has left an indelible mark on the game, having been sent off more times in his career – 46 to be exact – than any other player in history.
In a career spanning 20 years and taking in 13 clubs in Columbia and Argentina, Bedoya set a standard for foul play that may never be equalled, although, when he did manage to stay on the pitch, he was good enough to play for the Columbian national team, winning the Copa America with them in 2001. With so many to choose from, his 41st red card is something of a highlight; playing to Independiente Sante Fe in the Bogota derby, he first elbowed Millonaires player Jhonny Ramirez, and followed it up with a kick to the head. Bedoya earned himself a 15 game ban for that offence.
Gerardo himself tries to downplay his image on his Instagram account, with pictures of him relaxing with his family and friends, as well as meeting former famous players like Ronaldo and Carlos Valderrama, although the occasional hard tackle is also showcased. He pleads for understanding “I imagine that many will say that I was like this tackle. But please stay calm and please do not judge me so hard”.