Football would be such a dull thing if everyone played by the rules. As much as the sport needs admirable professionalism, loyalty and players with an unwavering devotion to a clean lifestyle, at times it cries out for the rebel, the on-pitch mutineer who is ready to revolt when he sees fit.
They are the colourful personalities, the dangerous minds, the complex entities who inevitably draw the watching world to them to enthral and frustrate in equal measure. They are not the impeccable role-models that elite sports stars should be, but we cannot help but get entranced in their chequered stories. We are very much a part of the cult of the rebel footballer.
There is a famous tale that occurred on 12 February 2000, that will forever be immortalised in the vault of modern football madness, an anecdote from the impenetrable mind of a truly rebellious footballer. It encapsulates the cult perfectly.
West Ham are playing Bradford City in the Premier League on a seemingly innocuous Saturday afternoon. The fans packed into a cold, winter-ravaged Upton Park are not expecting anything earth-shattering. What they would witness that day stands tall in the folklore of the history of their football club; they witnessed, in its full glory, the madness and the glory of Paolo Di Canio.
The irascible Italian endured a torturous match, kicked and bruised by a physical Bradford but received no sympathy from referee Neil Barry. Di Canio has spent the afternoon eluding the Bradford defenders as he clicks into full flight down the left wing. Every play appears to end with the same result: Di Canio sprawled on the ground, incandescent and kicking the air in fury. He demands penalties from the referee but is met with only a shake of the head and a remonstration instructing him to return to his feet.
For Di Canio, the third strike is enough. After beating two men down the left hand side, he cuts back inside the penalty area only to have his legs swept from underneath him in a blatant foul by Bradford’s David Weatherall. Again, the referee waves play on. Di Canio immediately signals to Harry Redknapp on the touchline to substitute him.
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Read | The relentless, restless mind of Paolo Di Canio
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He is adamant the referee is ignoring him and no longer wants to participate in a match where he isn’t getting his way. Redknapp refuses to comply, knowing all too well that his raving talisman has been the star performer all day and may still be the key in a revival from a 4-2 deficit, but Di Canio is refusing to listen to his manager. He crouches down and pays no attention to the continuation of play.
Then, in quite a remarkable moment, the West Ham fans urge Di Canio back into the match by chanting his name to the tune of Pavarotti’s La Donna É Mobile. He rises to their call, answering the encore and reluctantly agrees to play on. In the remaining 25 minutes, Di Canio scores a penalty after a tug-of-war with Frank Lampard over who should take it and sets up another for the same player as West Ham rally back to 5-4 and one of the most incredible wins in Premier League history.
The day belonged to Di Canio. Despite an attack-minded West Ham team all playing their part, the connection felt between Di Canio and the fans ultimately won the match for the Hammers. There should have been outrage from the fans. A player refusing to play on when his team was losing and needed him the most surely was the folly of a cowardly man? That is not the way the fans saw it. They saw the appeal of the endlessly entertaining Di Canio. His maze-like personality and the maddening acts that went with it only served to strengthen their love for him.
Not everyone loved it, of course. Some fans would have viewed it as a disgraceful, unforgivable act which embodies the exact antithesis of what sport is supposed to be about: courage, dedication and playing as a team. However, a vast majority of supporters were bewitched by Di Canio. He is, by definition, the ultimate cult footballer. He is one that polarises journalists, managers, players, fans – just about everybody. Some view him as a mad genius who was worth the tantrums as long as he kept the magic in swing as well. Others felt he was merely a nuisance, a man who poisoned the harmonious wellbeing of the dressing room. He is the man who pushed over referee Paul Alcock after being sent off while playing for Sheffield Wednesday.
Of course, the cult of the rebel footballer has spread far beyond a fervent following in East London; it has engaged a sizeable chunk of football’s global populace. Take Zinedine Zidane, for example. One of the greatest footballers to ever walk the planet, a player of Zeus-like power and brilliance who is almost universally hallowed by those that have followed him. I say “almost” because, as with every cult footballer, Zidane has a darker side that divides opinion.
In a career that regularly illustrated a player of balletic beauty, Zidane picked up 14 red cards. Of those 14, there is no question as to what is the most famous. That headbutt on Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final revealed, more poignantly than any other incident in his career, the iniquitous side of Zizou. Whatever Materazzi said, whatever prompted one of the most deeply unsettling episodes in sporting history, it seemed to matter little for France.
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Read | Zinedine Zidane and the making of a king
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In an almighty tussle for world domination with European neighbours Italy, Zidane saw the red mist, lashed out at Materazzi, and was sent off in his last game as a professional footballer. The response was one of adulation. Zidane was hailed as a national hero and was immediately placed into the pantheon of one of the country’s favourite sons.
As with all cult followings, the members love the leader. However, that famous red card reveals the less saintly character Zidane is. With the ball at his feet, Zidane is a poet, but he has that darker side which means that his status is that of a cult hero and not universal icon. That cult following reached epic proportions at times.
In 2005, he was the subject of an ambitious and expensive documentary project by filmmakers Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno as they installed seventeen synchronised cameras around the Santiago Bernabéu stadium while Zidane was playing for Real Madrid. The cameras were focused on the former Juventus star at all times. The result was a 91-minute feature entirely devoted to the genius of the player. Zidane as a hero, as a legend, Zidane the cult in full force.
Place that in sharp contrast with Bessma Lahouri’s widely-discussed book, Zidane; The Secret Life. Lahouri’s work portrays Zidane as a megalomaniac businessman purely motivated by self-interest and self-promotion. Zidane’s links with billionaire tycoons and his ambassadorial role in Qatar’s bid for the 2022 World Cup come off as the reprehensible acts of a footballer who is interested in branding as much as he is interested in football itself. However, he is still hailed as an almighty figure at Madrid, Juventus and for Les Bleus.
The congregation in the house of Zidane still love the man that effectively surrendered hope of securing a world title in 2006. They are attracted to the rebellious streak in him, the propensity to act when he believes action is needed. He is a dangerous mind in the context of footballers but again, as with Di Canio, he conjures as much veneration as he does hatred throughout the world. The cult of Zidane lives on.
Perhaps, though, the title of the ultimate cult footballer belongs to Diego Maradona. In October 1994, three months after Maradona had been expelled from his last World Cup with Argentina in the United States, thousands of protestors took to the streets of Buenos Aires.
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Read | Diego Maradona and the reality behind the Hand of God
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The protest was centred on simmering tensions in the wake of the government’s controversial economic policies. The dissenting group came together in a rousing rendition of Fito Paéz’s “And Give Joy to my Heart”, a song dedicated in loving memory to Maradona’s legendary performances at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Those who sang were paying homage to Maradona as a national hero. They used him as a symbol of oppression and viewed him as the embodiment of several societal values.
Millions of Argentines have adopted their greatest footballer as el pibe de oro – the golden young boy. El Pibe, in Argentina, means the importance of freedom and spontaneity, a concept that is steeped in the ideals of childhood. For all his goals and ingenuity on the pitch, Maradona accumulated a powerful cult gathering fuelled by their love of him as a divine figure who stands tall as a symbol of the people.
Look beyond his revered stature of Diego and scratch beneath the veneer of him as a saviour in his home country, however, and you will see another rebel footballer. Maradona had a long-running feud with FIFA, its apogee of course being his expulsion from the World Cup and subsequent suspension, but his followers see him as the rebel with a cause and align him with left-wing ideologists like Hugo Chávez, Che Gueverra and Fidel Castro. The cult of Maradona do not occupy themselves with his financial irregularities or drug problems, they prefer to focus on the rebellious nature of the hero. They see him as glorified, almost mythical soul, who struggled against the powerful tide of FIFA.
Football will always have rebellious characters, those who are not afraid of generating negative publicity and becoming the centre of a storm. In truth, football needs these explosive characters. The examples of Di Canio, Zidane and Maradona show different natures of a cult footballer.
Di Canio was a madman who happened to be brilliant and this intoxicating blend meant that he had exalted status with the Hammers’ faithful in comparison to Joe Cole and Frank Lampard, youthful prospects who were nurtured by the club’s academy and had a more obvious connection. Di Canio’s image as psychotic general garnered him a besotted faction of fans split from those who merely regarded him as a stropping child.
With Zidane, his exploits on Materazzi afforded him legendary status and his cult following remains formidable to this day. Finally, Maradona’s cult status is built on something more divine. He is a sacred icon for Argentina’s working-class, despite having a dangerous rebellious flash that landed him in hot water in the past. Nevertheless, the Church of Maradona – his official flock – has approximately 80,000 members across 50 different countries.
The rebel footballer’s cult still exists in today’s game: Balotelli, Barton, Cassano, among others – these players continue to embolden the idea of a football fan’s attraction with the radical. The game can do without their troublesome nature at times but one thing is guaranteed, when they are about, there’ll always be entertainment.
By Matt Gault. Follow @MattGault11