Football is a spectacle as much as a sport. A human drama incorporating triumph and failure, glory and pain, heroes and villains. Every act of creative brilliance from Euros past can be matched by a moment of unfathomable stupidity and violence. Both become forged in spectator’s memories and cause the adrenalin to flow, creating players we love and others we love to hate.
French philosopher Roland Barthes wrote about the critical role rule-breaking heels play within professional wrestling (in his essay, “The World of Wrestling”): “For a fan nothing is finer than the revengeful fury of a betrayed fighter who throws himself not on a successful opponent but on the smarting image of foul play.” In soccer as in wrestling, it is not just the unpredictability of the violence that thrills the viewer, it is the emotional hook his act creates, keeping the audience glued to the game, desperate for the evil doer to be defeated. Not just to lose, but be made to pay.
As sure as there will be goals at Euro 2012, there will be flailing elbows, two-footed tackles, "reducers” and red cards. If there is a memorable moment of madness in Poland and Ukraine, odds are one of these five rogues will provide it. After being sent off, players habitually tell the press they are “not that kind of player.” All five below are exactly that kind of player.
SERGIO BUSQUETS (SPAIN)
Barcelona’s gangly instigator is a flopper and purveyor of feigned injuries extraordinaire. His practice of the dark arts is all the more shocking because few players in the game have been blessed with a cannier positional sense with which to break up the opposition’s play -- a role that requires a certain toughness, which the Catalan undermines by grabbing his face and collapsing to the turf. Watching Busquets play, it appears he either suffers from unbelievably sensitive facial molecules or an overreliance on gamesmanship.
The midfielder’s commitment to this aspect of the game would be admirable if it were not so detestable. He most infamously caused Inter’s Thiago Motta to be red-carded in the semifinals of the Champions League by tumbling to the turf and clutching his face in agony, whilst peering through his fingers to check if the referee was buying his con.
Credit where credit is due though: Busquets is also an accomplished break dancer.
MARK VAN BOMMEL (NETHERLANDS)
Mark Van Bommel cried as he announced his departure from AC Milan after the end of this season.
Don’t let the tears fool you. The Dutch captain is a punishing enforcer who can do it all. And by “all” we mean send an opponent’s playmaker back to the locker room on a stretcher with either a cold-blooded, knee-high tackle or with a relentless array of niggling tactics.
The majesty of Van Bommel is less his barely contained brutality – he is a player of whom it has been said would kick his own grandmother if she came near him with the ball – and more his technical mastery of the art of fouling. Few players maintain such a serious commitment to violence yet are rarely punished for it. At the 2010 World Cup, Van Bommel was the ultimate pest, fouling opponents at will while engaging in grating, game-long arguments with match officials. Somehow he was not yellow-carded until the semifinal.
JOHN TERRY (ENGLAND)
No other human in history has matched the Chelsea icon’s achievement of being stripped of the England captaincy twice. Terry’s self-cultivated, on-the-field reputation as his team’s “Captain, Leader, Legend” (as the banner at Stamford Bridge reads) has long been tarnished by perpetual loutish behavior off the field – be it his drunken mocking of stranded Americans at a Heathrow airport bar on the day after Sept. 11 or a propensity to romance teammates’ loved ones.
Despite Chelsea’s Champions League victory, Terry has experienced a challenging season. A knee delivered straight to the back of Barcelona’s unsuspecting Alexis Sanchez earned the defender a red card in the semifinal, forcing his team to play a man down and preventing him from playing in the final. Former Liverpool enforcer turned pundit, Graeme Souness, analyzed the seemingly unnecessary act with a practiced eye, suggesting Terry’s intention was “to give him a dead leg, as he was posing too much of a threat."
But it is the charges of racially abusing opponents that have dogged Terry’s career. First floated in 2006 after an incident with Tottenham’s Ledley King, Terry now awaits trial upon his return after a similar controversy with QPR’s Anton Ferdinand. England manager Roy Hodgson admitted “[The trial] is obviously very unfortunate for him ... but he is innocent until proven guilty. I realized when I selected him there would be people who would raise their eyebrows.”
Terry elicits more than raised eyebrows. The classic heel is a magnet for abuse from opposing fans, a hatred powerful enough to launch internet memes.
MARIO BALOTELLI (ITALY)
Technically brilliant yet temperamental, few players are more capable of scoring a breathtaking goal one minute, then being sent off the next. Controversy stalks the young Italian’s career whether at Milan, where he wore an AC Milan jersey around town while playing for Inter, or at Manchester, where he dealt with the boredom of training by electing to chuck darts at a youth player.
Short of world-class strikers, Italian manager Cesare Prandelli has little choice but to include Balotelli on his squad, but he is well aware of the risk Balotelli is, using the media to remind his petulant striker the tournament represents "an extraordinary chance'' for him “to make people talk about what he does on the pitch.''
NICKLAS BENDTNER (Denmark)
The only man to make this list for his words rather than his on-field actions, Bendtner is neither an overly dirty player nor a particularly talented one. Reviled by Arsenal fans for his clumsy first touch, the Dane has become an object of scorn because of an apparent inability to filter his thoughts and comments. Few players have combined such precipitous levels of arrogance and stupidity to such detrimental effect.
Bendtner has spent much of the past season making public apologies. He alienated many at his loan club, Sunderland, after he was accused of going on a rampage of violence against parked cars (the charges were later dropped by the prosecution). He then tested the affections of loyal Danish fans, first by ditching his baroness fiancée seven weeks after she gave birth to their baby, then reportedly demanding free late-night pizzas at a Copenhagen Pizza Hut (“Don’t you know who I am?” he was reported to have exclaimed. “I can buy the whole pizzeria.”)
Bendtner’s problems are mental. Quite literally. The Arsenal team was once tested by sports psychologists, who applied a battery of psychometric tests to determine whether their intelligence matched their football ability. The administering psychologist confessed to Swedish magazine Offside: “One of the categories is called ‘self-perceived competence,’ i.e., how good the player himself thinks he is. On a scale up to 9, Bendtner got 10. When Bendtner misses a chance, he is always genuinely convinced that it wasn’t his fault. You might say that’s a problem, and to a certain degree it can be.”
Roger Bennett is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @rogbennett.