Making the game beautiful: Who are football's true cult icons?

Mario Balotelli pondering his existence on Earth after scoring against Manchester United in 2011
Mario Balotelli pondering his existence on Earth after scoring against Manchester United in 2011


Cast your eyes across a football field on any given match day and it’s a reasonable assumption that all human life is there, doing battle. The “beautiful game” attracts a broad cross-section of society, on and off the pitch, but there’s one performing archetype that tends to singularly dictate results, headlines and memories: the wayward star, cult icon, anti-hero or flawed genius.

Call them what you want, the sport has been blessed with many memorable characters, players who’ve found it impossible to juggle their exotic gift with an unpredictable edge that tends to come out and attack, Emu-like, at exactly the wrong moment: George Best, Micky Quinn, Paul Gascoigne, Eric Cantona, Faustino Asprilla, Luis Suarez. All have been blessed/haunted by an ability to take their enviable skill and trash it for kicks. But there are others, many less-known, so let’s salute one from every decade since the 60s:

Gigi Meroni

Considered “Italy’s George Best”, it’s easy to understand the comparison. Devilishly handsome and eager to self-destruct, Gigi Meroni also wore the number seven shirt and was similarly dynamic as an attacking force. Starring on the right wing for Coma, then Genoa, he first tasted infamy in 1963, testing positive for amphetamines and receiving a five-game Serie A ban. After a record-breaking 300-million lira transfer to Torino, he lived a hedonistic, hippy lifestyle with a young divorcee, earning the nickname “The Maroon Butterfly”.

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Meroni struggled with fame, once responding to his critics by taking a chicken for a walk on a lead and then dressing it in a bathing costume. He was castigated after Italy were knocked out of 1966’s World Cup following defeat by North Korea, despite playing only one game, and was killed in a car crash a year later, aged just 24, shortly after getting sent off in his final match, a 4-2 win against Sampdoria. The driver turned out to be future Torino President Attilio Romero, who idolised Meroni. Fittingly, 20,000 attended his funeral.

Peter Storey

The 1970s was a bountiful decade for hard-nosed lunatics who happened upon a career in football. But standing menacingly above Billy Bremner, Norman Hunter and Ron Harris was Peter “Ice Eyes” Storey, a man who truly brings disturbing life to the theory “that 1970s football was simply a combination of violence and dribbling”. Part of Bertie Mee’s double-winning Arsenal side of 1970-71, Storey was not so much uncompromising as immovable.

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“The trick was to get in as early as possible, hit them hard, give them a good wallop, make them feel as if they’d been in a car crash or hit a brick wall,” Storey explained of his nuanced approach to defending. After 17 years at Arsenal, 19 England caps and a brief spell with Fulham, he retired to become, if anything, even more notorious. Divorced three times, Storey has been fined for running a brothel and imprisoned for his involvement in a plot to counterfeit gold coins and later an attempt to import pornography.

Robert Prosinecki

“If this lad makes it as a professional footballer, I’ll eat my coaching certificate,” prophesised Miroslav Blazevic after releasing the 18-year-old from his contract at Dinamo Zagreb in 1987. Four years later, after a chequered spell at Red Star Belgrade, which saw them lift the European Cup, Robert Prosinecki was signing for Real Madrid while Blazevic was presumably having his stomach pumped. Truly mercurial, Prosinecki was an unfathomable danger on the ball as Boca Juniors defender Julio Saldana discovered in 1994 when he ruptured knee ligaments attempting to tackle him.

Like Glenn Hoddle, if he’d had Carl Sagan as a spiritual adviser rather than Eileen Drury, Prosinecki achieved the near impossible: playing for both Real and Barcelona without becoming a hate figure at either. Perhaps even more remarkably, he ended up at Portsmouth, where a diet of cigarettes and alcohol proved a potent concoction. “He’d smoke before the game, at half-time in the showers and after the game as well. Red Marlboros, too,” said former team mate Peter Crouch, who scored 19 goals in 1998, Prosinecki’s one season at Fratton Park.

Julian Dicks

A true anti-hero stands by his principles, even if they’re skewed into realms of utter self-defeatism. Consider Julian Dicks, a buccaneering full-back who wanted ta shaved head more than an England cap. In 1997, Dicks had an infamous conversation with Glenn Hoddle’s assistant, John Gorman, about the England squad, which at the time included “alcoholics and wife-beaters”, according to Dicks. “He told me that I’d never play for England unless I grew my hair – and I told him to f*ck off,” Dicks explained, eloquently.

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Dismissed nine times in his career, “The Terminator” retains iconic status at West Ham, Liverpool and beyond, and went out in fine style. Testimonial matches are generally intended to be jovial, celebratory events. Not for Dicks. In 2000, he captained a West Ham side against Athletic Bilbao at the Boleyn Ground. The game was marred by a 17-player brawl, which saw captain for the day, Paolo Di Canio, slap numerous Spanish players in the face. Dicks received £200,000 from the game.


Djalma Feitosa Dias, better known as Djalminha, is a compelling example of the microcosmic contradiction nagging at the core of many South American stars. Devastatingly gifted but wilfully temperamental, it’s impossible not to watch the Brazilian’s highlights reel in awe and wonder. Having made his name nationally playing for Flamengo in Rio before moving to Guarani in São Paulo, Djalminha joined Spanish club Deportivo La Coruña. It was here, in 2000, that he won La Liga, scoring 10 goals in 31 games from midfield.

However, such success was far from straightforward and his already minimal impact on the international stage was prematurely terminated in 2002, after he head-butted coach Javier Irureta in a row over a penalty in a practice match. Overlooked by Brazilian boss Luiz Felipe Scolari, who selected Kaka instead for the World Cup in South Korea and Japan, Djalminha was essentially expelled to Austrian Football Bundesliga side FK Austria Wien, having been sent off six times while at Deportivo.

Mario Balotteli

It’s a challenge in itself to know where to start with Mario Balotteli. Why always him? Because few, if any, of the problematic, enigmatic footballers on this list can light a candle, let alone a box of fireworks, to his impossibly absurd, tragi-comic sporting career. Since signing for Serie C side Lumezzane in 2006 shortly before an unsuccessful trial with Barcelona at the age of 15, Balotteli has worked his way through six clubs, despite being just 27.

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Once described by Jose Mourinho as “unmanageable”, his former boss has an amused memory of the errant star’s time in Italy. “I could write a book of 200 pages of my two years at Inter with Mario, but the book would not be a drama – it would be a comedy,” said Mourinho. At Manchester City, Balotteli cemented his reputation as one of football’s most unpredictable players, demonstrating a rare talent both as a player and individual, even down to the basics of getting dressed on and off the pitch. They don’t make them like this anymore. There’s no point when Super Mario is still around.