Ranked: From Jude Bellingham to Pepe – Euro 2024’s biggest wind-up merchants

Portugal's Pepe (left) dishes out some punishment - Ranked: From Bellingham to Pepe – Euro 2024's biggest s---houses
Portugal's Pepe (left) is no stranger to going over the line - Shutterstock/Hugo Delgado

They whine, play-act, persistently foul, waste time, and work the gallery better than a Turner Prize winner. They are football’s masters of the dark arts and they will be out in force at Euro 2024. Telegraph Sport examines those most likely to be the greatest exponents.

6. Jude Bellingham

Put down the England pom-poms for a second and consider how rival nations will react if Bellingham replicates some of his recent club antics; namely, his outrage at referees when an opponent has the audacity to tackle him and trying to disturb Harry Kane before he took that penalty for Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi-final. Bellingham evidently possesses a “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” bloody-mindedness.

Yes, he is the golden boy of England, but if he banishes the idea of Gareth Southgate’s side lacking the streetwise tactics of the Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, it will be cause for raucous celebration. An England triumph may require sacrifices to the “nice-guy image” and Bellingham is primed to step up. Give Bellingham a few years and he will be assuming responsibility from Dani Carvajal and tutoring the next generation of Madridistas.

5. Rodri, Spain

According to Premier League statistics, the most effective defensive midfielder in the world averages one yellow card for every 6.8 fouls committed since signing for Manchester City. That sounds about right for all those who have yelled at a referee wondering how many offences are required for Rodri’s name to be taken. He has been sent off just once in 172 Premier League appearances and was booked only twice during Spain’s nine European qualifiers, having committed his country’s most fouls.

Such statistics serve only to underline Rodri’s class and shrewdness, with his ability to nullify counter-attacks at source a crucial part of a strategy Pep Guardiola first honed at Barcelona to find players capable of executing tactical fouls. Rodri is one of the greatest of all time at it.

City's Rodri is booked by referee Simon Hooper in a game against Tottenham last December - Ranked: From Jude Bellingham to Pepe – Euro 2024's biggest s---houses
Rodri is a master at the tactical foul - Reuters/Carl Recine

4. John McGinn, Scotland

According to Uefa, only two players heading to Germany this summer were fouled more than McGinn across the entirety of Euro 2024 qualifying (Hungary’s Dominik Szoboszlai and Slovakia’s Ondrej Duda). That is quite a stat which leads to one of two conclusions. Either opposition managers target the Aston Villa man or he is especially adept at winning free-kicks.

If it is the latter, expect McGinn to provoke furious reactions if Steve Clarke’s side find themselves protecting a narrow lead at any point over the next three weeks, as he becomes as well-acquainted with the German turf as the Euro 2024 ground staff. Scotland’s inspirational midfielder goes above and beyond because he ranked high on the list of perpetrators of fouls during the qualifiers too, underlining he is the man most likely to dish it out as much as take blows for his side.

3. Italy

A bit harsh to include an entire nation, you say? Obviously. Nevertheless, when you talk about the dark arts, Italy have only themselves to blame for springing instantly to mind as they wear the reputation like a badge of honour. That said, the Italians were hardly big offenders when it came to discipline during the qualification process. They picked up just 13 yellow cards, which is two fewer than England and 10 fewer than Romania, who collected more yellow cards in qualifying than anyone else.

Italy no longer boast the maestros of “getting the job done by any means”, namely centre-backs Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini. But it is unlikely Luciano Spalletti is overseeing a cultural revolution when it comes to what the late, great Italy legend Gianluca Vialli described as “calculated whingeing”.

Italy's team line up for a recently friendly against Turkey - Ranked: From Bellingham to Pepe – Euro 2024's biggest s---houses
Italy kept it largely clean during qualification for the Euros - Getty Images/Alberto Pizzoli

2. Dani Carvajal, Spain

One can imagine whenever a new signing is unveiled at the Bernabeu, their initiation involves a one-hour seminar with the club’s right-back entitled, ‘How to resemble an entitled Real Madrid player’ – a coveted role passed on by Pepe and Sergio Ramos.

Future recruits need only watch Carvajal’s recent Champions League final performance to witness all the necessary traits; reacting to challenges as if he has suffered a cruciate knee injury while showing contempt for those he has blatantly fouled and claiming the referee is engaged in a historic persecution of the 15-time European champions. Then you pop up with a legendary goal and the medal collection grows as the neutrals groan.

1. Pepe, Portugal

The Michelangelo of the dark arts is still going strong at 41. There should no longer be criticism of Pepe’s capacity to torment strikers with his cunning fouls, wild accusations of diving and compelling pleas of innocence after being caught in the act which can appear so persuasive. Donald Trump’s defence lawyers should study his highlights reel.

Such is Pepe’s craftsmanship, one must now admire and acknowledge him as a pioneer and inspiration. He has demonstrated to a new generation that in an age when cameras forensically examine every incident, it is still possible to tread the fine line between being a world-class defender and a dirty b------.