Football Features

The most divisive players in football

By William Eldridge

Published: 15:42, 17 June 2019

Social media makes for more casual debate than ever. Perhaps that’s why, these days, more footballers seem to divide opinion than ever before.

You know the ones. Players declared ‘frauds’ just as often as ‘world-class’, depending on where you look.

Read on for our selection of the most divisive footballers in Europe’s top five leagues right now.

1. Mesut Ozil – (Arsenal/Germany)

Age: 30

Major honours: World Cup, La Liga, Copa del Rey, Supercopa de Espana, FA Cup x3, FA Community Shield.

Putting aside the recent controversy that led to his international retirement, Mesut Ozil has for a long time been the epitome of a player who divides opinion.

He is a World Cup winner who played for Real Madrid, transformed into the assist-king at Arsenal and clearly possesses a high level of skill on the ball. Ozil has 213 assists in 577 appearances at all levels of his club career, extremely good going for the talented playmaker. Yet still, throughout his career, Ozil has been dogged by uncomfortable levels of criticism. This largely stems from the fact his demeanour creates a certain perception in the eyes of those detractors who would accuse him of not giving his all.

Last year, former Arsenal defender Martin Keown said, “I’ve seen this a lot this season and it needs to be said because he needs to be dug out because we expect better from him. He’s a World Cup winner and these are crocodile tears that I’m seeing from the player and he’s not conning me. I feel he’s not giving enough for Arsenal Football Club.”

More recently on the club front, his record with ambiguous fitness issues has drawn harsh words from former Arsenal players.

What cannot be argued with, though, is the fact Ozil is the fastest player to record 50 assists in Premier League history. He achieved the feat in 141 games.

2. Neymar – (Paris Saint-Germain/Brazil)

Age: 27

Major honours: La Liga x2, Ligue 1 x2, Champions League, Fifa Club World Cup, Copa del Rey x3, Coupe de France, Coupe de la Ligue, Trophée des Champions and Fifa Condederations Cup.

He just has to be world-class, doesn’t he? Neymar? The Neymar? The most expensive player in football history, who scores goals and makes assists for fun and is already Brazil’s third all-time top scorer? Well, some just can’t see past his petulant play-acting. And you can’t really blame them. His performances at the 2018 World Cup showcased the good and bad in his game, from silky skills to rolling about on the ground, Neymar does it all.

As Lothar Matthaus, a Euros and World Cup winner with Germany, says: “Neymar doesn’t need to act. He’s an excellent player and he has everything a high-level player needs.

“He’s one of the top five players in the world. Why does he need to act? It doesn’t bring him sympathy and it’s not good for him. (Diego) Maradona wasn’t acting, (Lionel) Messi doesn’t act. (Cristiano) Ronaldo is an actor in a different way but not like this. We need players like Neymar in the game but not like this.”

There is also already substantial popularity behind the view that Neymar, having left Barcelona to leave Lionel Messi’s shadow, is once again being denied the limelight by teenage sensation Kylian Mbappe, even despite the fact Mbappe’s level of performance is largely down to Neymar’s creativity from the left wing.

3. Olivier Giroud – (Chelsea/France)

Age: 32

Major honours: World Cup, FA Cup x4, Ligue 1, FA Community Shield x3 and Europa League.

The former Arsenal man made the short switch across England’s capital to don the blue colours of Chelsea, in hope that he would step in for the misfiring Alvaro Morata. His domestic goalscoring has been limited at Chelsea since; so what is so special about Olivier Giroud? A player of which Thierry Henry once said, “I think Giroud is doing extremely well. But can you win the league with him? I wouldn’t think so. He does a job, and he does it ever so well, but you can’t win the league.”

No Premier League title? Maybe. But it turns out you can win the World Cup with the technically gifted target man, while he scored a tournament-high 11 goals as Chelsea won the 2019 Europa League. Les Bleus boss Didier Deschamps was more than happy to support his main striker after France won big in Russia last summer, as Giroud led from the front without scoring a single goal at the tournament.

“He’s often unjustly criticised,” said the France coach. “He’s very important to the team. We need him.”

With 214 goals in 527 games in total for Giroud at club level, he averages out at just under a goal every three matches, which isn’t bad. His 35 goals for his country can’t be sneered at either, especially when you consider that it makes him France’s third-highest international goalscorer ever, recently surpassing David Trezeguet. His overall play has been widely praised by managers and teammates alike, in that his hold-up operates as a major distraction for the opposition, and a major facilitator of chances for teammates.

4. Karim Benzema – (Real Madrid/France)

Age: 31

Major honours: La Liga x2, Uefa Champions League x4, Uefa Super Cup x3, Copa del Rey x2, Supercopa de Espana x2, Ligue 1 x4, Coupe de France and Trophee des Champions x2.

Now for a word on the man Giroud pretty much replaced for France in the wake of a 2015 investigation relevant to a sex-tape scandal.

Scoring 222 goals for Real Madrid surely makes you a striker worthy of high praise and adulation? League titles and four Champions League honours can’t hurt your standing among the best strikers of world football, right? Well, despite his record and trophy cabinet, Karim Benzema has never really been able to shake the ‘overrated’ label. Even one of the nicer pundits/presenters in football, Gary Lineker, voiced this opinion last year. His inclusion on the recent 30-man Ballon d’Or longlist also did not go down well with some.

5. Thibaut Courtois – (Real Madrid/Belgium)

Age: 27

Major honours: Premier League x 2, La Liga, Europa League, Uefa Super Cup, FA Cup, Football League Cup and Copa del Rey.

The former Chelsea goalkeeper made the big move to Spain to don the famous shirt of Real Madrid, much to the annoyance of his former side Atletico. After sitting out of Madrid’s first two league fixtures, with Keylor Navas shown loyalty for a brief spell, Thibaut Courtois slowly established himself in goal for his new side, even if he didn’t convince in the same way he did at Stamford Bridge.

But although he is considered an excellent shot-stopper, and the most recent recipient of Fifa’s The Best Goalkeeper award, Courtois has been called out for his poor footwork, and the player himself has felt the need to defend his own ability.

“I’m not bad with my feet. Maybe I’m not amongst the best but I’m not bad either. I dare to play with my feet,” Courtois told Belgofut.

“Sometimes, I give a bad pass but I know that more goalkeepers, who they say are phenomenal with their feet, commit more errors than me.”

6. Paul Pogba – (Manchester United/France)

Age: 26

Major honours: World Cup, Europa League, Serie A x4, Coppa Italia x2, Supercoppa Italiana and Football League Cup.

He had to be included, didn’t he? Jose Mourinho’s best friend has split the English public since his arrival from Italian giants Juventus in 2016.

Like many on this list, his talent is as clear as a summer’s day. The sight of Paul Pogba running at the opposition, striding with intent and skill, producing a moment of magic, is among the finest to behold in the modern game. However, be it through Mourinho’s tactics or Pogba’s perceived attitude problems, such sights were rare and compromised by lapses in concentration elsewhere during games, eventually leading to the Portuguese losing his job.

However, if his ex-club boss and Graeme Souness aren’t fully paid-up members of the Pogba fan club, France manager Didier Deschamps certainly is: “The rest of the world had an image of Pogba which didn’t really reflect who he is. He’s always thinking about the collective. There is an image of him that he is very individualistic, a bit self-centred, but that’s not the true Paul at all.”

7. Ousmane Dembele – (Barcelona/France)

Age: 22

Major honours: World Cup, La Liga x2, Copa del Rey, Supercopa de Espana and DFB-Pokal.

Ousmane Dembele’s life in Barcelona started off in the worst possible way, with injury ruling him out of almost the entire season and stalling his development from a gifted young player into a truly world-class forward. His place in the Barcelona starting line-up wasn’t assured until this season, which is understandable when you consider the competition for places at the Camp Nou.

The French youngster’s lack of real consistency alongside his price tag and the manner of his departure from Borussia Dortmund have left him fair game for criticism, with many pundits eager to disapprove. Many ponder whether he was worth the €105m transfer fee and there were even not entirely uncredible links to Arsenal last year.

However, club boss Ernesto Valverde believes that Dembele is now justifying his place in the starting eleven.

“Dembele has continuity and he has made a place because he has won it,” he said.

“He is an unbalancing player and he is scoring important goals.”

8. Jordan Henderson – (Liverpool/England)

Age: 29

Major honours: Football League Cup, Champions League

Henderson went through a period where his place in the Liverpool set-up was coming under huge scrutiny. Once a young winger, the central midfielder’s sideways passing and lack of creativity were highlighted as major issues in a Liverpool side built to attack under both Brendan Rodgers and Jurgen Klopp.

His CV once reflected a player forever able to get to a final but will never win one; he has done so in the FA Cup, League Cup, Champions League, Europa League. And yet Henderson was instrumental in all of those near-misses, along with the 2013/14 and 2018/19 runners-up finishes in the Premier League, and every manager he has played under has clearly been convinced by his leadership abilities. Henderson ended that horrendous run of defeats by lifting the 2019 Champions League title in Madrid.

On that note, he was also the player tasked with replacing the giant hole left vacant by Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard. So, perhaps it was inevitable ‘Hendo’ would never escape criticism, if only because he does not possess the talents to match the captain from whom he took the armband.

One man in no doubt of his abilities, though, is Reds boss Klopp who has often stressed how important the England man is to his club. He said: “Jordan Henderson is a very good footballer; he is an England international player and for us our skipper. He may (even) skipper England, I have no clue. How can he not be a brilliant player when he is a Liverpool player? If somebody doesn’t see his value, what can I do? Do you think after what I’ve said now they will see his value? I am not sure. I am happy he is back, very happy.”

9. Antoine Griezmann – (Atletico Madrid/France)

Age: 28

Major honours: World Cup, Europa League, Uefa Super Cup and Supercopa de Espana.

Scoring 133 goals in 257 games for Atletico has seen Griezmann establish himself as one of the best strikers in European football. The self-professed Ballon d’Or winner in waiting hasn’t exactly endeared himself to people across recent months, however, by persistently claiming he is fully deserving of being considered one of the best players in the world before announcing his Atletico departure in rather arrogant circumstances.

His sheer modesty aside, Griezmann is yet to win a league title (arriving the season after Atletico won the league in 2013/14) and hasn’t got his hands on the Champions League, with controversial Real Madrid defender Sergio Ramos believing his rival’s ‘ignorance’ is inflating his self-worth.

“Ignorance makes you very bold,” Ramos told reporters. “When I hear this boy talk, I remember players like (Francesco) Totti, Raul, (Gianluigi) Buffon, (Iker) Casillas, (Paolo) Maldini, Xavi or (Andres) Iniesta who have won everything but do not have a Ballon d’Or.”

10. James Rodriguez – (Bayern Munich/Colombia)

Age: 27

Major honours: La Liga, Champions League x2, Europa League, Bundesliga x2, DFB-Pokal, Uefa Super Cup, Fifa Club World Cup and Primeira Liga x3.

Considered unworthy of a place in parent club Real Madrid’s starting eleven over the last few years, James Rodriguez has played his football in Germany with the current Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich.

His silky skills and ability to produce world-class finishes has not stopped people talking about how he is yet to fully transform himself into one of the best playmakers in the world and Bayern eventually opted against signing him permanently.

Yet current Bayern boss Nico Kovac still clearly rates him: “He’s a great footballer. He can do everything going forward, you don’t have to tell him anything at all.”

11. Gonzalo Higuain – (Chelsea/Argentina)

Age: 31

Major honours: La Liga x3, Serie A x2, Coppa Italia x2, Copa del rey, Supercopa de Espana x2, Supercoppa Italiana and Europa League.

Having established himself in both Italy and Spain, the 31-year-old has showcased his attacking talents thoroughly in two of the biggest and best leagues in world football. After moving to AC Milan last summer from Juventus, his goalscoring exploits dropped off and his loan was terminated, instead joining Chelsea. With AC Milan and Chelsea combined, the Higuain managed just 13 goals in 40 games last term. But with Napoli, he equalled the all-time Serie A record for most goals in a single season, notching 36 in 35 games under Maurizio Sarri in 2015/16.

Not everyone is a fan of the Argentina international, though, with former Argentina boss Alfio Basile hitting out at Higuain’s performances at the 2014 World Cup, where the South American side lost out to Germany in the final.

“Of all the players, the one that was most singled out by the people for blame was Gonzalo Higuain,” said Basile, who squeezed 23 jobs into his 37-year coaching career.

“They do not want him in their squad because when that World Cup is remembered, the chance he missed at the start is what cost us the title.

“The truth is that it’s difficult to explain what happened to him because suddenly he was unmarked, had the ball at his feet and was 20 metres from goal with every option open to him and could place the ball anywhere, but instead the mist descended and he fired it wide.

“It’s not good to say that he soiled himself, but that’s basically what happened. He was weighed down by the responsibility of realising he was about to score the goal that gave Argentina the World Cup and would gain immortality.”