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Diego Costa, Luis Suarez and Pepe among football's wind-up merchants

After Diego Costa's extraordinary performance against Arsenal on Saturday, ESPN FC takes a look at football's top 10 provocative players.

10. Paul Gascoigne

Many of the people on this list are wind-up merchants in an unpleasant way, characters that very much fall into the "love to hate" category. Not Paul Gascoigne, though, who managed to inspire enmity in opponents and officials in a much more innocent, wide-eyed sort of way. Former England manager Sir Bobby Robson famously called Gascoigne "as daft as a brush," which is a perfectly accurate description of a man who seemed unable to stop, like a child having drunk too much fizzy pop.

Paul Gascoigne Rangers Celtic 1996
Rangers' Paul Gascoigne in action against Old Firm rivals Celtic in 1996.

This was the man who, when asked a question by an Italian reporter, simply belched into the microphone; the man who was booked in Scotland for showing the referee the yellow card that he'd just dropped on the floor; the man who almost caused a national incident in Glasgow after celebrating a goal for Rangers by pretending to play a flute, thus ostensibly mocking the Catholic followers of their great rivals Celtic.

"I didn't know what it really meant the first time, so I got off with it," Gascoigne said, although that didn't really apply when he did it again, this time at Celtic Park, specifically to annoy the home fans.

9. Pepe

On the pitch, Real Madrid defender Pepe is not a man to be messed with. He's actually calmed down quite a lot recently, but in years gone by he would do his utmost to wind-up an opponent. For example, in 2009 when playing for Real against Getafe, he pushed Javi Casquero to the ground then kicked the midfielder while prone, before aiming haymakers at all and sundry after he was sent off. "I didn't recognise myself at that moment," he said later, apologising. "I lost control for a few minutes." No kidding.

Sergio Ramos and Pepe form one of the most formidable -- and divisive -- centre-back pairings that La Liga has ever seen.

Speaking of Pepe, it would also be remiss not to mention his Real teammate Sergio Ramos. Ramos is notorious for having little chats with opposition forwards during games, attempting to rile them into doing something unwise, as this clip of him goading Mario Mandzukic in the Madrid derby last season indicates. In the same game, Ramos demanded that Atletico defender Jose Gimenez turn around to show him the name on the back of his shirt, the inference being that Ramos had never heard of him. The football equivalent of a pop star turning up at a club and yelling "Do you know who I am?" at the bouncers.

Dennis Wise 1997
Former Chelsea midfielder Dennis Wise was a spiky character during his playing days.

8. Dennis Wise

The man whom Sir Alex Ferguson famously once said could "start a fight in an empty room," Dennis Wise began tweaking noses and being a professional irritant from the early days at Wimbledon, when he helped them rise from non-league to winning the FA Cup, irking the established powers at every turn. A favourite trick of Wise's was to pinch opponents when the officials were looking the other way, in order to unsettle them, and it paid off handsomely when playing for Chelsea against Manchester United in 1999. His victim that day was Nicky Butt, who after the pinch (which followed Wise barging into Butt's back) promptly kneed his assailant in the ribs and was sent off. Chelsea won 5-0.

Pablo Alfaro Sevilla
Pablo Alfaro played for Sevilla between 2000-05.

7. Pablo Alfaro

Some players employ some slightly more creative methods to wind up their adversaries. Pablo Alfaro, a Spanish centre-back who spent the bulk of his 18-year career with Zaragoza, Racing Santander and Sevilla but also played for Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, had a long history of nefarious activities, which earned him the nickname "The Doctor." Perhaps the most high-profile moment came in 2004 when, playing for Sevilla against Atletico, he paid particularly close attention to an opponent called Touche, who was making his debut. So close, in fact, that he ... well ... there's no delicate way to put this, but ... he put his finger up the Atletico man's backside. "I was defending my team to the limit," he said afterwards, which raises more questions than it answers.

Marco Materazzi provoked one of the most famous adverse reactions in football history.

6. Marco Materazzi

How could it be possible not to include the man who executed perhaps the biggest and most high-profile football wind-up of all time? History has never quite recorded exactly what he said to France legend Zinedine Zidane in the 2006 World Cup final, but the gist is that it was something about his sister and mother that wasn't especially pleasant, and Zidane reacted with some gusto.

"It was the last thing I expected," Italian defender Materazzi said in 2014. "Had I anticipated it and raised my hands, odds are we would both have been sent off. I have no idea what went through his mind. I do know that my conscience is clear. What I said wasn't very nice perhaps, but it was no different from the trash talking that takes place at any level of football, from the schoolyard to, as we saw, the World Cup final. I'm sure he heard far worse many, many times."

Emmanuel Adebayor Manchester City Arsenal
Emmanuel Adebayor celebrated his goal for Manchester City in front of the travelling Arsenal fans.

5. Emmanuel Adebayor

Likewise, it would be a glaring omission if one of the better individual examples of the wind-up wasn't included on this list, and Emmanuel Adebayor makes it for his remarkable celebration for Manchester City against Arsenal back in 2009. In the first game since his move north from the Gunners, Adebayor was, to say the least, fairly hyped up, which manifested itself in a stamp on Robin van Persie, but also in celebrating a goal by running the length of the pitch in order to celebrate in front of the Arsenal fans.

"Why? It is because I am a human being as well. I have got a heart and I breathe like anybody does," he said last year, when asked about his celebration. Adebayor cites a derogatory song about his parents as the main reason.

Robbie Savage
Robbie Savage was no stranger to being in the thick of the action during his playing days.

4. Robbie Savage

Some do not intentionally wind people up. Some do so but with a specific purpose in mind, and aren't particularly proud of it. But some actively revel in their status, encouraging and furthering their status as the sort of person unwelcome in polite company. Savage is a man whose newspaper column bills him as "football's Mr. Marmite," who had an Armani tattoo, who had to be warned by his manager Paul Jewell after showing up at Derby (in the middle of a relegation battle) in a brand-new £160,000 Mercedes.

"I do get a buzz out of being booed," he told the Guardian in 2009. "In fact, I thrive on it. I've used it all my career to get me going. I even do things sometimes just to get the crowd booing me, whether it's smashing someone or doing something deliberately silly. It's been part of my game for a long time now."

Joey Barton is one of football's controversial characters.

3. Joey Barton

It's difficult to work out why people get so annoyed by Joey Barton. Is it the losses of temper on the pitch? The violence off the pitch? The stubbing out of a cigar in the eye of a young teammate, Manchester City's Jamie Tandy? The pummelling of another Manchester City teammate, Ousmane Dabo, on the training ground? Is it the pseudo intellectualism, quoting Morrissey and Kant on Twitter? Is it the constant sense that he thinks he's a much better footballer than he really is? Actually, come to think of it, it's not that difficult to work out why people get so annoyed by Joey Barton, who is currently contracted to Burnley.

Luis Suarez took a bite out of Branislav Ivanovic's arm against Chelsea.
Luis Suarez bit Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic when playing for Liverpool in 2013.

2. Luis Suarez

Barcelona's Luis Suarez has bitten three (three!) different opponents on the pitch. When not biting, the former Liverpool striker can also be seen hitting the deck at the slightest touch, seemingly because he will resort to whatever he can to win a match. Indeed, during the 2010 World Cup, the Uruguay international denied Ghana a place in the semifinals with a blatant handball on the line. Suarez said: "I stopped a goal, and I believe that it is worse when you stop a goal and injure an opponent, seriously injure them, and get sent off for that. Stopping a goal with my hand I believe did nothing evil to anyone -- it was just stopping a goal."

In 2011, Suarez was found guilty of having racially abused Manchester United's Patrice Evra and was banned for eight matches by the Football Association, for which he has not apologised. Speaking in 2014, Suarez said: "When I say I'm sorry it's because I regret something. Being sorry implies regret ... I was accused without evidence and that's what grieved me the most. The others were actions when it was me who did wrong. I accepted that and begged forgiveness, but the racism thing, when I was accused without evidence, that did upset me."

1. Diego Costa

The inspiration for this list, Chelsea striker Costa is a relentless snarl of a man in a football shirt who simply will not stop annoying people. Jose Luis Mendilibar, his coach at Real Valladolid, described Costa as having a little mala leche about him, which literally translates as "bad milk." It's this mindset that fuels his play, but also spills over, as we saw against Arsenal at the weekend and as we've seen countless times since he moved to Chelsea.

His charge sheet is extensive, from taunting Everton's Seamus Coleman after he'd scored an own goal at Goodison Park, to stamping on Emre Can's ankle against Liverpool last season, for which he received a three-match ban. Of the latter, Costa noted: "The main thing is when I get home and I can sleep knowing I've not done anything wrong, because I never meant to do that and it was not on purpose." It's almost a comic aside to note that, technically, Costa didn't technically commit a single foul against Arsenal this weekend and hasn't been sent off since 2012.

Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.


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