Cult heroes: The fine line between misunderstood maverick and overrated outcast
The birth of ultra-culture during the 1960s precipitated the growth of football tribalism. The blue-tinted lenses fans view their side through can transform your club's mediocre ball-winning midfielder into a deep-lying 'regista' and break down your rival's star striker 25 goal haul into; penalties, tap-ins and goalkeeping errors. From supporters' excessive dedication, a new type of footballer emerged: the cult hero. These fans favourites rarely arise due to their footballing abilities; it is their extroverted character, extracurricular activities or one-off performances which endears them to their supporters. As a result, cult heroes rarely succeed beyond their adopted club and their adoring fans. The following players have garnered a cult following for a combination of amusing, sinister, complex and bizarre reasons.
Newcastle: 1998-2004 & 2005-2007
Rarely has a footballer assimilated into a city's culture as comprehensively as Nolberto Solano did during his time in Newcastle. 'Nobby', as he was affectionately known on Tyneside, was brought in to fill the creative void left by David Ginola, the star of Kevin Keegan's 'entertainers'. Little was expected of the young Peruvian winger, but Solano quickly became a first-team fixture and frequently scored crucial goals; including a penalty against Sunderland which secured the club's Champions League qualification for the 2003/04 season. After just one season at Aston Villa, Solano returned to St. James’ Park for a further two seasons, turning down Liverpool in the process to return to his adopted home. Despite his footballing abilities, it was Solano's off-field antics that solidified his place in Geordie folklore. Famed for playing the trumpet, the winger claimed to sleep and eat with his instrument and even fronted a salsa band known as the 'Geordie Latinos'. Solano was a maverick, known for his love of partying. Clearly, little has changed, as he was arrested just last week by the Peruvian authorities for breaking coronavirus curfew to attend a party. A stereotypical cult hero, Nobby and Geordies were a match made in heaven: mad and fiercely passionate about their club and their city.
Joey Barton’s arrival on the French south-coast, perhaps unsurprisingly, came under a cloud of controversy. Following his meltdown on the final day of the 2011/12 season, Barton was suspended for the first 12 games of his sole season at the club. And yet, he managed to captivate Marseille fans with his tough-tackling and outspoken nature. The Olympian’s ‘Commandos Ultras’ accepted Barton from the off due to the Scouser’s socialist views and previous criticism of the Sun newspaper for their portrayal of Liverpool fans’ role in the Hillsborough disaster. He further endeared himself during his time at the club by claiming PSG would never be a bigger club than Marseille and even speaking in a strange Franglais accent during press conferences. Inevitably, he crossed the line on occasion: describing Tiago Silva as an “overweight ladyboy” in a Trump-Esque Twitter rant. While, in footballing terms, Barton’s time in France was unremarkable, he left a lasting impression on the club’s supporters; with who he sat with when they visited Arsenal in the following season’s Champions League. Barton’s character and decision-making are often justifiably questioned, but his authenticity is undeniable and rare, in an age when many footballers’ don’t even run their own social media accounts. Therefore, it is perhaps unsurprising that fans often relate to outspoken individuals such as Barton.
Paulo Di Canio
Lazio: 1985–1990 & 2004–2006
During his formative years, Paulo Di Canio travelled around Italy to watch Lazio with the Irriducibili, Lazio’s infamous ultra-group. Paolo claims to have terrorised train passengers and fought with rival ultra-groups when supporting the Eagles. Lazio’s ultras are also known for their association with fascists groups, as Glaswegian’s became all too familiar with last season when the Roman’s visited Parkhead. Di Canio became this movement’s on-field embodiment when he broke into the first team and celebrated his goals with a ‘Roman salute’, a fascist salute associated with Benito Mussolini’s totalitarian regime. This gesture strengthened the connection between Di Canio and the club’s ultra’s, who felt their voice had become increasingly censored. The Roman solidified his immortality amongst the Irriducibili when he took a substantial pay cut to return to his financially-stricken boyhood club in 2004. Though his dedication is admirable, Di Canio demonstrated the detrimental role footballers can play in stirring up the sinister side of ultra-culture by empowering the fascist ideology of Lazio’s ultra-groups.
Dortmund: 2010 – 2012 & 2014 – 2019
Shinji Kagawa is a relatively unique example of redemption in the unforgiving world of modern football. When he first arrived at Dortmund as a relative unknown from Cerezo Osaka, Kagawa surprisingly lit up Dortmund's 2010/11 and 2011/12 title-winning side's. His performances against local rivals Schalke, in particular, won fans over, with his crowning moment coming in the 2010 Revier-derby; the playmaker claimed pre-match that he would score two goals and promptly followed through on his promise in an emphatic 3-1 win. Shinji's exceptional form was rewarded with a move to the club he supported as a boy: Manchester United. However, following the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson and United's slump in form, Kagawa returned to Dortmund in 2014. While many supporters may have been less forgiving, Dortmund's launched a campaign to 'free Kagawa' from United and welcomed him back by chanting his "Kagawa, Shinji" song throughout his second debut. While injuries and a lack of confidence meant the Japanese international never reached the heights of his first spell at the club, his status among Dortmund fans never diminished. Upon Kagawa's second departure from the club, their sporting director, Michael Zorc described him simply as "a great friend of the club". German football's ideology centres around the importance of community clubs and contradicts the 'win at all costs' mantra of other major European clubs. As a result, players who buy into a club's ethos such as Kagawa, are intrinsically woven into the fabric of the club and become part of their footballing family indefinitely.