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Football: Five of the best anti-heroes

Pepe celebrates his 39th birthday on Saturday and the veteran Portugal defender is one of the great footballing anti-heroes of his generation.

The centre-back, an undisputed master of the dark arts of defending, has never been far away from controversy during his career but his longevity and success have earned him the grudging respect of rival fans.

Best-known for his ten years at Real Madrid, where he forged superb partnerships with Ricardo Carvalho and Sergio Ramos, Pepe won La Liga three times and picked up three Champions League titles with the Spanish giants.

Along with the trophies, there were plenty of disciplinary issues including a ten-match suspension after an acrimonious red card against Getafe in 2009, another sending-off in an ill-tempered Champions League semi-final against Barcelona in 2011, and a touchline scuffle with Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone during the 2013 Copa del Rey final.

Pepe's international career has also been a rich blend of triumph and trouble. He has won 123 caps for Portugal and was man of the match when they claimed a shock 1-0 win over France in the final of Euro 2016.

However, Pepe was also sent off at the 2014 World Cup after headbutting Germany's Thomas Muller and any thoughts that he might be mellowing with age were dispelled by his part in a fiery mass brawl at the end of Porto's clash with Sporting earlier this month.

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Suarez has appetite for goals – and opponents

We're focusing on the kind of players who you would love to have on your team and hate to play against and Uruguay striker Luis Suarez certainly fits the bill.

Fans of Ajax, Liverpool, Barcelona and current club Atletico Madrid will regale you with memories of Suarez's devastating dribbles, lethal finishing and ability to bring the best out of his teammates.

He has won the Golden Boot in the Eredivisie, the Premier League and La Liga, was player of the tournament when Uruguay won the Copa America in 2011, and inspired Atletico's title triumph last season.

Still terrorising defenders at the age of 35, Suarez has always pushed the disciplinary boundaries and he is as well known for some bizarre biting incidents as he is for his goalscoring feats.

Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic was the recipient of the Suarez nibble during a Premier League game in April 2013 (an incident that earned the Uruguayan a 10-match ban) and Italy's Giorgio Chiellini was left with teeth marks in his shoulder following a similar clash at the 2014 World Cup.

Suarez is not fondly remembered in Ghana, after his goal-line handball denied the Black Stars an extra-time winner in the 2010 World Cup quarter-final.

He was sent off but Uruguay won the subsequent penalty shootout and Suarez boasted after the game that he had "made the best save of the tournament". Spoken like a true anti-hero.

La Roja legend Ramos still loves a red card

Sergio Ramos, Pepe's partner in on-field mischief at Real Madrid, is another worthy addition to this list, as demonstrated by the Spain legend's career stats.

Ramos has won it all – five La Liga titles and four Champions Leagues at Real as well as two European Championships and the 2010 World Cup with La Roja – and he also sets the standard when it comes to red cards.

Sent off 26 times during his Real career, the centre-back saw red on only his second Ligue 1 appearance for new club Paris St-Germain in December.

Like all great players, Ramos rises to the big occasion and five of his dismissals for Real came against El Clasico rivals Barcelona.

He is hoping to be fit for the second leg of PSG's Champions League last-16 tie at the Bernabeu next month and Real fans know exactly what to expect from their uncompromising former captain.

Chelsea hero Costa is a defender's nightmare

Diego Costa is looking for a new club after being released by Brazilian side Atletico Mineiro last month and any team looking to spice up their attack should get in touch with the former Atletico Madrid, Chelsea and Spain striker.

Forget false number nines – Costa is a good old-fashioned frontman, capable of reducing hardened centre-backs to quivering wrecks with his snarling, bulldozing physicality.

Like Pepe, Suarez and Ramos, he is a villain in the eyes of opposition supporters but a hero to his own fans, having won La Liga twice with Atletico and picked up two Premier League titles during his Chelsea career.

He is also a master of winding up opponents, famously getting Arsenal's Gabriel Paulista sent off during a lively London derby in September 2015. A couple of months later he was named the 'most hated player' in world football after a poll in French newspaper L'Equipe – presumably helped by several hundred votes from a Mr A Wenger of Islington.

Vardy is Premier League's leading pantomime villain

Barcelona's Sergio Busquets, another La Liga legend, is unlucky to miss the cut and we're sticking to current players so there is no room for iconic Premier League anti-heroes such as Patrick Vieira, Roy Keane, Dennis Wise, Vinnie Jones and Robbie Savage.

The English top flight is a little short of pantomime villains at the moment although two hugely talented players with the knack of winding up opposition fans are Crystal Palace's Wilfried Zaha and Leicester forward Jamie Vardy.

Zaha is one of the most-fouled players in the Premier League but he doesn't get much sympathy from rival supporters. In a 2020 interview he discussed his reputation, saying: "For some reason, I'm that pantomime villain that every club hates. Every team. We played against Colchester, I've never played against them before. I go on and I get booed. I'm thinking: 'You don't even know me, why are you booing me?'".

Vardy, in contrast, seems to relish the boos (although it's probably easier to laugh off a hostile reception when you're a Premier League champion with more than 100 top-flight goals to your name).

The Leicester star's anti-hero status is boosted by his repertoire of bespoke goal celebrations – impersonating an eagle at Crystal Palace, howling like a wolf against Wolves and, as a lifelong Sheffield Wednesday fan, cupping his ears in front of the Sheffield United faithful after scoring at Bramall Lane in 2019.

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