The beautiful and the foul

College Contributor Network

Some athletes are so good they're bad. American commentators call these players "highly skilled"; European pundits call them "majestic"; and these players' fans call them "dirty," "filthy," "disgusting," "bad."

I recently learned from a friend that in New York City -- and perhaps other places too -- you can call someone you find attractive "bad," -- not to their face of course, but to a friend. At first I resisted the adjective used in this way -- it didn't seem right.

But then I came to see that it made sense. There is something inherently subversive about beauty, something rebellious and wrong.

Whether an attractive person or an attractive play on the court or field, a moment of sublime awe violates us, rips us from ourselves, and sends shock waves of chaos into the universe.

The initial reaction to such an unexpected jolt cannot be only positive. We're talking about a good that's so good it's bad, a moment so right it's wrong, a taste so sensuous it's foul.

In soccer, the beautiful and the foul come together when we look to the stats of the game's most dynamic players: Most of the highest-skilled, baddest players in the world get fouled all of the time.

Why? Well, the players we're talking about are the quickest, the best dribblers, the maestros of the pitch, the Pele's, the Mardonna's, the Messi's, Ronaldo's, and Neymar's who give us those "did-he-just-do-that" moments that make us both joyful and fearful at the magic unleashed.

They guide the ball across the pitch as gracefully as if they are walking the best-behaved dog in the world at the speed of a motorcycle driver on the open highway. They dart forward, cut back, find ways behind defenders that allow them to evade even the slightest touch. But sometimes they do get touched, and often the touch is more of a tackle, NFL football style. The artful dodger falls down, the ball rolls harmlessly to a stop, and the whistle is blown.

When we don't like a bad player, we call him a diver. Neymar in La Liga and Arjen Robben in the World Cup are two players who have been assailed with a barrage of media attacks for going to ground too easily. In reality, they're just two of the most exciting players in the world. They beat defenders so often that they've gotten tired of being hacked at from behind while streaking to the goal. Sometimes they go down easy. Often their falls are perfectly legitimate.

As of Week 4 in the Premier League, here are the players who get fouled the most:

Steven Naismith is the oldest players on this list at 28-years-old, and Lamela, Hazard, and Sterling are all younger than 24. Youthfulness may be required to have the kind of foot speed and pace necessary to draw so many fouls from opposing defenders.

These players and a few others like them are the Denis the Menace's of the Premier League who delight in making their challengers look like the sorry old disciplinarian, Mr. Wilson. Except the tables have turned and Dennis is the beneficiary of the discipline.

The talent of Sterling in particular is frightening, because he's only 19-years-of-age. At the (currently hotly debated) 2022 World Cup, which looks like won't actually take place in Qatar, Sterling will be only 27-years-old, the current age of one Lionel Messi, another bad guy who gets fouled a lot.

Could Sterling, like Messi, be the fated savior skilled enough to take his country to the World Cup Final? He might need a nickname as good as "The Flea" first, and his supposed "Heemio" might not cut it.

He'll also need the type of supporting cast that Messi had in an Argentina squad that included the electric Angel Dì Maria, Sergio Agüero, and Javier Mascherano. One player who wasn't on the Argentine World Cup squad but who was called up to the national team shortly after the tournament is Erik Lamela, a 22-year-old with the potential to become a star.

Like Sterling, Lamela's dribbling skill and pace up the wing makes him lethal on the run and a true attacking midfielder with a limitless ceiling. Lamela has skill but hasn't yet proved his class in high-level soccer. This season starting for Tottenham Hotspur could be his coming-out party.

Eden Hazard, 23, has already proved his class in the Premier League, becoming the most dynamic playmaker in the league and the highest-rated BPL player in EA Sports' FIFA 15.

Hazard has initiated most of Chelsea's attacks over the past two seasons, claiming the devastating cutback from the wing to the center as his signature move. When Hazard finds space in the middle, it's over, and the best the defense can hope for is a missed opportunity by a Chelsea forward.

These are some bad players with the skill and artistic creative abilities to break open a match and turn one yard of space into an open field, one-on-one, dribble past the goalie, Goal. Keep an eye on them throughout this season -- if you can keep up with them -- and see how many times they get fouled.

Jake Montgomery is a senior at Harvard University majoring in English. Raised in Philadelphia and a lover of the beautiful game since '06, he is a huge fan of the Eagles, Phillies, Sixers, Georgetown and Harvard basketball, Chelsea FC, Neymar, Steph Curry, Shabazz Napier, and Kanye West. Follow him on Twitter: @TheFloorGeneral

The Latest from our Partners